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Scottee Class Edinburgh
Scottee's show ClassPhotography Holly Revell

The reality of Edinburgh Fringe when you’re a working class performer

Tom Rasmussen, Scottee, Travis Alabanza, and more discuss the financial barriers that keep Edinburgh Fringe so elitist

Last summer, in the back garden of a friend’s house in Lancaster, I smothered myself in baby oil, baked under the sun, and watched the performance of a lifetime. My friend’s mum – a legendary figure in our working class town – held court, while her four female neighbours played the supporting roles. Catheters were the subject matter, and the four recounted side splitting, raucous, deeply moving tales of all the times they’d had to deal with a catheter infection in one of their parents. Piss, pain, blood – genius!

The show lasted an hour, and when I left the house, burned to a crisp, I realised what I’d just seen was better than anything I’d ever seen on stage at a posh central London theatre (except Cats when I was 12, of course). It took me a long time to realise that the best theatre can be found in the most unlikely places. I don’t mean in a dank basement or under a dripping bridge somewhere in a venue in Edinburgh (although good theatre can be found there too), but I mean deep inside the communities where theatre isn’t something we’re made to feel like we can access. 

For working class performers like myself, making the transition from the back garden to the stage is often impossible. And this transition, for those of us who try, often starts at a place like Edinburgh Fringe — the world’s biggest arts festival, and the career maker for so many performers: from standups to drag queens to performance artists, from Bryony Kimmings to Steve Coogan to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s running right now until the end of August, and as you can probably imagine, it has an accessibility issue.

“It feels a bit like being the kid with no friends,” Scottee, legendary London-born, Southend-based theatre maker explains, of being at the Fringe when you’re working class. “The only people who drop their vowels in the same way are usually the technicians and ushers.” Scottee is here with his one-man autobiographical show, Class, the final in a triptych of personal works. “It’s about shame, Pride, E17, wet look gel, KwikSave, and trying to talk posh. Class is me uncovering what it was like growing up in poverty and social housing with a Mum that wanted me to be on the telly.”

Scottee has done Edinburgh three times. He says it’s important because “it’s a trade show, it’s a way of getting your work to a large audience very quickly, a means of future survival.” But even with legendary status under his belt, Scottee feels the risk of a place like the Fringe: “you can’t ever justify it, it’s a loss leader, artists rarely recoup our investment”. The average three bedroom flat this year is £7k for 30 days, Scottee says. Add to that the average (rumoured) audience size is anywhere between six and 20 and it can feel like you’re swirling cash down the drain. According to The Guardian, Edinburgh rents have increased 5 per cent on last year, and spike during festival season, with some performers taking out loans to cover the costs. “Accommodation alone makes the festival a place where we, the council kids, are putting more than just our reputations on the line, but our livelihoods too,” adds Scottee.

Naturally, this means that – for those of us who aren’t supported financially by mum and dad, or institutions who see less of a risk in a musical improv show about, I dunno, being a white person who loves yoga than supporting a working class performer – the Fringe feels like the epicentre of elitism.

“I want working class people to exist in the arts and culture without being caricatured” – Jamie Potter, audience development at theatre company Middle Child

Personally, I’ve had to put a bunch of cash into my own show, halving pay-cheques, hoping I’ll be able to make back the lumps I stole from my own tax savings, all because I felt there was a story to be told, my show The Bible 2, a story that is, aptly, about being a working class, gender nonconforming drag queen from the North Of England. 

Considering the costs, you might say “why the fuck do it then?” – and, trust me, that’s the question people like me ask ourselves the whole damn time we’re there. Not only do the usual dreads of the Fringe take their toll: the hours spent making and selling a show, the nerves of doing the show, the potential crushed dreams brought about by a reviewer who’s having a bad day, but what this kind of financial barring adds to the experience of a place like Edinburgh is an intensified layer of money fear that it’s all pointless and you’re worth nothing. Ergo a reflection of the way society sees working class people anyway, but beneath the heat of a stagelight. 

Can we really be surprised about all this, when theatre is an industry which often shrugs its shoulders when it’s called inaccessible? Jamie Potter is Audience Development at Middle Child, a theatre company run out of Hull that uses gig theatre to centre working class stories, and to engage working class audiences to step into the theatre. “There's a class issue because theatre is really old and it has become institutionalised,” he explains. “Sometimes just stepping into a theatre as a working class person is hard. The way people talk, dress, the price of the ticket and not to mention food and drink are all things that can make access to theatre hard for someone from a working class background.” 

Middle Child’s Edinburgh show this year, The Canary and the Crow, brings together grime, hip hop and classical cellos with lyrical storytelling which is made to get the crowd hyped, like they would at a gig. Middle Child alter the form of their shows to make them more appealing to people who might be locked out of classic play stuctures and who have been made to feel like those things aren’t for them. While Middle Child uses the form to engage working class people in theatre, Scottee, for example, has made a show for the dominant Fringe audience – “the white, the wealthy, the middle class, those who acknowledge their privilege and want to see beyond their front garden”, he says. “Class is very much a show that isn’t for working class audiences, only because they already know what I’ve got to say. It’s for those who don’t understand our world and preciousness.”

Alternatively, writer Kim Capero, who got in touch over Twitter, wants to make work which removes the tokenising lens theatre often has when discussing poverty and poorness. “I try to move to a place to normalise working class people and their stories, where the narratives do not have to be about their class struggle, but they just exist as a working class human, without the dehumanisation or chav stamp,” she says. “Of course there’s a lot of space for stories exploring class at their heart, but I want working class people to exist in the arts and culture without being caricatured.”

Travis Alabanza, the genius maker behind the smash hit Burgerz, which is at the Fringe all month, is using their work to ask questions of the often silent onlookers when it comes to transphobia. It’s brilliant, and has received high praise from audiences. When asked what it feels like to be valued, listened to, and praised for going on stage as a performer from a working class background, Travis says that performing for audiences who don’t get your commonness can be something which fills your head with nagging voices. “It's hard, to be honest. It's scary. Sometimes you cannot tell if criticism is due to your work, or due to your identity, then you remember it is incredibly hard to seperate it,” they continue. “Honestly, I keep less of that in my mind now. When I trust the work, I trust what it is doing and who it may be doing it for. I do not want to spend my life teaching people how to see me. It'’ them who is missing out on us.”

Missing out on us is exactly the way it feels: the richness, the texture, the culture that exists inside communities where we come from. Whether shows are for us, or for others, there’s so much our culture has to offer – from genius anecdotes to deeply informed perspectives about how the world works. But how can change at Fringe be made?

One small step which can be taken to do your bit for working class performers is simple: go and see the shows, post about them, lift them up. Show that there’s an appetite for it. Literally a tweet like, “Oh my god, I loved your show – especially that moment with the bucket of fake sperm!” has made my day up at Fringe and transformed feelings of self-doubt into a belief that it’s worth all the expense. Meanwhile, companies like Middle Child run Walking Buses to get groups of people to the theatre, they take work into pubs and night-clubs, and offer pay what you want nights.

Real change is systemic of course, but, as Scottee says, “after 30 years of public funding you would have thought the institutions might be able to attract working class audiences, nurture working class artists and platform their stories and politics but unfortunately they largely don’t.” And so, it continues to be up to us. There’s a long way to go until we’re held up as people deserving of a space centre stage, but we’re out here doing it. And doing it, as JLo said, well. 

Crystal Rasmussen Presents the Bible 2 at Edinburgh Fringe throughout August