"Hacking the Fringe": A Co-operative Model for Access & Participation
The financial models that govern civic life affect how arts and cultural activity is produced and consumed. Current systems aren't fit for purpose, relevant to or sustainable for the majority. But some artists are demonstrating the need for alternative systems, by creating their own.
We spoke with Jessica Cheetham of Spun Glass Theatre on accessibility, economics and creating new mechanisms that support artistic practice.
AS: Tell us a bit about you and your work.
JC: I'm a creative producer and theatre maker. I have a particular interest in devised theatre with a social agenda - work that aims to make a real impact on its audience and that forefronts deep audience engagement during the process of making the piece. My work always responds to the themes, conditions and people that make it - we've tacked live art game shows, cabaret and theatre and site specific work. Spun Glass Theatre's work is anti-elitist in its structure and the way that we present work. It needs to be accessible in all senses of the word - for audiences, in terms of money, access needs and location; artists need to be paid fairly and the productions themselves have honesty, fun and bold artistry at their core - not an intellectual pursuit; a theatre that feels real.
And from this ethos, you have developed The Spark Factory. How did it come about?
The Spark Factory is a platform for bold and risky performance ideas at Brighton Fringe. Seven artists perform for one night only to try something out and push their boundaries. It's not a scratch night (showing work-in-progress snippets for feedback) it's more than that - it's bringing an audience who find it thrilling to see something raw and unexpected together with artists at the top of their craft - playing with a new idea that really strikes to push forward performance as an art form.
The Spark Factory came about through looking at Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals when Spun Glass Theatre presented work at both in 2016. We were feeling really unsettled by the culture of increasing prices for artists to present their work in difficult situations, to the point where the whole ecology of these fringe festivals is under threat. As Brighton-based artists, we want to fight for a different image for Brighton Fringe - rather than a stop off on the way to Edinburgh, a place where some truly radical artists can experiment and find an audience for that work. To do that we need to take charge and find a power for a more alternative, artist-led voice. By curating The Spark Factory, and drawing lots of inspiration from organisations like Forest Fringe and Buzzcut, we can give audiences an assurance that these ideas are interesting and these artists are worth taking a risk on.
The Spark Factory operates through a co-operative model. In practice, what does this look like?
All seven artists give an equal contribution of £170. This enables us to book a venue, sort out the Fringe registration and put some investment into marketing and PR. This pools the resources of artists who would spend an equal amount just on the registration fee to Brighton Fringe for one event. So we're sort of hacking the Fringe.
The Fringe market demands a high financial investment from artists with little return. In 2016, we spent £10k to get to Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe and saw about £1k back in ticket sales. Last year we were able to pay back each artist £200 - a small profit which will grow as we do.
From those involved throughout the process, what has been the response so far?
The response has been really positive - and several of the projects have gone on to develop further. Participants said:
"The Spark Factory gave me the opportunity to produce a fringe show...with support from more experienced theatre makers. I now feel I have the knowledge and confidence to produce a fringe show independently."
"I had a really positive experience and am grateful to you for running The Spark Factory, it gave me a really positive first experience of doing a fringe festival."
The Spark Factory speaks much to the conditions of working artists: the way in which practitioners are valued, paid and supported. What do you think about artists creating their own solutions and being a catalyst behind systems change?
This absolutely needs to happen. The theatre industry is woefully behind a lot of the innovations made in small business and enterprise. As creative people, we should be seeking creative solutions to outdated and financially demanding systems. There is a lot of change going on and I would support anyone seeking to make better work that more audience members can see.
How might this contribute to a more artist-friendly system in the fringe/touring network?
The theatre industry is currently crying out for diversity. It's very difficult to find high quality work from a diverse group of artists if all touring work has to be staged first at great financial cost to the artist (not to mention the personal, mental health, physical health costs) on either the London or Edinburgh Fringe. If we can create accessible routes for young, disabled, BAME and working class voices to be seen to be doing something exciting, that will in turn create change within the structures of the industry. The Spark Factory keeps costs low and reserves slots to ensure representation of a diverse range of voices is possible.
What are your hopes for the project?
Ultimately the plan is to have a venue at Brighton Fringe for the full month so we can work with many more artists, hold workshops and make it a fantastic creative space. For 2018 we are currently looking to group the performances together across one week rather than spreading them out through the run and creating more chances for participants to connect with each other and support one another's work. We are currently looking for artists to take part so please do shout if you have an idea!
Jessica Cheetham is a creative producer, theatre maker and Artistic Director of Spun Glass Theatre. http://www.spunglasstheatre.com
Alternative Civics is an artist-led research and development project, exploring how we demystify economics and the barriers to civic health/power. The project seeks to interrogate how we collectively build new infrastructures and new systems of development, support and investment that are relevant to contemporary culture and citizenship.