Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?
Hello! I'm Xela Batchelder. I run two organisations, one in the arts, and one which is more arts education travel. I am also a university professor.
The arts organisation I run is the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, and the other is Fringe University. Pittsburgh Fringe is an open access performing arts festival in the city of Pittsburgh that takes place in early April. Last year we had 105 performances of 49 different shows in 4 days. We attract performers from all over the US (New York City to LA, and Orlando to Detroit), and give a wonderful platform for local performers.
I have been attending and working at the Edinburgh Fringe for over 25 years now (now the largest annual event in the entire world!). I’ve been a venue manager, producer, playwright, and multiple other roles at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Since I am very education oriented, I realised how much students could learn at this festival. People from all over the world congregate in Edinburgh in August, and I saw the festival as the most amazing interactive classroom in the world, so I started Fringe University.
Fringe University helps professors use the festival as a classroom. As the largest event in the world, it can be intimidating to arrange to bring your students to the festival. Because my team and I have so many years of experience at the festival, we can help professors with everything from creating a syllabus to finding housing. We do all the logistics so professors can concentrate on learning from and enjoying the festival with their students.
What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?
The structure of my day evolves around my classes, as those are always set in stone, but the time around my classes changes all the time. Closer to the festival I’m doing a lot more festival work around my professor duties, and in the summer I do a lot more planning for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
For the Pittsburgh Fringe I spend a lot of time working with venues, and helping them book artists. I help the artists navigate the logistics of the festival from the application process, to finding a venue, to giving them advice on marketing and technical issues. I work on the backend online systems for the festival itself and trying to improve those, planning overall festival marketing campaigns, meeting with future artists and partners, working with and training the volunteers, and many more things.
For Fringe University I talk with professors, book housing, give advice on syllabi, organise guest speakers, and day trips in Scotland to help them plan a trip that works for them. Some groups perform at the festival as part of the learning experience, so then I end up acting as a producer, marking manager, and PR agent for those shows.
What’s great about your job?
I love working with students, and especially teaching through doing. Often I help students learn Arts Management and Entrepreneurialism by having them manage aspects of the Pittsburgh Fringe or Fringe University. The students are rarely given opportunities to be in charge while they are at university, and I love being able to give them those opportunities. I started as an undergrad, so I know students are capable if they are only given a chance.
I also love working with the local community and bringing people together to help grow the community through arts. I love working with artists and giving them opportunities to perform that they might not otherwise have. The other aspect of Fringe that I love, is that it puts the power of curation in the hands of the audience. We assemble and organise a wide range of art, and allow the audience to select and choose what they want to see. This puts the power of the arts into the hands of the local community, artists and audience members.
At Fringe University, I love introducing students to the Edinburgh Fringe, and all the learning experiences that come with it. I always enjoy talking with the students near the end of the festival and finding out what their take-away moment has been. They always learn more than I plan or expect them to learn, simply because there is just so many amazing learning experiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
What are the bits you don’t like or find challenging?
It is always difficult to get motivated to do the dull repetitive tasks that are often required in management. However, when you remember the bigger picture, and how these dull little tasks are helping people, it does help to motivate me.
What are the highlights of your career to date?
I am always humbled and honoured that other organisations ask me to speak to their organisation members, and I am amazed that I can teach people beyond my students about what I love.
How did you get into an arts job? Have you also worked outside the arts?
Even when I didn’t have a pay job in the arts, I always did what I loved on the side, and sure enough eventually I was able to turn what I loved into a pay job. That doesn’t mean everything I do now is paid, I still do a lot of what I love on the side unpaid, but you never know where it is going to take you, and if you love doing it – you should just do it.
Can you describe your biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge for me has always been people not understanding what I do or why I do it. And in that same vain, is trying to get people to understand what Fringe Festivals are, and why they are important to the eco-system of the arts.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry? If so, what?
Absolutely! Fringe Festivals in the US have grown so much since I first started doing the Edinburgh Fringe 25 years ago. They were just barely starting in the US back then, and now they are popping up all over the US. There are now over 50 fringe festivals in the US.
You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?
I was very shy growing up, and it took me way too long to learn how important networking is. After forcing myself to push through the panic attacks and social anxiety I had at meetings and conferences, I am now much better at it. And now that I have been doing it for a while, I am able to see how all the connections have come together to create new opportunities, or to help other people find new opportunities.
So now I really emphasise to my students how important networking is, and I work with them to find and attend new networking events and opportunities relevant to them. But I do understand that until you experience some of the benefits, and start seeing how these connections work out in the future (some of which can take years to really take effect) - it is difficult for them to really understand the importance of it.
Anyway, I would have told my 16-year-old self to start working through my fears, and that meeting new people does get easier the more you do it. There are so many amazing people out there, and it is such a privilege to get to know more of them!
Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?
The best advice I was ever given is, “if you don’t have the job you love, make it.” So I encourage young people (and older folks!) to create the company or organisation that they want to work for, and to take charge of their own destiny.