Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Charles Pamment: Online@theSpaceUK

By | Published on Friday 15 January 2021

You may recall that last week we recommended that all readers should head over to the Online@theSpaceUK website this month to take in as much as possible from the Edfringe venue group’s second season of online culture, which follows a first season held in place of a live Edinburgh Fringe programme in August 2020.

There’s a broad range of shows to see, encompassing a variety of genres and reflecting the the kind of live work you’d expect to see at theSpace’s Fringe venues when a pandemic hasn’t got in the way.

To find out more about the new season, about theSpaceUK’s history and hopes for the future, I spoke to director Charles Pamment.

CM: Can we start by filling readers in on the back story? Many of our readers will be aware of theSpaceUK’s presence at edfringe, but for those who don’t, can you briefly tell us what theSpace does?
CP: Established in 1995, theSpaceUK specialises in building, managing and programming pop-up venues and theatres at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Our theatres have become widely recognised by audiences and the media as the home of new writing, and we are proud to host the most diverse programme at the modern Fringe.

In 2019 we hosted some 350 shows over 22 days, across nineteen performance spaces, hosting some 190,000 audience members.

CM: What does your job involve?
CP: I have several hats, from being responsible for managing our relationships with our logistical partners and suppliers in Edinburgh to supporting our technical and press teams as they roll out our live and, more recently, online programmes.

My main role, however, is to curate our annual show programme. This involves building and maintaining relationships with our many returning companies as well as identifying and embracing performing companies wanting to bring work to the fringe or our venues for the first time.

I also work with our senior team and wider creatives to plan specific seasons, or new and original projects we feel suit the festival particularly well.

CM: How long have you been doing it, how did it begin, and what keeps you going back?
CP: We produced our first venue in 1995 at the enigmatic Venue 45, a lovely church hall on Jeffrey Street, and one of the original Fringe theatres first used in 1947ish – the walls whisper with Fringe history. A drama lecturer friend mentioned that a church hall close the Royal Mile was looking for management during the Fringe and the rest is history. We still use the venue: it is a special place.

Why do we come back!? Anyone who embraces live performance and has been to Edinburgh knows the answer. Twenty-five years later, I am still the wide-eyed post grad caught by the Edinburgh bug.

From a SpaceUK viewpoint, we have always been a community-based platform and August is very much a place for old friends to catch up. Additionally, seeing fledgling shows spread their wings on the Edinburgh stage is intoxicating, as is the satisfaction from seeing so many such shows leave our venues with an armful of reviews and even awards. Being a major part of all this is wholly special.

CM: Let’s talk now about the online content theSpaceUK has been hosting. Obviously that happened after COVID forced the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe to be cancelled. Was it a response to the Digital Fringe that emerged in place of last year’s real-world festival?
CP: Our decision to start Online@theSpaceUK actually came well before the plans for the digital fringe in August.

theSpaceUK is all about giving artists a platform on which to perform – there’s a clue in our name! When the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled, our thoughts at the time were ‘alright, what can we do instead?’, and within the space of 48 hours we had established Online@theSpaceUK.

There was no site, no artists, nothing – all that was to come – but sometimes you throw the cap over the wall first and follow it afterwards.

CM: And what made you decide to do another season of online shows in January?
CP: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of artists in the UK without any platform to perform. All the theatres are shut down and it’s difficult to run an online show if it’s just you.

However the creativity of these artists is still there – they may be stuck in their homes, but they’re still coming up with ideas and wanting to try new and exciting projects.

We decided to run a second season in January simply as we’d been approached by company after company wanting to know when we would be back.

CM: How did you go about programming both of the seasons? Have you applied the same approach to when you are running actual venues?
CP: Programming is similar to the actual venues, yes, although there’s more support on a technical front. We have a technical manager, Karl Bevis, who helps guide companies who aren’t used to using digital technology. Some companies want to just film a show, others want to engage more with the digital medium – it’s been exciting to see a whole range of different approaches and how we’ve been able to support them.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about what’s on offer in the season? What kind of work can viewers expect?
CP: This season there’s a huge range of shows: theatre, music, comedy, cabaret and spoken word.

Some of the shows are ‘direct-from-theatre’ shows, where it’s similar to watching a stand-up comedy or theatre show. Others have used the digital medium to create innovative work – and play with the blurred line between film and theatre.

Most shows are under 30 minutes meaning it can often feel like a selection box of chocolate – you try a few out at a time.

CM: Do you think there are any particular highlights?
CP: ‘Girlplay’ is superb – it won awards at last year’s Stockholm Fringe and has been converted into a radio play for Online@theSpaceUK. ‘Half-Baked Alaskan’ by NYC comedian Sally Anne-Hall is a fantastic way of getting to know a stand-up who will be hot at next year’s Fringe.

We’re also a big fan of the music pieces – great when you’re stuck working from home – and would recommend Melanie Gall’s two shows along with ‘Cello On Fire’ and ‘Sleepwalking’.

CM: What challenges are there when creating an online programme?
CP: There’s the technical side of having a platform – we’ve built a brand new website in the past month to make sure that season two went with a bang.

It’s also a different medium to normal – theatre is often a person-to-person business: for example, you want to go and sell some tickets at the fringe? Then go flyering and talk to your audience.

This doesn’t work in the same way, meaning that artists need to improve their skills at social media and email campaigning. It’s a learning curve – but a welcome one.

CM: Do you have plans for another season? A spring one, maybe!?
CP: Yes we do – and we’ll be announcing. those plans in a couple of weeks. Keep an eye out!

CM: What are you doing at the moment with regard to Edinburgh Fringe 2021? Do you think it will go ahead? Are you preparing as though it will?
CP: I am asked this question every day! Good health and well-being are, of course, a priority just now, but looking ahead I would like to think that the vaccine roll out will, as so many of us hope, bring a wider sea change for us all by the spring and early summer.

We are fortunate in that we have time to observe developments over the next three to four months and the Fringe Society have pushed back show registration and the print programme deadline for participants from April to June, so this gives venues more oxygen to plan.

We will not need to make a formal decision on a cancellation until May so, fingers crossed, we may be able to plan for something live by the early summer. I keep being reminded to think in the future and not the present: it’s good advice but we will just have to wait and see how the vaccine roll out progresses.

CM: What will you do if it doesn’t?
CP: We will certainly present another online season; indeed, we’ll roll this alongside our live work if we have a live festival.

We have realised the huge benefit of the online reach for both producers and audiences, and we will absolutely be presenting work beyond Edinburgh during August for evermore.

And any show working with us live will benefit from having their work shown globally as part of their theSpaceUK Edinburgh experience.

CM: What impact has the cancellation of last year’s festival had on theSpace? What impact would a further cancellation have?
CP: Like for all venues, it was hugely disappointing. We had just finished programming when COVID hit, over 300 shows raring to go!

Thankfully, we have extraordinarily strong long-term relationships with our suppliers and partners in Edinburgh, so we worked together on a remedy to support each other. Our performing companies were just as committed, over 70% choosing to roll their work over to 2021.

Cancellation in 2021 would of course be another blow, but we are established, and with all this continued support we will be ready to present a programme in 2022 with a renewed vigour! What a party it will be!

CM: What hopes do you have for theSpace in a post-COVID future?
CP: I suppose my first hope is that we can get there sensibly and soon! I hope we will not have to try to work with social distancing and all the restrictions this may bring, I simply do not think it will be economically or physically possible for many. It is comforting to know that live performance will always be desirable, the number one aim for all, and I hope we can get back to presenting that without obstruction.

If there is any positivity from this grim pandemic, it is the realisation of how strong the online platform can be as an addition to what we do, so I am excited about where that journey may take us. Whatever comes we will embrace and facilitate accordingly, the passion across our sector is huge, the belief in getting back and creating live work is simply not in doubt. When we get back is the question, and when we do, we’ll very much be a big part of hosting the party of all parties!

You can access Online@TheSpaceUK Season 2 until 31 Jan. Head this way for links to all the shows.

LINKS: | |