Edinburgh Festival Awards

The Award Producers: Jo Crowley and Becki Haines from the Total Theatre Awards

Published on Thursday 9 August 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves. This includes the people who run some of the big award programmes that take place during the Festival each year – this time the the Total Theatre Awards.

First launched in 1997, the Total Theatre Awards are organised at the Festival each year by the Total Theatre Network. They put the spotlight on the Fringe’s dance and theatre programmes, and in particular performers and performances that play with genres and artform, and shows that are devised, or immersive, or site specific, or involve dance, mime, movement or elements of clowning or circus.

It’s a wide remit and hundred of shows are eligible each year. Therefore the award’s organisers have to organise an extensive judging process, which has two stages and involves numerous producers, performers, directors and critics, who see eligible shows and debate at length which are offering that total theatre experience.

The whole operation is now run by co-directors Jo Crowley and Becki Haines who explain more.

TW: Tell us a little about Total Theatre and the awards. When and why were they set up?
JC+BH: The Total Theatre Network – started almost 30 years ago as the Mime Action Group – is a membership organisation for those interested in the European traditions of physical and visual theatre. At the time of its launch, the founders believed these forms were not being properly recognised in the UK, because the British theatre establishment was very much focused on playwriting.

Having evolved over the decades, the Total Theatre Network is now focussed on supporting independent artists and the artistic process across a breadth of practice, form and genre. We endeavour to give visibility and provide opportunity for the independent performance community to be recognised, to become sustainable and to thrive.

We do this by identifying, celebrating and giving visibility to exceptionally talented artists; by providing networking and professional development activities for independent practitioners; and by playing a critical role in exploring artistic excellence, evolving form and developing understanding of an ever-changing contemporary performance landscape.

The Total Theatre Awards at the Edinburgh Festival is one of the key activities through which we pursue all this. Established in 1997, this is the nineteenth year of the awards.

TW: What are the awards primarily looking to celebrate?
JC+BH: The awards focus on artists and companies who are innovating beyond the classical cannon and new writing – so working within the fields of devised theatre, live art, visual performance, mime, puppetry, physical theatre, experimental theatre, dance, clown, circus, street, immersive, outdoor, site specific performance and more.

We’re interested in the new, the unknown, the innovative, and cross artform and hybrid work. Through our process of assessment and judging, we place a special emphasis on exploring difficult issues and the spaces in between established performance forms where innovative new creative practices, approaches and models are emerging.

TW: You present a number of awards each year. What are the categories?
JC+BH: Yes, we generally present around seven awards across five categories. First, there is the Emerging award, supported by Theatre Deli, for an artist or company in the first four years of their practice. Second, the Dance award, supported by The Place. Third, the Circus award, supported by Jacksons Lane. Fourth, Physical & Visual. And fifth, the award for Innovation, Experimentation & Playing With Form.

We also give a Significant Contribution Award to an artist, company or organisation in recognition of a considerable contribution to the independent and artist-led theatre sector, landscape, ecology and practice.

TW: How does the judging process work each year?
JC+BH: There are two stages to the Total Theatre Awards process, with two groups of people considering shows, the ‘assessors’ and the ‘judges’.

In the first stage, 25 assessors view over 500 productions over an eleven day period. Every two days the assessors meet to share views and responses to the shows they have seen and recommend shows to move forward.

Recommended, contested and curious shows are then seen again by a second, and sometimes a third and even a fourth assessor, before being brought back to the meetings for further discussion.

At the end of that eleven day assessment process – and following 35 hours of dynamic and rigorous discussion and debate in meetings – the group collectively and democratically shortlist the best shows.

On average about 30 shortlisted shows are put forward to a second panel of up to 25 judges to consider, grouped into the five award categories. The judges repeat the assessment process with the shortlisted shows and then, seven days later, seven awards across the five categories are presented.

TW: Who are the judges? How do you recruit them?
JC+BH: We put together the assessment and judging panels each year, ensuring both have a good range of skills, experience, expertise and artform specialisms.

The assessors and judges we invite to join the process are drawn from the UK and international theatre community and include critics, international festival directors, funders, artists, academics, producers and programmers.

In terms of recruiting these people, we make an open call for assessors each year. We also have had a number of partnerships with UK and international organisations that support participation in this process. For example, last year we collaborated with the Flanders Arts Institute, Belgian Government and British Council.

This year we have partnerships with National Theatre Wales, Puppet Animation Scotland, The Empty Space and Fanrham Maltings, via which a number of established and talented emerging practitioners and producers have been brought into the process.

TW: What are the judges looking for? 
JC+BH: Collectively we’re looking to explore, identify and give recognition to excellence and evolving form in contemporary performance, and to spot future potential and game changing artists. To help with that process, all assessors and judges are asked to consider a number of specific areas when they are assessing a show.

That includes: the intention behind the work as evident in the performance; the rigour with which the production is made; the craft and skills employed; the structure; the relationship between form and content; consideration of the audience; the risks and challenges the show takes and embraces; and the forms used and the success with which it brings together these various elements.

We are also keen to understand particular issues and challenges that arise from comparing work from different cultures and we seek to identify these through the various meetings and conversations our assessors and judges take part in.

TW: What makes for a winning show?
By exploring work by professional artists and companies at various stages in their professional development, we endeavour to identify emerging artistic talent and form whilst noticing shifts and changes in contemporary performance. Because it is a consistently shifting territory, it’s impossible to say one or even five things that make for an award winning show.

It’s a consistently shifting landscape and it’s only through the rigour of a democratic process of dialogue and debate between a wide group of judges that an award winning show comes through.

TW: How have the awards evolved over the years?
JC+BH: The rigour of the process through which we view work and engage in informed discussion and debate with a range of voices has significantly developed over the years. This has been possible as our understanding of the role Total Theatre plays in supporting and championing independent and artist-led work has grown.

For independent artists and companies, being nominated for or receiving a Total Theatre Award is a now significant mark of achievement. Our shortlist is highly influential, with identified work being exposed to audiences and industry alike, and subsequently going on to populate theatres and reach audiences nationally and internationally.

Furthermore the artist-focused, peer-led process that we now go through each year allows a range of theatre practitioners to engage in in-depth discussion and debate about excellence.

TW: How has the Festival evolved during the time the Total Theatre Awards have been presented?
JC+BH: We have been working on the awards for ten years and running them for six years. In this time, we’ve seen waves and patterns, of form and practice, of popularities and debates. We’ve also been lucky to have partnerships that allowed us to explore the developments of particular artforms at the Festival alongside our reoccurring categories.

But the most distinctive shift in the last two years, maybe three, has been an increasingly vocal conversation about difference. Different opinions and different communities. Not looking to agree, but looking to better understand one another. This is the freedom of the independent artistic voice, to document the ‘now’ and to challenge what’s going on in our very immediate and shared futures.

TW: As you said, your focus if usually on theatre experiences beyond the more conventional form – so physical and devices work, dance, mime and site specific work. Is the Edinburgh Fringe a good place to perform these kinds of shows? 
JC+BH: The Edinburgh Fringe is a permit-free festival, which means the voices presented here are uncensored. The shows are bold, brave and take risks. That’s what makes Edinburgh a unique place to perform and see work.

TW: Those artforms cut across various sections of the Fringe Programme. How do you find that work? How can theatre goers find that work?
JC+BH: The work seen and discussed by the Total Theatre Awards assessors is found in three ways. First, we have an an open registration system via which artists and companies can register their shows to be seen. Second, we read the Fringe Programme from cover to cover to identify work that fits our criteria. And third, we have a series of conversations with advisors across the Festival.

Audiences can then get to know some of this work through our shortlist, which is announced after the first eleven days of the Festival, so this year on 16 Aug. Some 25-35 shows are selected through the assessment process, and this list is sent to the press and distributed all around the Festival before we enter our judging phase, meaning audience members can also try to see these productions.

TW: Do you think awards play an important role at the Edinburgh Fringe?
JC+BH: We will only ever turn up here so long as we’re relevant! At the moment, we recognise artists and work that others don’t and we rigorously search the Festival for work that’s unknown.

Total Theatre is also the only awards focused on these artforms that has a peer-led process, with debate and dialogue across a curated group of more than 50 industry peers and more than 35 hours of conversation. This collective decision is what makes our awards so distinctive.

TW: What have been the highs and lows of presenting the awards over the years?
JC+BH: Challenges include language and the translation of work in the margins. And, of course, money! The highs are always the voices of exceptional artists and what they introduce to the landscape that doesn’t already exist. And the passion and generosity our assessors and judges bring to the process, helping us to understand one another while we inevitably compare chalk and cheese. And, finally, mapping the route nominated and winning artists take in the years that follow as they go on to populate stages, create further work and make their change in the world somehow.

LINKS: totaltheatrenetwork.org