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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 07:11 GMT 08:11 UK
Stage-hunting frenzy at Fringe
Fringe posters
The number of shows makes finding a venue difficult

Every year at Edinburgh's crowded Fringe Festival, production companies have to go to great lengths to find a venue to stage their shows.

Such a venue can be found in a damp, deserted bank vault under George IV Bridge in central Edinburgh.

For 11 months of the year, it serves as extra storage space for the Central Library's book collection.

But for the last three years, the books have had to find a new home every August.

During the festival period, the former bank vault and sometime book stack transforms itself into an eccentric maze of underground stages and bars as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

For a few days before the festival opens, the venue, known as The Underbelly, becomes a building site as legions of technicians and venue staff paint walls, erect bars and fireproof backdrops.

The Underbelly
The Underbelly was formally a bank vault

"Yesterday they had to mask off all the beer taps while they built the bar," said Jack Shute, a stage manager for one of the companies performing at the venue.

Even the WCs were erected at the last minute.

"This morning, there was just a row of toilets along the wall with two guys frantically building cubicles around them," Mr Shute added.

Bus tops

Ever since eight theatre groups gatecrashed the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, setting themselves up "on the fringes" enterprising Fringe performers have turned venue-hunting into a fine art.

Following several years of neglect, the Underbelly fell into the hands of Ed Bartlam, an Edinburgh university student who was looking for a place to stage five plays.

Mr Bartlam's company performed at the venue for the first time in 2000, before taking over the space in 2001 and inviting other performers in.

Make-shift stage on the Edinburgh's Royal Mile
Make-shift stages are put up on the Royal Mile

They are continuing a tradition that has seen the mounting of performances on top of double-decker buses, in church-halls and on park benches.

This year's Fringe is no exception to the rule that, "if it can take your weight, you can perform on it".

In 2002, there are more than 160 venues, including five hotels, three big tops, a bank, a deli and a shopping centre.

Lift

Festival-goers can catch a show on the plane to Edinburgh, with EasyJet presenting live in-flight entertainment.

Once in the city, they can experience this year's smallest venue - a production in a custom-built elevator.

Venue management has developed into a delicate science over the years.

The Aurora Nova
The Aurora Nova is becoming increasingly business-minded

This year, for the first time, the Fringe, in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian, is running a training programme for venue managers.

"Companies come and go, but venue managers are a constant," said Paul Gudgin, director of the Fringe.

"We're trying to fast-track the development of venue staff."

Similarly, individual venues are acquiring an acute business sense. This year, for the first time, small to medium venues The Underbelly and Aurora Nova won sponsorship.

And while most venues offer a box-office split to incoming companies with, typically, 60% of receipts going to the company and the remainder to the venue, Aurora Nova does things differently.

Sixty per cent of its box office takings are split equally between all the companies performing there and the management, while 40% goes to the individual companies.

Alice Hartmann, media relations representative for the venue said the system provides "flexibility" for poorer companies.

"Last year all the companies covered their costs; this year they might take some pocket money away with them."

Offence

The relationship between companies and their venues is usually good but sometimes things do not run smoothly.

For Scott Pardue, finding a home for his play, Hookin' For Jesus, proved difficult. Having lost their original venue, the production aimed to open at St John's Hall, part of a church.

Mr Pardue was worried that the company would forfeit their space if the church took offence at the play's apparently X-rated content.

Previously, an Edinburgh landlady decided she would not house the company after reading a press release for the show.

The church asked to see the script and Mr Pardue spent anxious days waiting to hear back.

"We can only guess as to the reason why they requested the script, but we feel confident that they will not turn us out," he said 10 days before kick-off.

Luckily for him, Hookin' For Jesus opened at the hall as planned.

Coverage of the 2002 Edinburgh Festival from BBC News Online

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05 Aug 02 | Entertainment
01 Aug 02 | Entertainment
06 Jun 02 | Entertainment
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