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115

This year, both God and the Devil, and all of the Fringe reviewers in between, have stressed the phenomenal skill behind Familie Flöz‘s latest production “Teatro Delusio.” I cannot honestly gainsay this, but I also feel that the show’s horror has been typically ignored or, to reach for an available Freudian term, repressed.

Look at “Teatro Delusio” through the eyes of a small child, one who is, say, five or six years old. It is beyond terrifying. This horror is purely visual – or rather it is visceral. The shock blows away in one go the child’s tiny accrued foam of civilised comprehension.

No doubt everybody has this kind of memory. You were a child and you might have glimpsed this person on a television screen or encountered them on the streets in real life. The source of the horror was something like a burns victim, with raw hamburger meat for skin and lines carved deep into their face, creating weird folds of flesh. A shiny, unnatural face like an exposed tumour. “Teatro Delusio” is ostensibly an innocent exhibition of clowning, in which the characters trip charmingly over wires and get stuck in the middle of ladders. Yet the masks which are worn by the performers are bound to trigger a response which is hardware rather than software, a purely animal revulsion. These are deadened faces with unblinking eyes and frozen expressions, hanging hideously. Your mind is consciously delighted by the lovely circus on stage, but subliminally it is howling. You smile at this show but it sets your teeth on edge.

You might assume that there is a ship’s worth of hands operating the production, but there are actually only three performers. Paco González, Björn Leese and Hajo Schüler unleash an entire crowd of faces and fling beautiful, intricately expressive bodies across the stage. Their resourcefulness is Herculean.

We are backstage at a grand old theatre which is showing operas and ballets. Like the Edinburgh Playhouse, or any city’s most venerable theatre, it is frequented by the classic ghost that these venues always make a darling of. Otherwise, three techies – Bob, Bernd, and Ivan – cross paths backstage. They plunge into slapstick scraps and try to appease the vast egos, the prima donnas and ballet supremos, who periodically sail in looking for props. The ghost is, ironically, far more conspicuous than the drably-dressed human operatives.

Correspondingly, perhaps, the opera which is ongoing offstage is being performed by stage hands in the smoking area.

There is nothing raucously funny, but this is so careful and skilful a production that you feel somewhat crass for attempting to shrink it to a farce. The lingering horror of the masks, when combined with the flowing verse of the bodies below, is so fascinating that “Teatro Delusio” totally gets away with a performance which would be only so-so if the masks were off.

“Teatro Delusio” stages a revolution, a swapping of Heaven for Earth, so that the trivia of a theatre’s administration enters the limelight to become a magnificent extravaganza and steal the show. Or rather, the petty injustice and exploitation which occurs in the shadow of every stage, where skills are less valued, faces us here with sad, deadened eyes and unpainted flesh.

***

If Bob, Bernd and Ivan worked at the Pleasance Courtyard, the venue for this show, they would be probably earning a “subsistence allowance” rather than an actual wage. This year, a new website called “Fringe Whistleblower” has been launched to document “exploitation and abuse at the Edinburgh Fringe.” “Fringe Whistleblower” has discomforted audiences, generated supportive headlines in the Scotsman and Herald, and led Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Fringe, to declare that, “we are hoping that they will work with us, and talk to us.”

This seems a little premature because nothing has surely flopped more spectacularly at this year’s Fringe than “Fringe Whistleblower.” Nobody knows how many jobs are created by the Fringe; earlier in the month the Scottish Sun put the figure at “more than 6000,” though this does not presumably include voluntary positions. “Fringe Whistleblower” has so far published a whole seven stories about exploitation at the Fringe, and all of them date from last year. The “share your story” feature has apparently had no bites, whilst there is no way of corroborating the submissions to the “2016 survey,” which means that a single disgruntled employee can submit hundreds of slanderous entries.

Whatever the intended message is meant to be, the received message is that the Fringe is a utopia of workplace harmony. Complaints about unfair employers are seemingly rarer at the Fringe than one-hundred-carat diamonds. The whistle is mostly inaudible, even to your dog.

Nevertheless, the distasteful reality of the Fringe is that our ticket prices are effectively subsidised by both the costs which are borne by the artists and the unclaimed wages of an army of volunteers. The Festival Fringe Society, the Gilded Balloon, the Underbelly, the Assembly Fringe and EUSA all pay at least the minimum wage, but it is when you reach the medium-sized theatres (whose shows are typically reviewed aboard Tychy) that the jobs are routinely voluntary. The C Venues, the Zoo Venues, the Spaces, Paradise, and, erroneously for one of the Big Four, the Pleasance, all work to this model (though these organisations are either charities or break-even companies).

If you attend any of these theatres, however, you will immediately notice that they are lavishly staffed. They have no trouble hiring and the reason for this is undoubtedly the generosity of their “package,” a deal which appears to be standardised throughout the middlebrow Fringe venues. To take (at random) the terms and cons of Paradise:

Unlike some venues we do not offer a wage. Instead, we offer you a package that includes:
Free accommodation in one of our flats (Fringe-time accommodation in Edinburgh is quite expensive!)
Basic breakfast items in the flats (cereals, toast, juice, tea and coffee)
Free vegetarian meals from our kitchen
Free tickets to our shows and those at partner venues (subject to availability).

With this package, you will not make any money during the Fringe but you are unlikely to lose any either. So you will end August still at the end of July. A student who already lives in Edinburgh, though, can potentially profit from this deal since their existing (i.e. term time) accommodation will be freed up for lucrative subletting. The employer will, of course, have to believe that their staff member has no current Edinburgh address. The free tickets will have a sliding value depending upon how much you love the product that you’re selling. I would, for example, choose an unpaid role at the Zoo venues over a paid one at the Gilded Balloon, because the former’s shows are often worth their weight in gold.

The most eye-catching injustice on the “Fringe Whistleblower” site is narrated by the worker who “was lure[d] to work for these companies by perks I could not use. I quit after two weeks due to exhaustion, lost my work-provided accommodation and was homeless in Edinburgh until my flight.” This is uncorroborated, of course, but if true it would mean that the employer is able to use the threat of homelessness to control their workforce. Clearly, there should be legislation in place to prevent this from happening.

You might wonder why it matters if some silly young people are exploited during a half-summer arts festival. Your answer might be that the Fringe is a waterfall of money and so it is only right that everybody gets a bit splashed. An even better and more romantic answer might be that a workaday corporate mentality is at odds with the glamour of Edinburgh in August, a city where you should lose your heart to a pretty actress rather than get it ground to powder by a pig of a boss.

The endless to-and-fro in the media over the living wage or the legitimacy of internships misses the more fundamental point that, whatever the deal, whether the work is paid in wages or freebies or experience, the workers should be in control. An anonymous submission to a scandal-mongering website is not the same as being represented by a trade union. BECTU, the broadcasting and entertainment union, has been lobbying since last year for the Fringe to become a Living Wage festival. If you are paid a wage at the Fringe, then a month’s membership of BECTU costs ten pounds and you will have a rep who has your back. If you are unpaid, the solution is a more basic one of expressing solidarity and mutual support when the lights come up and the going gets tough.

[Tychy will resume at the end of September.]

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