40 years of The Scotsman Fringe First awards
Black Watch is one of the most famous Fringe First winners

HOPE is the lifeblood of the Fringe. Every one of the thousands of performers arriving in Edinburgh has come with hope. Hope of recognition, hope of success, of a good review, of making their money back. And for almost 800 of those productions, the hope of being the winner of a Fringe First award, writes Susan Mansfield

Black Watch is one of the most famous Fringe First winners

[Black Watch won a Fringe First before becoming a global smash hit. Picture: TSPL]

The Scotsman Fringe First celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Created in 1973, the award has built an international reputation for recognising the best of new theatre, rewarding innovation, regardless of a company’s reputation or production budget. They can be – and have been – won by theatre-makers of international standing, and by students making their Fringe debut.

As awards go, Fringe Firsts are fairly unassuming. Winners don’t get any money, just a plaque with their name on it. There is no predetermined number and no overall winner. Yet those plaques grace the walls of theatres around the world and many writers, actors and directors credit receiving them as the moment which launched their careers.

Kath Mainland, Fringe chief executive, believes the awards are as important now as they’ve ever been. “They are a really important part of the Fringe landscape, a fundamental part of the Fringe’s reputation as a place where you discover new talent. In a way, they are even more important now because the awards are so renowned. When we do Fringe roadshows around the world, particularly in places where there is a reputation for new theatre, people know about them and they aspire to win them when they come.”

Today it would be hard to recognise the Fringe as it was in the early 1970s. It was already 25 years old, but perhaps in danger of becoming stale. In 1972, there were 45 new plays but most had not been strong sellers. There was a feeling that a familiar play was a safer bet. The matter was discussed at the Fringe Society AGM that year. If the Fringe was to buzz with the energy of the new, rather than with tired if reliable student productions of Macbeth, action needed to be taken. This in turn prompted a meeting between the then administrator of the Fringe, John Milligan, and Allen Wright, arts editor of the Scotsman.

The late Allen Wright, who was the paper’s first and longest-serving arts editor, was the founding father of the Fringe Firsts, and of The Scotsman’s Fringe coverage as we know it today. He understood what good, intelligent criticism could do for the Fringe as it grew, and rapidly expanded the Scotsman’s festival coverage. Many journalists owe their careers to being admitted to his eclectic team of reviewers.

Douglas Fraser, now business and economy editor with BBC Scotland, is one of them. “Allen recognised the importance of the festival to Edinburgh, and recognised the importance of the Scotsman to the festival. Before others were doing awards, the Scotsman was there doing the Fringe Firsts, playing a very important part in building up the amount of original drama coming to Edinburgh. They are not like some arts awards, which are more about associating the brand with someone else’s success. The Fringe Firsts is itself a brand which is recognised around the world and has real currency.”

Wright was, in some ways, an unlikely innovator. Writer and academic Owen Dudley Edwards, who joined Wright’s review team in the mid-1970s, describes him as “our revolutionary Tory general”. “He’d been at George Watson’s School – he was solid Edinburgh bourgeoisie, Church of Scotland and so on. As a critic, he was quite conservative, at least to begin with, yet he did tremendous work in building up the Fringe. Discovery became the great thing. Allen wanted to make sure that the Fringe was going to put on good stuff, to give opportunities for new minds, new writers, new performers, new directors, new theatre.”

Catherine Lockerbie, who went on to become director of the Edinburgh International Book festival, joined Allen Wright’s review team as a new graduate in 1980, and later became his deputy. “We should never take it as a given that the Fringe has evolved in this chaotic fashion,” she says. “People like Allen Wright helped it to evolve into what it is now. He was such a great enabler, one the greatest enablers I’ve ever met, and the Fringe Firsts are an expression of that. What he did was instrumental to the Fringe, to the whole festival scene in Edinburgh.”

Wright took the awards very seriously and supervised them personally until ill health forced his premature retirement in 1993. Any reviewer who saw a piece of work which they considered deserving a Fringe First notified him immediately, so it could be seen by a second and third critic (one of these often himself). Reviewers remember long discussions about specific shows: were they in danger of awarding a company on the basis of their reputation? Was an adaptation sufficiently new?

“He was very quiet, very astute, people trusted his judgement, and if he trusted yours that was a great privilege,” says Lockerbie. “He was passionate in his own, very understated, old-school Scottish way about the Fringe. Although he presented a very traditional figure, always in a suit and tie, he was incredibly eclectic in his tastes, especially as the years progressed and the Fringe grew.”

The first Fringe Firsts, awarded in 1973, set the tone for the future. Legendary Polish director Tadeusz Kantor, at the Fringe for the second time as a guest of Richard Demarco, won an award for Lovelies and Dowdies. There was an award for the Traverse (then the Traverse Theatre Club) and several for the Pool Lunch Hour Theatre Club, a thriving venue in Hanover Street in the early 1970s, which that year staged Hector MacMillan’s The Sash. Richard Crane won an award for Thunder, his first Fringe production, and the first of many Fringe Firsts.

By 1977, largely thanks to the Fringe Firsts, the number of new plays on the Fringe had jumped to 138. It also helped that the Edinburgh International Festival director Peter Diamand was seen as elitist and biased towards opera. As Dudley Edwards says: “The effect was to send the Fringe booming. The fact that he didn’t give a good god damn rat’s ass about theatre meant that theatre was going to go somewhere else, and it did. By 1979, the Fringe was where exciting theatre was happening.” By 1981, it was also the biggest arts festival in the world.

Alistair Moffat & Rowan Atkinson in 1980

[Rowan Atkinson during the 1980 Fringe. Picture: TSPL]

Alistair Moffat, who took over as Fringe administrator in 1976, says the effects of the awards were clear immediately. “There was a great focus on new drama. Winning a Fringe First was tremendously prestigious and resulted in packed houses. I had the huge pleasure of telling the groups who had won and used to zoom around Edinburgh on my little motorbike giving out the glad tidings. Performers took the awards with them when they toured and I have seen them displayed in theatres in London and New York.”

Some past winners are now famous – Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson – and there are playwrights who come up time and again: John Godber, Leonard Maguire, John Cargill Thomson. Sometimes the awards have recognised shows which were already on the way to stardom, like the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch which opened on the Fringe in 2006, but others were genuine discoveries, and set in motion new careers.

The actor Simon Callow was in a company which won a Fringe First in 1974 for a play called Schippel by CP Taylor at the Traverse. “It was great.” he remembers. “We knew we had a hit on our hands but it was rather ennobling to have one of these new-fangled Scotsman awards. We transferred to London and were a smash hit all over again, then opened in the West End. But we were always conscious of the halo conferred by the award.” And in the typically eclectic spirit of the Fringe Firsts, no one is too old – Callow’s second Fringe First came 37 years later for Tuesday at Tescos, an outstanding one-man play about transgendered Pauline and her relationship with her father.

Leading Scottish playwright David Greig won a Fringe First for an early play, Stalinland, in 1993. He would later win others, for Outlying Islands and Damascus, and his latest play, The Events, is at the Traverse this year. But at the time of Stalinland, he was a recent graduate with aspirations to become a director. “That award was a huge part of pushing me towards being a writer, because that was a play I had written and hadn’t directed,” he says. “The Fringe First was an empowering thing, because it was like a stamp that said you are somebody who is a writer or a maker of theatre, or at least you’ve got a chance at this. You’re in the game.”

Another Scottish playwright, Douglas Maxwell, says the award was crucial to him being taken seriously as a writer. He won a Fringe First in 2000 for Decky Does A Bronco, staged by site-specific company Grid Iron in a New Town play park. Although it wasn’t his first play, it was his big breakthrough, and went on to a successful tour. “Decky took a while to grow, but it became this big audience hit, it was the show everyone was talking about, at that point we won a Fringe First. I was away for the weekend when they announced it, and when I got back to the flat where I was staying there was a message ‘Ben Harrison [director of Grid Iron] rang, Decky has won a fridge’. It took a while to work out what had happened, though in that flat a fridge would have been greatly appreciated. I remember thinking I was in with the big boys now.”

A Fringe First plaque hangs in Miami on the wall of American theatre-maker Teo Castellanos, testament to how the award can transform fortunes. Castellanos brought his one-man play NE Second Avenue to the Fringe in 2003 but lost his luggage on the way (including his props and set) and played to audiences of single figures at Hill Street Theatre for the first nine days. “I would arrive at the theatre asking, ‘Any ticket sales today?’ and they would say: ‘Sorry, Teo, not yet’. I had spent all the grant monies on production costs and like most others I was fully dependent on box office. I was drowning.”

A five star review in the Scotsman changed all that, followed later that week by a Fringe First. “That night when I got to the theatre someone asked me, ‘Teo, do you want to know how many tickets sold for tonight? All of them!’ Anyone who knows anything about the Edinburgh Fringe knows the badge of honour the Fringe First carries. Has it made a difference in my career? Yes!”

The awards have been important for directors, too. Hannah Eidinow, who is directing this year’s Fringe First anniversary showcases at the Pleasance, says the awards have played a crucial part in her career. Shortly after graduating from LAMDA, she brought her directorial debut, Glyn Cannon’s Gone, to the Fringe in 2004. “I decided what I wanted to do was take this to Edinburgh, win an award, get an agent and move my career on. I managed to do all three, I was very lucky. It changed my life.” Eidinow has since won a further four Fringe Firsts.

New York-based director Rachel Chavkin brought two shows to Edinburgh in 2005 with her newly formed company, the TEAM. One of the first people to see their show Give Up! Start Over! at C venues happened to be a Scotsman critic, who immediately nominated it for a Fringe First.

“I had actually gone back to America by then for my first professional directing gig,” says Chavkin. “I was an hour and a half into my first rehearsal when I checked my phone and there was a message from the entire cast screaming ‘We’ve won a Fringe First!’ I was so excited by what was happening that I quit the job and flew back to Edinburgh so I could be on the ground to have the conversations that result from winning. Everything in the TEAM’s life we can trace back to that first summer in Edinburgh and the Fringe First was a huge part of that.” They went on to win another three awards, and a film about the making of their award-winning musical Mission Drift is part of the Fringe this year at theSpace@ Symposium Hall.

The Fringe Firsts celebrate innovation, and fresh discussions are thrown up every year for the judging panel about shows which push boundaries and challenge genres. But the criteria of the awards, and the spirit of them, are almost unchanged from the days of Allen Wright. Scotsman chief theatre critic Joyce McMillan, chair of the Fringe First judging panel, says: “We can be quite satisfied that the impact of the Fringe Firsts on the Fringe is doing what it aimed to do. I think they have been very successful. You can always argue with individual decisions, but fingers crossed we’ve missed very little of the great new work which has surfaced on the Fringe.”

Although there is now no shortage of new theatre on the Fringe, she contends that the awards are as important as ever. “If you can imaging taking the First Firsts away, you would see the impact within a few years. It wouldn’t take long for market pressure to be felt and for people to do work that’s familiar. I think we would see a Fringe much more dominated by familiar titles, and by things that have already got good reviews in London. People wouldn’t take the financial risk of a completely new show.”

So, 40 years after the Fringe First awards were launched, our enthusiasm for new work is undimmed, and for the next three weeks we will cover the length and breadth of the city looking for it. For some, a little copper plaque will bring the fulfilment of a great hope.

MORE INFO

The 40th anniversary of the Fringe Firsts will be marked by several live events:

Celebrating 40 Years of The Fringe Firsts, a series of rehearsed readings of Fringe First winners from across the decades, at the Pleasance, tomorrow, 11, 18 and 25 August at 11.30am.

A panel discussion at the Traverse Theatre on 12 August exploring the Traverse and the Fringe Firsts’ shared history, with Joyce McMillan, David Greig and other guests tbc.

The Scotsman Fringe Awards at Assembly George Square on Friday 23 August.