Last weekend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe wrapped up another August of performing arts, having taken over the Scottish capital every summer for almost 70 years. The Fringe growth means that 2015 saw a recorded 3,314 shows play at 313 venues around the city, totaling more than 50,000 performances.
This growth has also been a boon to circus companies, with two new dedicated venues this year, in addition to spaces like The Gilded Balloon, Summerhall and Assembly that regularly host circus based shows. Neither Big Sexy Circus City nor the Underbelly Circus Hub were without their problems – the former received poor publicity due to an oversubscribed launch and a rumoured media block taken out by the latter, who, in some sort of circus karma, had an astonishing number of production issues that made life very trying for artists and audiences during the first week of the festival.
Teething issues aside, however, the range of productions on offer across the city was superb, and I was lucky enough to catch almost all of those that I haven’t previously seen elsewhere, either to review for this site, or as an assessor for the Total Theatre Awards.
Total Theatre Awards have provided prestigious and career changing recognition for physical, visual, and plain ‘outside the box’ innovative theatre performance for the last 18 years, and this year 522 eligible productions were identified and seen by a team of 35 assessors over the first 12 days of the festival.
Last year was the first year of the Circus award, in association with Jackson’s Lane, and I was intrigued at the time by the selection of which shows made the shortlist and which didn’t, as well as how the final winner (‘Bromance‘) was picked. This year, I signed up to the assessor’s team to join the conversation from the inside.
Naturally, the specific show details discussed are confidential, but the eventual shortlist was made up of the following:
B-Orders (Palestine) – Palestinian Circus Company in association with Aurora Nova (Underbelly)
Elephant in the Room (France) – Underbelly Productions and Cirque Le Roux (Underbelly)
La Meute (France) – Underbelly Productions and La Meute (Underbelly)
Ringside (Scotland) – Ellie Dubois (Summerhall)
Smoke and Mirrors (United States) – theRICOCHETproject (Assembly)
I need to be clear that the shows reviewed were seen in my ‘press’ capacity, rather than my ‘assessor’ capacity. There is a total embargo on speaking publicly about any of the shows assessors see in a TTA capacity until after the shortlist has been announced, to ensure a fairness of treatment across the board (not all assessors publish reviews, so it would be unfair for some shows to receive review from an assessor visit if others won’t).
After an initial first viewing, shows that are deemed promising, or where there is any doubt, are seen by a second, and possibly third assessor to generate a range of perspectives. Many of the assessors will also be seeing eligible shows under their own steam (as I did with the productions reviewed), and all these voices can also feed into discussion of the work in question.
Every two days the team meet up to discuss what has been seen and what will be referred forward. Then, on the final day before the shortlist is announced, an entire half-day is set aside to go through the whittling down process. Emotions sometimes run high, as a show you feel passionately about – either positively or in that it doesn’t measure up to the competition – can be appreciated differently by others in the room.
Looking at productions from a theatre perspective is a different thing from looking at them from a purely circus perspective – as myself and Riccardo Olivier from Mirabilia Festival often found when discussing the merits of particular works with the other assessors. (This is also the first year that the TT Awards have also featured a specific ‘Dance’ category, in association with The Place, and many similar conversations arose about what the difference is between a ‘dance award’, and a Total Theatre Dance Award.)
It took a while for me to establish in my mind what qualities a Total Theatre Circus Award was looking for, and it has made me wonder about the possibility of setting up a distinct circus award for next year to acknowledge achievements that are outside of the TTA scope for recognition. I also look forward to participating in the TTA discussions again next year, now that I am clearer on the particulars of the process – and hope that there will be more circus voices in the room to broaden the conversation.
After the shortlist was released and passed to the judges, they had a further week to visit and decide final winners. This year, a double whammy award, acknowledging B-Orders and Smoke And Mirrors as joint winners.
I was also pleased to see that Vertical Influences, the first full length show from contemporary ice-skaters Le Patin Libre, was the recipient of the first Total Theatre Dance Award.
This year I managed to see 40 shows in 8 days and, with the programme – and quality of circus on offer – expanding year after year, I think 2016 will have to be the year I first brave the entire month of Fringe. Better start saving now…