Anthony Alderson is director of the Pleasance, which sells one in five tickets at the Edinburgh Festival, as well as the Pleasance Theatre, its year-round sister venue in north London. As its famous cobbled courtyard once again becomes the hub of all things cultural, Anthony talks to us about the Fringe and why he can’t think of anywhere he’d rather be in August…
The Pleasance started 27 years ago when my old teacher Christopher Richardson took a sabbatical. Someone said: “Why don’t you go to the Edinburgh Fringe?” So he did, opening two venues and putting on eight shows.
I don’t think he had any intention of carrying on, but that’s the thing about Edinburgh – it gets under your skin. I joined in 1987 as a carpenter. In my first year, I was welding together the auditorium that is still in Pleasance Two. I became production manager at 19 and general manager at 22. I guess I’m living proof that if you stick around long enough, perhaps they’ll put you in charge.
There was never a grand plan to create what is now this rather remarkable and unique organisation. Every year we just add another venue, a few more shows. And for anyone who comes through the door, the answer has always been a yes until it’s a no. Until it’s impossible for us to achieve what they want to achieve or [if] they are crap. At the end of the day, we like good ideas. We’ll help people make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, but we’re not interested in rubbish.
How do we choose shows? We go and see them. Or we read a script. Or we sit and have a meeting. There’s just a gut feeling, a spark. Oh god, we don’t always get it right. We’ve put on some really bad shows in our time. But we’ve also presented some unbelievably talented people. I listened to Michael McIntyre on Desert Island Discs the other day and he said, “I went to Edinburgh five times and no one discovered me.” Well, hang on a minute. We discovered you. We wanted you because we recognised how talented you were.
It would be easy for us to programme comedy from 10 in the morning to 12 at night but it would kill the festival. Theatre has a very valid place in Edinburgh and it is our job to protect that. Whether you will ever find a theatre company to fit an 8pm slot in the Pleasance Courtyard is a difficult one. You’re up against some very high profile comics. But I don’t believe there’s a split between the comedy and theatre audience. Now, I think there’s just a Fringe audience.
We create energy around rooms. One room feeds another and the audience gets a sense that there’s something going on next door. It’s the multiplex idea. I remember Michael going around the courtyard trying to get 50 people through the door. Who would have thought five years later he would be the biggest name in comedy? But back then, he was playing alongside Omid Djalili, the biggest comedian of his time. And the fact they could rub shoulders with each other is what matters.
The Pleasance is an enormous community. The formal bit is the work. The informal bit is the people. Over the years, we’ve presented more than 5,000 shows, involving some 40,000 people in the arts. We’re not saving anyone’s life, we know we’re not. But culture is what helps people value the other things in their lives just that little bit more. It’s what binds communities together.
I hate the fact that the Big Society has been party-politicised. I’ve been part of a big society for 30 years – this festival.
For tickets to Pleasance shows, work opportunities or to find out about its campaign to raise £4.5m for new work and facilities in Edinburgh and London, visit www.pleasance.co.uk.
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