Wednesday 24 August 2011 | By Chris Cooke
Charles Pamment: Spaces filled with fringe goodness
Charles Pamment first ran Venue 45, one of the original Fringe venues, during August 1995.
He now heads up one of the Festival’s biggest venue networks, but ensures the Fringe spirit of his original base lives on. ThreeWeeks found out more.
CC: When did you set up your first Fringe venue?
CP: In 1995 at the enigmatic Venue 45, a lovely church hall on Jeffrey St, and one of the original Fringe theatres. Proper proper Fringe.
CC: Why did you decide to expand into other performance spaces?
CP: The reason was simple: demand. We’ve always had lots of returning companies, and over time needed more space to accommodate everybody. We expanded slowly at first though, by simply adding our 40 seat development space at Jury’s Inn, next door to Venue 45. But we’ve expanded a little more in recent years and made quite a jump in 2009 by adding the five theatres at Spaces@Surgeons Hall to our portfolio.
CC: When did you start using the ‘Space’ name? Was it important to you that there was one name to unite your venues?
CP: 2008 I think, we wanted to unify the spaces a little I suppose. It makes things easier, logistically, for everyone – us, the performers, audiences – if there is a common name. And it gives the companies an identity to be proud of during their run on the Fringe.
CC: You’ve managed to keep all your various venues in one part of town. How do you go about looking for new spaces?
CP: That’s a good question! We have been offered venues as far away as the Meadows, but I think we hang onto the Royal Mile for two reasons. Firstly, I suppose, it’s logistical. We started here, theSpace@Venue45 is just yards from the Mile, and it’s useful for our production teams to work in close proximity to each other. So naturally as we’ve expanded we’ve picked up venues close to our hub. The second reason is that for me the Mile is the true heart of the Festival, especially for theatre; just wander up the street and see the hordes of people looking for shows. As a performer it’s an absolute dream to have your venue located within a few seconds of where you promote your production. In essence, in my view it’s the best location on the Fringe, especially for new and emerging theatre.
CC: How do you select the shows that perform at your venues?
CP: We believe very much in the ethos of the Festival as a platform for the unknown artist, and as a stage for emerging and developing performance art. This is the very reason it evolved and has been running now for some 65 years. With that in mind, we work hard to embrace the open access policy of the Fringe and will always try to programme our theatres accordingly, working with both experienced professional companies and Fringe virgins alike. We tend to veer away a little from the dreaded ‘selection’ word – the diversity our theatres enjoy is a credit to that policy, and three Fringe Firsts in three years ticks the high end box too.
CC: Is there anything extra performers get by performing at Space venues?
CP: Well, I’m biased obviously! But we offer a straight hire package that is fairly rare on the Fringe these days. We are also very proud of our complimentary performer and crew pass policy, this is a free pass we issue to each individual working or performing with us that means that they can see all the other shows in any of our spaces free of charge. It’s great for all as most are on a budget, but it also means that companies become very communicative, encouraging and supporting each other to cross promote their shows. It’s also a good networking ground for companies, many of whom will progress and work together in future years.
CC: Your programme covers all genres, but do you have any personal passions?
CP: Genre not really, live performance yes. I’ve always liked cabaret – hence our new cabaret bar this year – but the real buzz is the constant flow of live performance that the Festival encompasses whatever the genre. I would say, though, that theatre is our raison d’etre. That said, I’ve really enjoyed expanding our programme in recent years to include improv, sketch, a capella, dance and, dare I say it, comedy!
CC: There are quite a few Free Fringe and Free Festival bases near your spaces, do you think the free show venues complement operations like yours?
CP: Yes, of course, they are great, especially for stand-up, sketch and small-scale theatre. They actually complement what we do really well, as they act as a first year stable for many shows who then see the more structured spaces we offer and want to return to perform under the umbrella of a formal theatre.
CC: Has the Fringe changed in the time you’ve been running venues, and is it better or worse for those changes?
CP: Indeed yes. There are more beer gardens for starters! It’s changed, and it’s a bigger animal. And the biggest growth of the 2000s was in comedy. I must admit, I always get a little annoyed when those from afar refer to this event as a ‘comedy festival’, especially as when they do they are mainly thinking of stand-up comedy. Stand-up is great and we have lots in our programme, but anyone who comes here will see how this festival is so much more than just the comedy, and will hopefully lose themselves in that diversity too.
CC: You’re a journalist by trade, what’s your viewpoint on the way the media – mainstream, grassroots and specialist – covers the Fringe?
CP: I would say I find it frustrating, exciting and a tad annoying, all those emotions at once. The focus of some of the mainstream teams on the TV comedians and the returning household names is fine, and understandable, but the lack of understanding by some of those journalists about the ‘real Fringe’ is worrying. And annoying. Thankfully there are some media – some national, some specialist, some industry-focused – as well as a growing posse of online outlets that really do ‘get it’ – and they are the oxygen of the Festival.
CC: Despite now overseeing quite a venue empire, you seem happiest in the cafe of your original space, Venue 45, that converted church hall. What’s the appeal?
CP: It’s a funny one – lots of people ask that! The other day an old lady gave me a 50p tip when I sold her a cup of tea in our makeshift café, so perhaps that’s it!
Of course our base at Surgeons Hall has a pretty swanky box office and front-of-house area, and we’re very proud of that. But you know, Venue 45, it’s proper Fringe, the real deal, a church hall buried in the side of the Royal Mile with a draughty box office, lime green café walls and one loo. Its walls whisper of Fringes gone by, because it’s been a venue since 1948. And everything happening at the venue spills out into the café, we see first hand everything from the trials and tribulations of the student farce to the decadence of a five star show.
And we have a parade of performers from past years coming in to say hello. Veteran comedian Charlie Chuck tells the story of his own run here in the early 1990’s, when only three punters watched his madcap show. Usefully the three punters were Vic Reeves, Frank Skinner and Bob Mortimer – and so ‘Shooting Stars’ character Uncle Peter was born. It’s just a simple church hall split into two for a month, but it represents all things special about Fringe. I feel at home there.
CC: What advice would you give for anyone thinking of launching their own Fringe venue?
CP: You’ll need lots of energy, and a passion that breeds passion, thus is forever Fringe.