Ellen Carr talks to Dumbshow’s Michael Bryher and Sam Gayton about the Fringe, finances and falling in love…
As discussions about funding in the arts rage on, and more and more young companies back out of attending the world’s largest art’s festival due to expense, it’s nice to hear an optimistic point of view. Dumbshow’s Artistic Director Michael Bryher and writer Samuel Gayton answered my question “is Edinburgh Fringe still a place young companies should be aiming for?” with a resounding “yes”, and gave some top tips for doing it well as they prepare to take The Pearl to the Fringe this August.
“There’s an incredible romance to Edinburgh. Everyone who goes there does so to fall in love. With a show. A company… You’ll see something, out of the blue, and wham! It sends you head over heels. Edinburgh is like that.” So says Gayton, confirming Bryher’s assertion that Dumbshow is a company of “Edinburgh veterans” who have “lived off Edinburgh (to an extent)”. In 2007, the company performed To the End of the World at C Venues’s C soco to hugely unexpected success; they were fresh out of Warwick University, where Dumbshow formed, and weren’t ready to capitalise on this success. In 2008 they returned to the fringe with Clockheart Boy and this time they were ready, Gayton remembers: “the second show we took to Edinburgh – Clockheart Boy – went on two regional tours because of all the contacts we’d made during the run with representatives from theatres all over the UK. They’re looking to fall in love too: with the latest young theatre company.”
So how do you ensure you’re the young company everyone falls in love with? Bryher is keen to press the reality of going to Edinburgh, that you need to be “ready to work really really hard, there will always be people out there working harder than you”. His top tips for tackling the festival are “Be prepared, be business minded about it, and be organised.” When Dumbshow goes to Edinburgh it works hard not just on the show, but on every aspect surrounding it. What’s more, they know how to flyer. “Don’t ever just give someone a flyer. You’ve got to make eye contact with them, you’ve got to ask them what they’re enjoying. You’ve got to persuade them to come to your show.”
When I question Bryher about the financial aspect of Edinburgh, whether it’s become mainly about how much it costs both companies and audiences, he finds it hard to answer. For him, for Dumbshow, Edinburgh has a worth beyond anything financial; it’s about the artistic value of the work and having the chance to showcase it to as many people as possible. His most important piece of advice is “not to put work out there that you aren’t happy with. You don’t get many chances and you have to be able to say hand on heart, this is what I wanted to make.” Both Bryher and Gayton wholeheartedly believe Edinburgh is a place for young companies because it’s where all the reviewers and programmers go – you just have to be ready to “press gang them”, Bryher comments with a chuckle.
The Pearl is the show Dumbshow is taking to Edinburgh this year; it’s an old Mexican fable adapted by John Steinbeck originally for screen, then becoming a novella. At its heart are “ideas of value and the worth of objects and what we value in society full stop”. It’s about how something will only have value as long as we imbue it with such; an idea that seems to resonate with the company’s take on Edinburgh Fringe: “with us going to Edinburgh we’re deciding it’s a worthwhile thing to do. To go and tell our story to as many people as we can.”
The story of The Pearl has been two years in development, a time span Bryher thinks is a sensible one, allowing time for gestation of a piece. It is important, he says, to make work “that you think is really important and that will have an impact on the wider artistic scene”, otherwise you will struggle. The Pearl was chosen from a session in which members of the company presented stories that interested them to the rest of the team. It then went into research and development, and was first performed at the International Youth Arts Festival at The Rose theatre in Kingston.
Gayton says of adapting the work for stage: “it turned out to be very hard to adapt something from page to stage when it was probably meant for movie theatres all along. There’s lots of travel, lots of pursuit, and all across this grand panorama of Latin America. There are visions of gulls and herring shoals and mountains… It’s hard to put them all on stage! So we responded by making our piece much more claustrophobic and confined.” Music, Bryher adds, is very prominent in Steinbeck’s text, frequently playing out in character’s minds, and so the production is underscored throughout. With the story taking fable form, there was also the need for narration. The company “came up with the frame of a chorus of beachcombers who tell the story”; a frame that is relevant on the levels of reclamation and imbuing found objects with new worth.
The Pearl’s beachcombers represent Dumbshow’s reclamation of the story, a story they have given value to and spent years polishing up. In the concise words of someone who has clearly got their marketing copy and Royal Mile pitch sorted, Bryher sums up the show: “something that will make you laugh, make you cry and make you question what you value in the world”. In these financially obsessed times, it’s refreshing to discuss the value of Edinburgh Fringe beyond the money it costs and makes. Bryher does, however, admit “it’s really frigging expensive to go to Edinburgh” and questions whether this means you don’t necessarily get the best work going there, as some companies simply can’t afford it.