How dull is the London fringe?

Convener(s): Ed Jaspers

Participants: Antonio Ferrara, Rebecca Maltby, Sally Christopher, Tom Akins, Ed Rashbrooke, Alison M

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

-           In layman’s terms, the fringe is any non-funded, non-commercial theatre.

  • There is a noticeable division between venues which have artistic directors and/or a clear artistic policy and venues which are spaces for hire.

-           Such venues are perhaps more ‘off West End’ than ‘fringe’. They include Soho, Bush, Young Vic, Gate, Tricycle, 503, Finborough, BAC, Southwark Playhouse

  • Theatre 503 happens to be above a pub but also an agenda, two artistic directors and a mission statement to program new writing. Similarly, the Gate and Bush are ‘pub theatres’ but punch above their weight in terms of press coverage, the artists they can attract and often the work that they produce.

-           Theatre 503 has the maxim ‘Fearless New Theatre’ but is in practice as guilty as many others of playing it safe.

  • Venues like the Hen & Chickens, the Canal Café, the Brockley Jack, Old Red Lion, White Bear, Greenwich Playhouse are more akin to (expensive) rooms for hire, in which people perform theatre.
  • The fringe seems dull when it is nothing more than a staging house for people who want to progress on to jobs in mainstream, better-funded theatre. Too often tries to be the little brother of the West End or other more mainstream models.
  • The fringe is a big training ground for people who’ll go on to work in bigger buildings and companies. But is this a good thing. Does the work become oriented towards CV points and job applications rather than artistic excellence? It could be seen either way. Wanting to progress to great work later in your career shouldn’t stop you being excellent at what you do now.
  • The fringe (Edinburgh) was originally a reaction against the mainstream. The current London fringe is set up to imitate the mainstream. Maybe the real fringe today exists underground and in squat parties. Punchdrunk are an example of a company that in its early stages steered clear of the conventional fringe.

-           The Burning Man Festival is another interesting counterpoint. Set up so that no money changes hands. Location-specific events that are planned only to a minimal extent. Event evolves as it occurs and ends in a huge party.

  • Perhaps London just isn’t ‘fringe-friendly’?

-           Rehearsal space, performance space and rents are so expensive in London that being experimental, or putting on a piece at all, is often a daunting prospect.

  • And audiences are easily put off if they suspect a show that is experimental or unconventional will be pretentious.
  • It’s difficult for audiences to take risks with what they see because going to see work is such a big effort. It isn’t like Edinburgh where the theatre during the festival is relatively centralised, or like other smaller European cities. Geographically, London is a difficult and expensive city to get around.
  • The fringe venues need to look towards their local audience, something which BAC has done particularly well. The frequent situation where the audience is made up of other theatre professionals could be changed if the local audience feels more inclined to attend the venue, or feels a certain ownership of its programme. This is more likely to work than luring people across town. We should lower the stakes for the audience, make taking a punt on a new work ‘no big deal’.

You need to be an established company to get people there.

            It costs a lot of money to set it up properly.

            And time to make it officially compliant.

  • The original fringe no longer exists. No one is rebelling. Has there been an element of self-censorship in the way we play it safe? Perhaps we’re now entering a radical phase where a new sense of urgency will make it more dynamic. This might have happened, but didn’t, in the aftermath of the controversial ACE funding cuts. Periods of recession and instability are often (romantically?) seen as ‘good for art’.
  • Perhaps the ‘mainstream’ has taken the sting out of rebellion. As an example, the Scottish Parliament commissioned a performance of Black Watch for one of its openings.
  • Similarly, is experimentation being warped to mean big-budget work by big companies using expensive multi-media, rather than simple innovation at a grass roots level?

-           Wouldn’t it be great to have a London fringe festival that concentrates events in one area and for a limited period? Something that aims to rekindle a fringe spirit and isn’t merely a smaller version of the mainstream.