BWW Interview: Anthony Alderson Talks Running The Pleasance and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Cancellation
Anthony Alderson has been Artistic Director of the Pleasance - which has a permanent venue in Islington, London, and multiple spaces at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe - since 2005. He talks to BroadwayWorld about his time at the helm, dealing with the cancellation of this year's Festival, and what the shutdown means for theatre.
What was the first piece of theatre you saw that really inspired you?
My father took me to see Singin' in the Rain at the London Palladium - it was definitely a spark. I may not have realised then, but certainly it is a moment in my life I think back on as eye-opening. Something was different after that; being in a theatre always felt so completely natural.
What sparked your interest in the creative side of theatre, rather than performing?
When I was eleven years old, I was given a part in Scottish Ballet's Nutcracker at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Being backstage, escaping the chaperone, sitting on the fly floor, watching from high up in the wings was like being given the best secret in the world. There is a line of shadow in the wings, beyond which the audience cannot see. Back there, it's a completely different world, and I totally and utterly fell in love with it. I love being backstage now. Just like back then, I could watch for hours.
Tell us about studying Stage Management at Guildhall - was that a useful path into the industry, despite you shifting to a different area?
Hugely useful, although I discovered I didn't want to be a stage manager and instead a stage carpenter. Two tutors in particular made an impact: the Master Carpenter, Chris Todd, and the Production Manager, PJ Booth. They gave me the best insight into the kind of theatre I love, as it was hard work with talented and gifted people and a huge amount of fun. I loved my time at Guildhall; I met some truly brilliant and inspirational people, many of whom I am still great friends with today. Most important of all, of course, it is where I met Candida, my wife.
What are some of your highlights from working as a carpenter? (and did you really almost throw Arthur Miller out of the theatre?!)
I had the greatest pleasure of working for Phil Parsons for two years, fresh out of college. Phil ran a scenery shop in the old freight depot behind King's Cross. We built scenery for shows in the West End, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, ENO, Glyndebourne and Opera North. The sets had to look as good from the back as they did from the front. I loved the craftsmanship. I also worked on a couple of films and TV shows for another scenery business too.
Beyond the build in the workshop, I was part of a team whose job it was to install each set into the theatre. Inevitably, there was always work to be done once everyone else had left of an evening. Actors and directors would often pop in late at night to see the set after dinner or, even later, they would come to stand on stage or sit in the auditorium. We always met the most amazing people in the middle of the night.
Sadly, I didn't recognise Arthur Miller under his hat, if I'm honest - I thought he was a homeless person and I told him he couldn't stay in the theatre. "Young man," he said, "I wrote the play." He was very kind - he laughed, and then he made us a cup of tea and we sat in the stalls and talked for the next two hours.
When was your first Edinburgh Festival, and can you remember any favourite shows?
My mum took me to the Festival Fringe in 1979, but my first real engagement with the Fringe was in 1987. Christopher Richardson, who had set up the Pleasance two years prior, gave me a job as part of the small team who ran it. There were three spaces, and we did every job. It was so incredibly exciting. I've watched so many shows over the years, so many hugely talented, funny, gorgeous people. Too many to list.
How did the Pleasance job come to you, and what excited you about taking it on?
I left the Pleasance in 1999 when I was General Manager and I went to work with Glynis Henderson, which I adored. There I worked on the world tours of Stomp and Ennio Marchetto; we worked with promoters from all over the world. Once again, this was a huge learning curve. However, as much as I loved it, I really missed the Fringe and I got back in touch with Christopher. He explained he was about to retire. It felt like a huge step into a world I knew so well, but soon realised I didn't really know at all.
Running a permanent London home and temporary Edinburgh spaces sounds like a tough combination. How do you schedule and prioritise your time? And do the two feed into one another, or is it like dual separate jobs?
For the first eight years, I lived in London, and for the past eight years, I've lived in Edinburgh. It is a juggling act and both are so very different. The Pleasance is a festival organisation with a busy London development centre.
Making the Pleasance work comes down to having the very best people around you. I am a great believer in finding and working with people who are cleverer and more skilled than I am. They are what makes the Pleasance what it is, and we have the most amazing amount of fun working together. Both are run by the same team; we're only 17 full-time staff. We work incredibly hard, and the environment always feels so supportive and imaginative.
What are you most proud of achieving at the Pleasance? And what's been the biggest challenge?
The Pleasance has always been a place for great new people and the brightest of ideas. I am most proud of developing an environment where anyone on- or offstage with any idea will be listened to - they will be taken seriously. That spirit of support is in every decision we take. The love of theatre, comedy, spoken word of people and performance is what we exist for.
We love a challenge. Twenty-five years ago, Christopher turned the Pleasance into a charity when he opened Pleasance London; it fundamentally cemented our reason for existing. We don't get regular funding, we've never asked for it. In Edinburgh, we don't run the bars, so our very existence depends on what we put on stage.
The biggest challenge is keeping it afloat; that is what I am most proud of. The money is always tight. I invite anyone who thinks the Pleasance makes tonnes of money to come and take a deeper look. I guarantee they will be surprised. An accountant wishing to understand the economics of a Fringe venue once came and looked at our budgets. His only conclusion was that we were crazy.
How important is it to you to nurture new talent and young people coming into the industry?
It is the very thing we exist for: Pleasance Futures, The Young Pleasance, the newcomers, people doing their debut as actors, comics, companies or backstage or in the box office; Pleasance Kidzone and our children's programme. These at the very core of the Pleasance. There are thousands of people in our industry worldwide who have developed a love of theatre and whose careers started after being at the Pleasance for a season.
How do you think the Fringe has changed over the years? (and for better or worse?)
Whilst the Fringe has grown out of all proportion to when I started, the spirit of the people involved still feels exactly the same. Everything in Edinburgh becomes expensive in August and yet tickets are still on average around £10. Where else can you see this diversity of talent for such a small amount of money? Seeing four, even five shows at the Fringe is still half the cost of going to see the average show in the West End.
At 3% inflation over 35 years, ticket prices have risen around two-thirds of the price of everything else, including accommodation, restaurants and transport. The Festival Fringe remains the greatest showcase of theatre, comedy and performance on the planet. This is where the world gets to let off steam and, now more than ever, we need it. It will change again, it constantly evolves; even in a decade, it is unrecognisable.
How do your plans change now that the Festival isn't going ahead? Are you holding over work for next year?
If there is a possibility of presenting something at the Fringe this year, then we will certainly do something. In the meantime, we will refund ticket buyers and offer three alternatives to companies: to return deposits now; in June, when a final decision regarding this year's event at the Pleasance will need to be made; or roll over deposits to next year for the same piece of work. We also plan to put as much back on sale in the autumn and run preview seasons of work to support companies throughout the autumn. The next year is all about supporting the work and getting the Pleasance back on its feet.
And how does that impact your long-term planning, finances...?
Theatres were the first to close and potentially could be the last to reopen, possibly long after this shutdown has finished. I don't believe anyone could have envisaged the devastating effects this situation has had on a great many businesses, in particular the theatres.
The Pleasance is a charity, a not-for-profit organisation. Whilst the charity has been able to build a small financial reserve, which has taken over 15 years, it is clearly not going to be enough. We are a festival organisation with a small development centre in London that serves to platform new creativity and bright ideas for the festival. Our losses will be large and, without support, we will struggle.
I am grateful to those people who have already been generous in turning tickets into donations - that money will be shared with artists. We are also planning some events in the autumn that will directly support artists. Each festival takes over 12 months in planning and three months to clear up afterwards. Anything that looks so chaotic inevitably takes an immense amount of planning. Once we know what those plans are, we will launch a fundraising campaign to rebuild what has taken 35 years to establish.
What can people do to support theatres like the Pleasance during this difficult time? And do you think Government and organisations like the Arts Council are doing enough?
Any financial support that people can give us is extremely generous and most welcome. I am so grateful to those that already have donated at www.pleasance.co.uk. We understand the pressure on all aspects of our lives right now; we are not the only industry that will be brought to its knees, but, with help, I am hopeful that we will survive.
The Arts Council will have a huge job in keeping those organisations already in receipt of funding afloat. I fear many arts organisations will be forced to close. The depth of the problem is likely to be extreme, and if we are to preserve theatre in this country, then it will need very large amounts of support - far greater than are being offered currently. If corporate businesses are able to support the arts through sponsorship or in-kind support, this will also greatly help.
Finally, since these are bleak times, can you leave us on a cheery note?
What we have clamoured for in isolation is creativity and culture. If this crisis has shown us anything then it is that creativity is the key to a happier society. It really is at the centre of our daily lives. What we offer when this is over is a chance to let off steam again, to join once more as a community, to talk, to touch, to laugh, to cry, to just be in each other's company. It probably feels like the most alien sentiment right now, but this will be over one day and we must not be afraid to come outside again. Joy and laughter are also contagious, so please stay healthy!