No Fringe, no future: why the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge may be quitting British theatre

With no Edinburgh Fringe and no prospects, young theatre-makers are beginning to walk away. Meet lockdown's talented ‘lost generation’

Phoebe Waller-Bridge on stage in Fleabag, the show that became her hit TV series
Phoebe Waller-Bridge on stage in Fleabag, the show that became her hit TV series Credit: Corner Shop

As you might have heard, it’s not the best time to be in theatre. 

When the first lockdown began at the beginning of March, it became illegal to stage a play. Less than a month later, for the first time in its 70-year history, the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled. For Alex Rugman, 22, whose fledgling theatre company Freight’s first show had just been offered a spot at the prime Fringe venue Underbelly, the disappointment was crushing. “It was a massive setback,” he tells me. “Theatre is decimated.”

While theatres in many areas of the country were allowed to open from July – until this month’s second English lockdown, which usually marks the start of the financially critical pantomime season – for the majority, the Covid restrictions imposed made it utterly uneconomical to do so. How can you operate when you need to fill 70 per cent of seats to break even (as most theatres do) but you’re only allowed 50 per cent capacity?

Overdue but welcome support arrived in July, in the form of a £1.57 billion Government bailout, but since almost 40 per cent of the theatre industry work freelance, many slipped through the financial cracks, while the list of theatres that have been forced to lay off staff or even permanently close is ever growing.

Industry titans such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Sam Mendes have lined up to sound the alarm bell on behalf of the industry. But what about those at the other end of the pipeline? If you’re an aspiring theatre maker – be that actor, director, playwright or designer – there’s a flexible but conventional root to taking your shot at the big time. On leaving school, college or university, green thespians will cobble together the funds to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, where they’ll desperately hope for a nod from The Stage newspaper or a mention in the national press – and then, for the talented and the luckiest, for a keen-nosed producer to offer them a West End transfer. 

“It’s your standard moonshot,” explains Alex. Many of the starriest names to come out British theatre in the last decade have followed this path. Fleabag was picked up by Soho Theatre and then the BBC after Phoebe Waller-Bridge took her one woman show to the Fringe in 2013; Lucy Moss and Toby Marlowe were handed a West End gig and then a Broadway transfer when their Tudor pop musical SIX proved a runaway hit at Edinburgh while they were both still students. 

Frankie Thompson is among the many young British theatre practitioners on the verge of giving up Credit: Tim Durham

When Alex and Freight’s co-artistic director Luke Wintour graduated from university in 2019, they were brimming with future plans. “We have a show that's about big data, artificial intelligence, the inception of Google and a bunch of issues that we started work on last October. We put on a work in progress version in January at a little theatre called the Blue Elephant in South London. And then  – we hadn't had it confirmed yet – but we'd been offered a slot at Underbelly at the Fringe.”

Between January and August, they had planned a period of research, rewrites and rehearsals. It was going to be their year – a spike protein had different ideas. Alex now works as a fry cook in a chicken shop in Park Royal; he pulls 10 hour shifts and writes on the train home. 

“It feels like a ladder has been taken away. That formula for potential success from the Fringe/London transfer is gone.” In the future, breaking the industry is “going to require a lot more ingenuity, and frankly, a lot more luck as well.”

The loss of the Fringe means more than a door closing – for many, it has taken the walls and the ceilings too.

“I think people underestimate the amount that Edinburgh affects people financially,” says Frankie Thompson, 22. 

She has been working as a clown since she was 17. Last year, she paid her rent for four months with the proceeds from her Fringe show. “Meanwhile, the government uses this language of ‘unnecessary’, and almost implies that theatre is dangerous and an extravagance.”

This summer, she was planning to return to Edinburgh, with the financial backing of a prominent London theatre. That money, of course, vanished as quickly as the social acceptability of hugging.

From March to September, her financial situation was “just awful, awful”. She works in a bookshop and tutors to make ends meet – “It’s so ridiculous that people think that artists don't have second jobs. Of course we have second, and third, and fourth jobs” – but when you’re also trying to carve out time to be creative, that isn’t always enough to pay the rent. 

Since then, help has arrived from an unlikely quarter: Santander is sponsoring her to convert a wardrobe into a small portable theatre (“It’s essentially Deliveroo for performance. If restaurants can be delivered, why can’t theatre?”) and that will tide her over for a couple of months. Beyond that, though: “I’ll be struggling again. I’ll just have to be really resourceful. But it’s a terrifying landscape ahead.”

Aspiring theatre professionals are finding the Government's restrictions unbearable Credit: Henry Ludlam Steinke

Jules Haworth, education producer at Soho Theatre, is also concerned about the impact of the loss of the Fringe on young talent. “It can be a great launch pad for new artists to connect with audiences, agents and the wider theatre industry and community. I do hope we see its return next year so that we can all make up for lost time – if we don’t, we run the risk of losing important voices from this generation.”

After the financial and opportunity costs of the year come the psychological. “I’ve seen people really mourning the loss of who they are,” says Frankie. “You know people have made this choice, and they've trained really hard, and they've made great personal sacrifices to commit to this industry. 

“They're making work which is from them and about them, and they can't do that now. I've seen artists’ mental health just crumbling.”

Philippa Lawford, 23, describes a similar sense of identity erosion. “When you’re trying to be an emerging artist, everyone says to you that you need to call yourself the title. 

“You go, ‘Oh, I want to be a director’, and people go, ‘No, you are a director.’ And I always was quite good at doing that – being like, ‘Yeah, I’m a director!’ But I don’t really know if I can say that now. It feels so fake.”

For Philippa, who is a director and a playwright, one of the biggest frustrations of the pandemic has been the sense of time wasted. When she graduated at the end of 2019, she struggled to adjust to a world beyond the cushion of university drama: the access to venues, willing actors and financial support. Job opportunities and spots on training programmes were rare to appear and when they did were always ludicrously oversubscribed.

Six months later, she was just beginning to find her feet. “I realised that I had to make my own work, not wait for permission. I just needed to do it.” She set up the Factory Theatre Workshop with two friends, operating out of The Bomb Factory Art Foundation in Archway, and in February they put on their first show, an evening of new writing with the help of actor friends, that sold out the space. 

Then Covid hit, and Factory has not performed since. “I’m frustrated that I can’t practise the thing I want to get better at,” she says. “I just want to keep working at it and keep trying to improve, because I care about it so much.”

Philippa Lawford (l) says she 'doesn't know if I can call myself a director any more' Credit: Henry Ludlam Steinke

This year, she was determined to find her first gig as an assistant director to a professional London show, a vital rite of passage for any young director. 

“I wanted to do it within the first year, year and a half [after graduating], because otherwise, you worry people are going to ask, ‘Why haven’t you done that yet?’”

But of course, with no plays this year there has been nothing to assist on. She’s resorted to sending cold emails to directors who might have shows coming on at the end of this year or early in 2022. But she isn’t particularly optimistic.

“They don’t even know if their shows are going to go on. And if you’re looking for an assistant director now, in the unstable climate of trying to put on a play, you're so much less likely to take a chance on someone.”

Her frustration is palpable. “I have so much energy at this point in my life when I’ve just finished my degree and I don’t have many other responsibilities. I have so much energy to pour into this craft, to give it so much and really work at it. It feels very, very weird and depressing that that doesn’t seem to be an option.”

It’s not just their immediate age group that these young creatives are concerned for.

“The people that I feel most worried about are the 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds,” says Frankie. “Leaving school, they've already got this feeling that the world is ending. If they’re going into theatre, they're going to be told it’s an absolute non-starter, because it won’t exist in a couple of years. And that’s just – excuse my language – bullc--p.”

Alex, meanwhile, has sympathy for the cohort a few years above him. “I know people a couple of rungs above us who were about to have their first show at the Barbican, having worked the Fringe circuit for years. And I think that’s a much, much worse predicament. 

“These are people who, two years ago, were the cream of the crop: they’re going to be an actor, a director, a producer. But a lot of them have now quit, decided it’s not worth the toll it takes on their mental health. It’s not worth the limitations financially imposed upon you, basically having to moonlight and do a normal job and somehow hope that you'll be able to have the energy required to create.”

Who will be left at the end of the brain drain? Frankie worries it will be an all-too-narrow group. “It could be just the middle class [left], people who have parents to fund them – in which case, this industry becomes entirely one type of person, one type of story, and that there’s no point in that.”

Alex Rugman is working as a fry cook in a chicken shop Credit: Luke Wintour 

The good news is that none of them are devoid of optimism. “I’m quite stubbornly committed to trying to make it work,” says Alex. “I mean, hopefully I won’t be in a chicken shop in 10 years, but I’d rather I had a job and make ends meet – just about – and still at least be trying to do theatre.”

Interestingly, he sees some unexpected positives in the loss of the Fringe. “There’s been a bit of a discourse on theatre Twitter that instead of going to the Fringe, you could just burn five grand in a bin.”

With that option off the table for this year, many have begun to rethink how sensible an approach it really is.

“Even before [Covid] I think people were questioning the status quo of how you’re meant to make it. Now I feel like there’s less of an expectation to follow a particular path to become a professional.  

“I definitely feel a lot less confident about whether we want to go to the Fringe next summer. At this stage, you could just as easily come up with a really great idea for a bit of online content, which would get you a lot further than sitting in a room devising something, waiting for a rehearsal space to be legal. In a way, it has cleared the floor.”

These young theatre-makers are all doing their best not to waste this time: Philippa is doing a Masters to work on her writing, while Alex has spent much of the year rewriting and polishing his aborted big tech show. 

But make no mistake, the situation is critical. Are we content to leave the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge frying chicken or reliant on corporate bank sponsorship to make the rent? “It’s a mad decision to actively choose to go into the British theatre industry at the moment,” says Alex. “We might be looking at a lost generation.”