Socially engaged theatre at Edinburgh Fringe


This year’s Edinburgh Fringe has a preponderance of issue-based shows covering topics such as gender, race, disability, sexuality and equality. As the festival draws to a close, Kirin Saeed reflects on this trend of ‘socially engaged’ theatre at the Fringe.

Actor grabs another by the arm in My Left/Right Foot

My Left/Right Foot by Birds of Paradise covered issues such as ‘cripping up’ and the need to be seen as ‘PC’. Photograph: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

When I was asked to write an opinion piece on socially engaged practice, I firstly had to think about what this meant to me as an audience member, let alone a disabled campaigner. In essence, socially engaged practice is performance work that comments on or raises awareness about social issues around race, gender, disability sexuality and equality. So for me as an audience member it means learning more about other people’s opinions and experiences, in a safe environment.

I heard about the Sit-Up awards, which have been set up to help productions have a life after the Fringe or to enable them to raise awareness of a pertinent issue. The founder, David Graham in conjunction with the Fringe has produced some useful statistics.

A few stood out for me. One in particular, stated that over a quarter of theatre performances focus on socially engaged practice. The statistic shocked me as it was a lot higher than I would have imagined. Positive so far.

However, I was concerned that health and disability were lumped together under one category. It made me feel that we were going back to the bad old days of the medical model. I decided to follow this up. The response I got was that David had based the categories on his personal experience of his son acquiring his disability at the age of 23. But I was told it is something they will definitely consider splitting in the future.

So on from the stats. How do I, as a visually impaired patron, discover what is on offer when it comes to such issue-based shows? The Fringe brochure, in whatever format you get it in, is really difficult to navigate. Online you have to know the key words and phrases, dates or names of shows to get any useful hits. As for the print and braille versions, well they are just too big to manage!

My primary feeling is it is great to have such awards as Sit-Up but we need to help promote shows. Often the main way of promoting shows is handing out leaflets at the Fringe. This could leave some disability companies and audiences at a disadvantage. If you miss the floating leaflet tier or just haven’t put in the right words in the search engine, you won’t find the show that interests you.

So what can the Fringe or theatre companies do? Well perhaps link-up with the Fringe to work out the best words to use for people to easily discover their shows.

I also believe collaborative marketing between socially engaged theatre companies would be another way to help better promote shows. In working together we can achieve so much. We don’t really live our lives in isolation, and such shows don’t just tackle one issue such as race but could also have an element of gender and equality. After all, I am not just visually impaired, I’m also an Asian woman.

I believe that such shows do really need to be supported by funders, the Fringe and of course us as humble attendees. Especially at a time when money is ever decreasing, in a month when there is even greater competition than normal!

For me, socially engaged practice is one of the reasons why I go to the theatre. I don’t just want to be entertained. I want to be educated and informed. It is one of the ways I discover a variety of opinions in a short space of time.

One impact of such shows is that they empower us campaigners to increase our understanding and perhaps create effective policies or support new campaigns and hence make a real difference.

Here’s hoping that next year there are even more such shows at the Fringe.