Brian Ferguson: Fringe promoter full of persuasive intent
IT IS not exactly a rare occurrence to be greeted by a wail of anguish when ringing publicists or PR people, but my favourite occasions are during what is perceived to be the “downtime” for an event or festival.
From what I’m told, these can often involve some of the tensest negotiations, most fraught problems and near-to-the-wire deadlines being hit – or missed.
Donald Shaw, artistic director of Celtic Connections, tells me September is one of his busiest months, with some negotiations with artists on the other side of the world simply falling by the wayside for another year.
T in the Park is in the throes of preparing for its launch in a couple of weeks’ time, with all but a handful of acts still firmly under wraps. The Edinburgh International Festival launches in a couple of months, but has all but put its programme firmly to bed.
It is the big beast of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that carries the most behind-the-scenes intrigue.
Battle-hardened promoters may like to give the impression they all bat for the same side, but there is intense competition to snap up the hottest acts from the international festivals, scoop up any potential new venues, woo prospective big-money sponsors and, increasingly, get tickets on sale.
When I bumped into Stand Comedy Club founder Tommy Sheppard in the run-up to Christmas, he had a decidedly furrowed brow.
If he was expecting a resounding seal of approval for the elaborate Fringe enterprise he presided over in George Street last summer, by the autumn it was clear he would need all his famous powers of persuasion to enjoy more of the same this August.
Sheppard appeared to achieve the impossible last summer when Edinburgh City Council agreed to stop the traffic to accommodate the return of the Famous Spiegeltent and allow him to run an enormous outdoor bar outside the Assembly Rooms.
It was no coincidence that Mr Sheppard was also responsible for all the shows inside the venue. He openly admitted that takings from the Spiegelterrace were used to underwrite his shows.
A key figure in securing the all-important-backing for the closure of George Street last summer was Andy Neal, the affable head of Essential Edinburgh, an organisation which collects levies from every sizeable business in the area and used some of it to help promote the whole Fringe shebang.
However, some bar and restaurant owners simply saw the arrival of the Famous Spiegeltent and its outdoor bar as a gigantic drain on their expected takings during the Fringe, forgetting perhaps how quiet George Street was when the Assembly Rooms was closed for refurbishment.
When I sat down with Mr Neal in December to discuss where things were heading this summer, it was clear he was having to play a careful diplomatic game.
On the whole, businesses appeared largely supportive of the closure of George Street last year, but with the scale and location of the large outdoor bar the main source of complaint.
Many business owners in George Street have witnessed the huge shift of Fringe audiences to the main Edinburgh University campus area over the last decade or so, since the relocation of the Gilded Balloon there.
Mr Sheppard knows more than anyone how much of a struggle it is to compete with the vast Fringe operation now mounted there.
But as a long-time promoter and director of the Fringe, he also knows the economics of the event inside out. Bar takings are a crucial factor in making the finances of any major Fringe venue stack up. Mr Sheppard is simply trying to run the kind of operation his arch-rivals enjoy.
His problem is he wants to do it right on the doorstep of established business owners, who now fancy running their own outdoor bars in the street.
The suggestion by Mr Neal is to relocate the Famous Spiegeltent to the St Andrew Square area, a prospect being resisted by Mr Sheppard, perhaps fearful that the crowds will simply linger in any new outdoor bars in George Street at his own expense.
Compromise will certainly be needed to reach agreement in time for the all-important Fringe programme deadline in April. But whether this is the right one for the Fringe and Mr Sheppard remains to be seen.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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