Amy chats to Mervyn Stutter as he prepares to head to the Fringe again with his renowned variety show – Pick of the Fringe!
Hey Mervyn – here’s your chance to give an elevator pitch, can you give us a brief synopsis?
My 90-minute daily Pick of the Fringe showcase gives the audience 7 × 5-minute ‘trailers’ of top-quality shows from across the festival. Theatre, comedy, music, dance, circus, cabaret – the lot. And every day there are different seven shows for them to see. I introduce them, they do their 5-minute slot and then they have a short interview with me to add anything else to excite my audience to go and see their show.
Every day I have a team of reviewers out there watching 4-5 shows to then invite the best to appear on Pick of the Fringe. Every day there’s a different selection of shows for them to see so audiences often come back two and three times.
I started in 1992 in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar and now play to 250/300 a day people in Pleasance One. It may be that during this cost of living crisis seeing a selection of show extracts before you pay the full ticket is a clever budgeting move.
Nevertheless, after 30 years of hosting the show it is as important as ever for artists to meet audience and audience to meet artists.
What inspired your Pick of the Fringe?
Mostly, back in 1991, people asked me if I’d seen anything good. They needed help to negotiate an ever-growing Fringe. Then I saw that the alternative comedy scene was dominating the media scene but the theatre was actually much bigger – 45% of the festival. Shows like theatre and dance had no safe space to demonstrate their work. They could not gig around town like comedians can.
I have a strong theatre background of about 15 years (in fact my first ever Fringe was with 7:84 (England) in 1982) so I knew I had to create that calm well resourced space for serious work to display itself. It is this guarantee of quality work – of every kind – that has made Pick of the Fringe a success. The audience trust me and trust the showcase.
How important is the Fringe for new work? And how does it feel to be at the Fringe this year for the show’s 30th anniversary?
The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest Arts Festival in the world. It’s the only festival where you don’t need an invitation to appear. If you have a show, can get a room and have money to get to put it on then you’re in. Because of this, it is the perfect place to mount new work. When I first started my solo shows back in 1987 (Yes, it’s my 35th year on the Fringe) performers would actually use the opening few nights to work the show in but that’s not possible now. The Fringe is much more sophisticated and professional, and you must arrive and hit the ground running if you want a chance of success – and reviews.
Producers from Europe and the UK are there looking for good theatre products to promote after the Fringe. New work on The Fringe can become a sudden big hit and be a big break for the company, the actors and the writer. In that sense, the festival is more of a Trade Fair.
I have seen a huge amount of change over my 35 years on the Fringe. But the 30th year of Pick of the Fringe, when I think about it – like answering these questions for example – is frankly a bit of a triumph. It has grown from a simple bar room idea to a genuine Fringe institution playing to 250/300 people a day.
So many really good shows with no money for PR people or proper advertising budget have been rescued and made a success. So many audiences have discovered shows that they would never usually consider but went along having seen a trailer on my show. So many writers now have great reputations and whose work is in demand at festivals all over the world.
It is also true that my annual Spirit of the Fringe Awards given on the last show of the run have opened doors for very many artists.
These are not the original ambitions – how could they be – but are wonderful things to hear about over the 30 years. The real ambition each year is always the same – to showcase the best shows we can find and excite audiences to go and buy their tickets. And they do. And that’s still a great feeling after 30 years.
What are the main themes you look for when ‘picking’, and what can audiences expect?
We don’t look for themes at all. We look for top-quality shows from any festival venue, no matter what the themes. Those are the shows we pick and invite along on a mutually agreeable date.
So, my PotF audience can expect to see five-minute highlights from seven top shows over a 90-minute lunchtime show (every day 12.40-2.10 pm Pleasance One) There’s always a short interview with me after they perform to add in any useful details about style, writing, set design size of the venue.
After all, we must remember that my venue is large, and some pieces are intimate studio pieces where the relationship with the audience will be quite different. After the 90 minutes, the audience then is given flyers for each of the shows that day – with the all-important Box office details.
Finally, why should people book a ticket to this show?
Because it’s a bloody good show – and it’s great value! I’ve always tried to keep my ticket price as low as possible. After all, I am just another freelance show like everyone else on the Fringe – and so I have a budget too. Hopefully, people will go and see things I have showcased and things that they can trust – and not be taking a blind punt and maybe wasting money on something they don’t really like.
So two things are important here. Firstly, I am shining a light on hidden Fringe gems and secondly, the audience will be able to judge better what they spend their money on. For the seven shows on display, it’s £15 for 90 minutes (that’s £10 an hour) and that in 2023 is a great price and great value.
After all, the show can save you much more than that. And even if you don’t go to any of the shows that day, Pick of the Fringe is a great comprehensive snapshot of the festival.
Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe is on from the 5th – 26th August at 12.40pm at the Pleasance Courtyard – tickets and more info here!