When it comes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, there are only a handful of "name brand" producers. Known for their artistic taste and production style, the presence of one of these individuals often holds similar weight to the reputation of a productions venue, with some audience members making a point of seeing anything their favorite producer puts their name to.
One of these individual producers, Guy Masterson, has been building name recognition since the 1990s. And his name just got even more recognizable: Masterson made his Broadway debut last month directing The Shark Is Broken on Broadway—which he helped premiere at the Fringe in 2019.
But as Masterson's 29th year on the Fringe comes to a close, where he produced four shows, he's making a startling declaration. "I've already committed to coming back next year, and I will deliver. But I know it's going to be my last—the big 30." Masterson himself seems startled at the announcement, exhaling swiftly. "Wow, I've said it. I've said it out loud!"
Masterson is something of a legend on the Fringe: beginning in 1994, he became synonymous with complex single actor plays at the festival, when his own solo performance in Under Milk Wood returned to Edinburgh that summer after premiering in February. That same season, he also directed Playing Burton, a one-man show about the life of actor Richard Burton as played by the Welsh actor Josh Richards, with both shows later transferring to London and enjoying successful tours of the U.K. While he has directed and produced a number of larger cast productions over the last 29 years (including the mega successful all comedian production of 12 Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Christian Slater, and a rotating cast production of The Odd Couple that became the most successful theatrical production in Fringe history), Masterson's name remains indelibly linked to solo shows in the eyes of the Fringe public.
"It wasn't ever my ambition to do that," Masterson explains. "It wasn't my intention to be a producer or a director, really. I'm an actor. But to then have that happen...it was lovely."
In all, Masterson has guided well over 150 shows to the Fringe, including 4 solo productions in 2023: Picasso: Le Monstre Sacre starring Peter Tate; The Devil's Passion starring Justin Butcher; Manifest Destiny's Child starring Dennis Trainor, Jr.; and Kravitz, Cohen, Bernstein & Me starring Deb Filler.
"I do love the form," Masterson details, referring to the art of solo performance. "As a performer and as a director and a writer, I love it. It gives the biggest lesson you can ever learn as an actor, which is to think on stage by yourself. You learn how to work an audience, you learn how to handle the energy, and they're things, by the end, that you're no longer scared of it."
In fact, Masterson says that solo work is "better than going to drama school," then emphasizing, for good measure, "There's my statement: I love it, and better you do a solo show than pay into drama school."
Recently, Masterson guided his first production to Broadway, The Shark is Broken. Originally premiering at the Fringe in 2019, the play had already enjoyed a successful West End production before transferring to Broadway. Coming back to the Fringe after bringing the three hander to New York, has been a powerful reminder for Masterson about what makes Edinburgh different from any other artistic environment.
"There is kind of an internal market here—of artists, supporting artists, community feel—which I think is huge, and beautiful. You meet them in the Assembly bar, or you meet them in the courtyard, and you talk, and you come up with an idea. And next thing you know, you're finding a way to work together."
That is why Masterson makes a point of opening himself up to the younger talent on the Fringe, fostering the next generation of artists. "There was a young artist from New York, and she had this piece that was really esoteric, and odd. She sought me out and asked me to come, so I found a time when I could go see her late in the festival. And I saw what was really a confused show, but she was brilliant. The idea was brilliant. So I said, 'Let's go to Italy, and do a week of intense work.'" Masterson has a friend with a house there and after that week, the show had found its footing. "That's purely because you can be open collaborators at the Fringe. That's what Edinburgh does so well." Masterson couldn't say who that artist was or if he is planning on putting her show up, but judging by his excitement discussing their work together, we will be keeping an eye out for it. It certainly speaks to Masterson's dedication as a collaborator.
When Masterson produces on the Fringe, he puts his everything into his productions. It's no small thing because at the Fringe, an artist is responsible for venue fees, marketing, lodging, travel, and the production costs. As inflation has swept across the entire world, the arts have been equally affected, as it has become more expensive to produce shows anywhere. “It’s a very, very difficult place to be, unless you just have the money to match your dreams," Masterson admits. "You treat Fringe as a loss leader, you know, ’I’m investing in my future, and I’m gonna give my all.’” Sometimes, taking a financial risk to put a show up properly on the Fringe doesn't pan out (Masterson had to declare bankruptcy after a particularly difficult period in the early 2000s). But other times, it leads to new heights, such as The Shark is Broken. Each show is a gamble.
Over the years, Masterson has picked up a swarm of accolades for his work, including nods from the Drama League Awards, the Olivier Awards, the Stage Awards, and more. After dedicating himself totally to the Fringe as his home front, deciding on his final season was not an easy decision.
"I'm exhausted. But, you know, talking about stopping makes me realize what it is that I love about it," he muses. "It's a very odd conundrum. Next year will be my last as a producer, but if I'm invited to perform or direct, I will certainly consider it." Masterson pauses before continuing on. "Fringe is a testament to what us animals can do, and the dreams that can open up. So long as Edinburgh has something to offer, in terms of the dreams and aspirations of young artists, then I will always be willing to consider it."
Read more of Playbill's on-the-ground coverage of the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe here.