Along with budding young comedians, school groups and experimental dance companies, student theatre groups are one of the largest sub-sections of performers at the Fringe. Time at the Fringe pays off, but is very much a learning curve for young theatre-makers for whom theatre is a hobby, rather than a day job. Each year Edinburgh University Theatre Company (EUTC), known as Bedlam Theatre, makes the most of its proximity to one of the largest arts festivals in the world, and presents a selection of its productions. No-one knows better than the crew of the EUTC’s The Lift how exciting but challenging putting a student show on at the Fringe can be.
The Lift is a comedy that joins a ramshackle group of dysfunctional individuals as they become stranded in a broken down lift, with their claustrophobia-induced shenanigans growing increasingly obscene. Its writer, Fergus Deery, said that the Fringe is a great opportunity for relatively unknown playwrights and thespians to exhibit their work on a large stage. “It’s like nothing I’ve had the privilege of experiencing before. Normally you’ll get friends and the odd member of your family turning up, but at the Festival you have people who you’ve never met in your life coming to see your show.” Bedlam Theatre is one of only two UK theatres run entirely by students, their control of the building giving students and other young people in the Edinburgh community an opening in front of large audiences, with their shows better able to compete with other theatres and productions across Edinburgh.
Deery continued: “People’s eyes widen as soon as you mention Bedlam. They know anything on there is going to be worth its salt. It motivates you to work incredibly hard to put on the show the audience expects.”
The intellectually cosmopolitan nature of the Fringe allows student productions to fully exploit experimental theatrical styles and techniques without fear, to an appreciative audience. In The Lift, Director Hunter Weinsheink introduces a “fifth wall”, with the doors of the lift trapping all nine characters within a tight box-shaped area for the duration of the play. Weinsheink said: “The Fringe is most definitely an opportunity to experiment, and what’s beautiful about the Festival is that you can entice a wider demographic of people to come and see the show.”
Weinsheink said that the Fringe is a rare chance for students to gain the experience of putting on a major production: “You normally only have a week’s run, so performing to packed crowds day after day throughout the Festival allows us to get a taste of what working professionally on a West End or Broadway show might be like, which is really valuable.”
The Fringe, which began in 1947, initially consisted of just eight acts. Today around three thousand shows occur across three hundred stages. With this level of competition, one of the greatest challenges for student theatre companies performing at the Fringe is funding. Weinsheink explained, “We’re lucky enough to be sponsored by the EUTC, who contributed funds to put on the show. We also held a few fundraisers earlier in the year, such as bake sales.” The logistical difficulty accommodating company members without a place to stay in Edinburgh over the summer was overcome by the generosity and community spirit that sweeps the city in August. “People have been very accommodating, and relatives and local people have been really helpful. The fantastic festival spirit has made it possible,” said Deery. For a play to be successful, though, it requires an audience as well as the actors to turn up, so there has been a huge publicity push. Weinsheink described his experience dealing with the national and international media. “Myself and our producer went to the Fringe’s ‘Meet The Media’ event, where we spoke to six or seven magazines and newspapers. I wasn’t expecting as much media uproar coming into this.” Deery added: “It’s amazing when you’re flyering on the [Royal] Mile and strangers come up to you and say they’ve seen your show and enjoyed it.”