‘Blue-collar’ writers, actors and directors give their verdict on whether the Fringe is more socially inclusive than the cultural scene in general
Since its beginnings, the Edinburgh Fringe has stuck to the principle that nobody needs an invitation to perform. It’s a beautifully egalitarian idea, but it doesn’t make coming here equally easy for everybody.
“A key characteristic of the British cultural workforce is the absence of those from working-class social origins,” concluded a recent report and you would expect the Fringe to be no different. Anecdotally, however, it seems it is.
“It’s one of the theatre settings where you feel you are classless,” says Katie Mahon, whose Brenda’s Got A Baby is a verbatim drama about a pregnant 16-year-old. “You’ll get the odd member of the public making a negative comment about where you’re from, but on the whole, it’s one of the most welcoming places. And one of the reasons we decided to take our play there is the Fringe is really open to new and exciting revelations.”
Caroline Bryant agrees. After 26 years working with disadvantaged women in London, she brought Futures Theatre to the Fringe for the first time last year and is returning with Never Vera Blue (Summerhall, until 26 August), about domestic abuse. “We’re competing with some wonderful celebrities with fantastic work behind them,” she says. “A company like ours doesn’t have the same capacity, financial resources and celebrity, but I love the fact that the Fringe can offer both.”
If the Fringe seems welcoming, it could be because being a working-class artist is tough from the start. “At university, we’ve had times when people have told us to speak properly and events when we’ve been heckled because we come from rough areas,” says Bradford-born Mahon. “You’re made to feel you’re there as a guest, like you’ve got Wonka’s golden ticket to university.”
Such discrimination, coupled with invisible obstacles to do with opportunity, ability to network and sense of entitlement, conspires to stand in people’s way. “Even now, I still have that feeling of being an outsider when I step into a theatre,” says Eve Steele, the Coronation Street actor appearing in The Political History Of Smack And Crack. “You feel that because of the way you talk, people assume you’re a bit stupid and you’re not one of them.”
It doesn’t help, she says, if the work on stage appears remote or esoteric. That’s why she and writer Ed Edwards aim to use their experiences of drug addiction and crime to create theatre that entertains.
She thinks the Fringe is more receptive than theatres elsewhere: “It doesn’t feel like a snobby environment. Working-class people aren’t this tiny minority and if you spent your life in theatres you’d think they were.”
Fintan Brady, author of East Belfast Boy, concurs. “The conversation about access has been focused on minority groups, but there’s a majority who don’t have the cultural confidence to access the opportunities,” he says.
“It’s important to get the voice of minorities heard, but actually the voice of the majority is not being heard on our stages. Part of what East Belfast Boy is about is the lack of confidence, not only in accessing culture but also in not having the confidence to choose, to say, ‘Yes, I will do this because it is possible I can change something.’”
Playwright and actor Shaniaz Hama Ali, daughter of Muslim Kurds, says her economic background defines her more than her race or religion. “A taxi driver in Kurdistan, in Sweden and in the UK have pretty much the same challenges,” says the author of The Big Lie, about a working-class law intern. “When we talk about race, we should be talking about class because the two things go hand in hand.”
That’s if we talk about it at all. “People do shy away from talking about class – and I wonder if that’s a middle-class trait,” says Nick Cassenbaum whose My Kind Of Michael is an unapologetic celebration of Michael Barrymore. “Barrymore is an interesting example of a working-class entertainer who was villainised. Why is it OK for Stephen Fry to have depression and be gay but not Barrymore? It’s a class thing.”
Of course, all this presupposes there is a single group labelled “working class”. Kat Woods, author of Killymuck, about a girl growing up on a Northern Irish housing estate, has other ideas. “I’m from a benefits background and we are the forgotten culture,” she says, arguing that Fringe costs hit the poorest most. “When you grow up in an impoverished environment you always have the worry of money. We’re only ever one pay cheque away from being homeless.”
Like the other theatremakers, however, she has found the Fringe to be receptive. “I think it’s important to have something like Killymuck on stage for other people like me,” she says. “In Edinburgh, you get quite a diverse audience because so many people come.”
The balance is not perfect, however, and sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. That’s what comedian Siân Davies is doing in Best In Class, a rolling programme of working-class stand-ups. “When you look at the comedy circuit as a whole, there are loads of working-class comedians and they’re doing well,” she says. “But when you look at the Edinburgh Fringe, a lot of working-class comedians are priced out of it.”
Thanks to crowd funding, none of her eight fellow comedians has had to pay more than their transport and accommodation. She says it’s a good deal for audiences too: “It’s as innovative and nuanced as any other comedy show.”
Finally, a mention of a play that puts class in the spotlight. Staged by Dublin’s Iseult Golden and David Horan, Class looks at social divisions via a school parents’ evening. “In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell boils success down to our relationship to authority,” says Golden. “If we have an equal relationship to authority, we tend to be able to advocate for ourselves, but if we have a troubled relationship, we get defensive and don’t get what we need. And what a difficult area of discussion this is.”
• Brenda’s Got A Baby, theSpace on North Bridge, until 25 August; Never Vera Blue, Summerhall, until 26 August; East Belfast Boy, Summerhall, 14–26 August; The Big Lie, theSpace @ Jurys Inn, 6-16 August; My Kind Of Michael, Summerhall, until 26 August; Killymuck; Underbelly Bristo Square, until 27 August; Best In Class, Laughing Horse @ Harry’s Southside, until 26 August; Class, Traverse, until 26 August