Written for The Collective Review, 24 August 2009
It’s traditional for shows playing at the Traverse Theatre to clean up when the Scotsman and the Bank of Scotland start handing out their Festival awards. It’s equally traditional for the rest of the Festival to complain that the Traverse cleans up so regularly and predictably. There hasn’t been as much of that flavour of carping as usual this year; perhaps everyone’s realised that complaining is less constructive than putting on better theatre.
The usual complaint is that because the Traverse is a ‘proper’ theatre all year round, whereas most Festival Fringe venues are university buildings or churches or bookshops, draped with blacks and hung with fresnels for one month only, Traverse productions have an unfair advantage over productions staged elsewhere.
A decent technical setup, proper dressing rooms and an auditorium that actually feels like a theatre can do wonders for a production, it’s true, but all that is just the shine on its shoes and the bow in its hair. The surroundings of the Traverse can’t make a poor production more engaging, any more than shiny shoes and a bow could make one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters a desirable date.
The underlying accusation is that the Traverse isn’t really a fringe theatre venue, and by extension the plays staged there aren’t really fringe theatre, and so it’s unfair to include them in explicitly Festival Fringe-only awards like the Scotsman’s Fringe Firsts. But that accusation contains a damaging implication that fringe theatre is on a different plane of quality to mainstream theatre; that when lumped together in the same field, mainstream productions will naturally trump lower-budget, experimental fringe material.
Now that might well be true if all you’re looking at is box office figures. Give a representative cross-section of society twenty quid each and a choice between Dennis Kelly’s Orphans at the Traverse and Sarah Kane’s Crave at C Soco and the Traverse will probably end up richer.
But we’re talking about awards that reward “outstanding new writing premiered at the festival” (Fringe Firsts) or “venues and backstage crew who have managed to impress The Herald’s distinguished panel of arts critics” (Herald Angels). They’re awarded for quality, not for fringe-ness. If the Traverse picks up more awards than anywhere else, that should be a rallying call for companies performing elsewhere to up their game, and prove that you don’t need fancy lights and folding seats to impress the awards establishment.