Advisory Study

Planning and Advisory Study

A Fringe Performance Archive must be viewed in terms of selection, logistics, filming and archiving. Each of these requires a separate plan:
(1) selection (what to film)
(2) logistics (how to put personnel and equipment in place)
(3) recording (guidelines for audiovisual acquisition)
(4) archiving (preservation and access)

The problem of selection is foremost in any treatment of the Fringe. This is true for both a tourist with only a single day in Edinburgh, the committed Fringegoer who combs through the program before buying tickets for several shows daily over an extended period, and the performer who commits to seeing one show every day in addition to performing. We cannot seek to capture the entire Festival Fringe, any more than a dabbler, an aficionado, or an engaged participant. Archival resources always involve a choice to preserve some objects rather than others. Cultural objects are no exception, but the challenges of the Fringe are truly extraordinary.

After passing a preliminary proposal to the Fringe office in early 2008, we interviewed 77 persons at the 2008 Fringe who participated in various capacities: performers, producers, directors, press agents, public relations liaisons, venue staff, and audience members. These were qualitative, unstructured interviews in which suggestions and information were sought that would be relevant to the creation of a performance archive. Substantive questions were changed as the days went by and sufficient information was available on particular issues. In making the recommendations below, it is not necessarily majority opinion that counts, but rather judgments about the goals and processes of preservation and access. Indeed, on one of the most critical matters—whether or not to archive entire shows—majority opinion is not advisable. The judgments here take into account the perspective and experience of these individuals, but there is not a consensus on some issues. During further interviews at the 2009 Fringe it has become clear that no “theoretical” approach will resolve the remaining issues: methodological, technological and archival strategies must be reassessed after the first attempts at preservation.

Which performances and what segments?

Among all of those interviewed it was a consensus that two aspects of the Fringe are important to preserve (specific performances and general atmosphere). The latter is perhaps less problematic, involving a sample of public performances on the Royal Mile, the venues (247 in 2008) and other activities that occur in public places such as Fringe Sunday, the Calvalcade, the Bristo Square area, and the meeting spaces of the larger venues. Two of the 30+ Fringe stewards reported that these short scenes are an informative preview of a large number of Fringe shows occurring in public on the High Street or the Mound. However, much of the activity is outdoor entertainment with no (other) programmed activity. High Street performances are programmed and atmospherics are variable but spatially conditioned. They are an important aspect of the Fringe experience.

The more difficult question is what specific genres and shows should be archived. Again, the consensus seems to be that theatre and comedy (broadly defined) should be covered extensively, while smaller genres (children’s shows, dance and physical theatre, events, music, musicals and opera) should be covered less frequently. One way to accomplish this is through a process that incorporates both randomized and purposive selection of shows.

Initially we thought selection could be accomplished by asking the knowledgeable staff of the Fringe office to suggest a number of new and innovative shows. We thought we could select, in advance, shows that were noteworthy in some fashion and therefore likely to attract critical and audience attention. Yet there must be some way of supplementing educated guessing to capture the unfolding of the Fringe in a given year. Moreover, there is a great deal of randomness in the process of selection for an average Fringegoer (which reviews appear in the paper on a given day; which company she stumbles upon to pick up a flyer). To provide a fair sample of what was at the Fringe in a given year (good, bad, newcomers, old hands) a completely random selection should accompany the suggestions of knowledgeable staff and venue managers.

The recommendation here is not to archive all shows or even a specific number of shows but to seek diversity through a combination of random and purposive selection.

Remaining questions.
(1) Considerable time was spent on the question of whether interviews with performers/directors/producers/venue personnel, etc. should be included. There are both pros and cons. Estimates of 18,792 performers at the 2008 Fringe—and of course this is a fraction of all the persons involved in a show, its coverage, and production—mean that this is a sampling problem as well.

(2) One idea that emerged is the notion that the Fringe is a laboratory for commentary on social and political issues. The categorization of themes into areas such as “political and social issues” produced by the Fringe office is an extremely useful listing and may also be used for sampling. This could constitute an additional selection criterion and offer another benefit for future publics and historians who are interested in the artistic treatment of wider societal issues.

Segments or Complete Shows?
During the first few days of interviewing, the biggest question was whether to shoot entire performances or partial performances. Most performers were inclined to think that partial shows (for example, ten or fifteen minutes) were sufficient to give the character or “flavor” of the Fringe. Partly they felt this way because the sheer quantity and diversity of the offerings are what is unique and interesting for most people, particularly those who are at the Fringe for the first time. Partly they felt this way because they knew that their particular show would have a much greater chance of selection if the overall proportion of shows selected were higher. Believing this to be the general consensus, we spent some time trying to answer the question of how to select the segment for preservation.

However, there are four reasons why the preservation of partial shows is not the best strategy for an archive. First, the question of which part of the show is not one that can be answered easily. While general guidelines might be developed for theatre and comedy they will not be applicable to all shows, and there was much disagreement about what part of a show should be filmed. Second, even preserving a huge number of partial shows does not actually reflect the experience of the average Fringegoer, who sees a small number of complete shows as well as, perhaps, partial performances on the Royal Mile. Third, when camera equipment is moved into position to cover a show, it cannot be removed until the end, in order not to be disruptive (this is also a recording guideline for most venues). Approximately one hour is a performance norm at many venues and it is hardly worth a setup for less than one hour of footage. Fourth, partial shows do not effectively achieve one of the primary objectives of the project, which is to preserve a selection of performance artworks for future generations, as a source of historical knowledge and creative inspiration. The recommendation is therefore to archive entire performances rather than partial performances. By steering clear of time sampling and focusing on event/performance sampling, we make our task a lot easier.


The Mervyn Stutter show, “Pick of the Fringe,” features segments from about seven shows each day at a venue on Bristo Square. His organization and selection process were developed for an entirely different purpose—the presentation of a variety show (now itself a long-running Fringe tradition). Yet it serves as a useful model for the kind of teamwork that will be required in an archival project and was developed from 22 years of Fringe experience. Along with Mr. Stutter, a team of four persons and a producer rent a flat from the University of Edinburgh. At one of their planning sessions it was noted that many of their selection considerations are similar to ones we were then considering for the archive (e.g., groups with greater reputation have a higher chance of selection, but all groups have some chance; no group is selected more than once in 10 years; need for balance between serious theatre, comedy, musical acts). Each member of the team sees from 3 to 6 shows per day; mornings they meet to discuss pros and cons of shows seen the previous day, views they are hearing from audience members, and the like. While the Stutter team judges shows with an eye towards the flow and composition of their own daily production, in a typical year they view as many as 300-400 shows, liaise with the press officers and performers, and in 2008 produced segments from about 126 shows during an 18 performance run. The list of “seen shows,” “confirmed shows,” and “scheduled shows” are similar to lists that we will need to compile for archival logistics. One particular observation from the Stutter meeting was the need to view shows in advance in order to (1) determine the shooting style for the show; (2) collect the contact information and get permissions in advance.

Until the FPA achieves an adequate level of sponsorship this high acquisition strategy is not feasible.

Recording Plan
HDV and AVCHD compression formats offer a good mix of affordability, efficiency, and quality. Two issues that require significant discussion are (1) shooting style (since these are single camera shoots, the desirability of wide shots versus close ups must be established); (2) camera location. While some measure of consistency will be valuable, it will likely be necessary to make particular arrangements for each show.

Archival Plan
There are good reasons to treat this archive as a property of our global cultural heritage, though its home should be in Scotland. A sense of the possibilities may be provided by the method used in the Hurricane Katrina project, ongoing at Louisiana State University since September 2005. After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State University began a project to document and archive events and interviews with major figures in the recovery of New Orleans. As described by the Toronto Star, the “cultural implications of the project are potentially staggering” (Peter Calamai, 10 February 2008). We currently use a “Times Seven” reproduction strategy:

(1) Footage is shot in HDV format and the original tapes are stored in a locked, dedicated, windowless room in a building on high ground.
(2) The digital stream on original tapes is captured to hard drives in high resolution.
(3) A DVD master is created for transcribing. The original DVD is used for transcription purposes (about 70% of all footage is transcribed.)
(4) Because transcription involves extensive use of the disk, it is triplicated (with verification) for distribution to multiple sites.
(5) Finally, the captured files are copied to LTO tapes for archival storage at the National Library of Scotland.
Hence, we preserve two magnetic tape versions, four (DVD) optical versions, and one mechanical (hard drive) version, for a total of seven copies of each event. Of course, high resolution files for each tape may be compressed to allow a streaming video on-site at a terminal at the National Library of Scotland if this kind of distribution is deemed worthwhile in the future.

This basic system has been employed at the outset for the Fringe performance archive. It should be modified after consultations with other knowledgeable persons and incorporation of their expertise. While the principles of geographical distribution and forward migration are always applicable, emerging high definition formats will be preferable (e.g., the switch to HDV format was made after years of archiving HD; the switch to AVCHD is underway now, and no one harbors illusions that this is the “final” acquisition format). While tape copies (e.g., LTO) may be best for long term storage in a controlled environment, it is possible to begin the archive without the use of original tapes, using another acquisition format for later transfer to LTO. While there is no need to specify any final format, it seems likely that we would eventually move to drive-based acquisition formats.

The National Library of Scotland (NLS) is an ideal home for the final archive. For some years the NLS has preserved the printed record of the Fringe, including a collection of publicity flyers. Currently their Department of Collections and Research houses a cluster of appropriate repositories including a Trusted Digital Repository and the Moving Image Collection. If it is determined that magnetic tapes are the final format, the Scottish Screen Archive maintains an ideal environment (12 degrees centigrade and 35% relative humidity for the original preservation masters). However, if it appears that a tapeless high definition recording format such as AVCHD is preferable, then the TDR will be appropriate. It also remains to be determined if the academy aspect ratio of 4:3 is preferable to the current standard of 16:9 (widescreen). While copyright to the performances will remain with the performers, permissions are required from performers to ensure accessibility for research and educational purposes of the NLS.

Distribution and Access
The temporal dimension of a performance archive contrasts sharply with the more familiar concepts of broadcast, webcast, and film. The focus is on the long term benefit to future generations rather than the short term benefit of present audiences. The Fringe project is a blind archive, with a suggested moratorium of one decade. After this period of time, each subsequent year will become available to the general public according to the policies of the National Library of Scotland. The blind archive concept is necessary to protect the creative property of Fringe participants, who may receive a low resolution copy of the footage for their personal use if they choose. Interviews at the 2008 Fringe indicated a high level of support for this concept from performers across all genres, although there was also substantial support for immediate availability. Owing to the added effort involved in creating a disparate set of guidelines for availability and access, it is probably best to set a firm guideline for the moratorium.

The shooting plan allows for the recording of shows but not identifying information on individual audience members, whose permission will not be required. It will be permissible to film the audience from the back, as a wide shot, given that no identifying information will be apparent and the size of the audience is an important feature of the reception to shows. However, there are some performances in the category of immersive theatre where this mode of shooting will be difficult and may not adequately provide for the confidentiality of audience members. Two shows from the 2008 festival will illustrate this point.

(1) One company rented an entire venue and rotated several shows throughout each day, producing works without any traditional stage where audience members where interspersed throughout the room and performers frequently included members in the show. This kind of theatre is actually less common at the Fringe than many imagine, yet it is extremely striking and therefore important to include. Interviews with the performers and directors suggest that it may be possible to get the permission of audience members in advance of the show. The kind of troupe that can involve its audience so completely is not typically averse to incorporating this novelty in its preamble.

(2) One venue at Edinburgh University set up as an “office party” for a nightly three hour show. This is one of few shows that cannot be captured unproblematically with the current shooting plan. Because it is sufficiently rare, it does not seem to warrant developing a special plan (though one can imagine other shows with similar issues). First, the audience is divided into groups so that four performances are, from time to time, occurring simultaneously. Second, sections of the audience move frequently from place to place such that it is almost impossible to avoid capturing identifying information. Third, the audience is very large. Fourth, the show has no clear beginning where it would be possible to get permissions. Finally, there is occasional nudity and this nudity is a “spontaneous” (although solicited) gesture by audience members that may be inappropriate to include in an archive. While there is no reason to exclude nudity where it is designed into Fringe productions (with the permission of the performers), it does not seem wise to include audience members. While a reasonable way of including some specific shows such as this is not obvious to me, they are rare, at least in my experience. The value of the archive will not be measurably diminished by excluding them.

When the broad outlines of the plan reach a point of general understanding, we will seek one or more donors who will endorse the concept of performance preservation in return for appropriate recognition.

Selection, shooting, logistics, and preservation are all issues that will be crucial to the final product to be archived at the end of a given year, and they will need due consideration by the full Fringe board. Arts such as painting and sculpture have an inherent persistence that has always attracted efforts at specialized preservation. In the new millennium it is possible to preserve performance as well. Perhaps it is our collective obligation to do so.

Audiovisual material will be made available under the auspices of the Fringe Performance Archive through the National Library of Scotland. Originals (or digital copies) of these performance recordings are deposited in the collection of the National Library of Scotland. Footage is not to be viewed by the public for a period of ten years of the recording date. The National Library of Scotland will make these recordings accessible to users and patrons in accord with its mission of enrichment, enlightenment, and historical record keeping. Following the moratorium, users and patrons will have access to these recordings on premises of the NLS (or premises licensed and represented by the NLS) for non-commercial and non-distributive private research and viewing.

Shrum, Wesley. 1996. Fringe and Fortune: The Role of Critics in High and Popular Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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