Theatre Thoughts: London Fringe Theatre
I recently undertook a research degree, looking at New Writing and the place of Fringe Theatre in the wider theatre industry. I'm going to recreate parts of it in this blog, as all at once it might be a bit much!
I am interested in New Writing due to its variety of subject matter and style. There is a vast amount of new work being produced each year, and many academic courses for aspiring playwrights and directors. Theatre is a notoriously difficult industry in which to be successful, as Anna Furse states to Delgado and Svich: “…ironically performance studies, feeding an industry in which there is a ninety per cent unemployment rate, keeps drawing applicants….” ((FURSE) DELGADO&SVICH, P.71. 2002)
The Union Theatre
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It is difficult to state the importance of Fringe Theatres for the wider industry; they nurture the next generation of playwrights, directors and practitioners and allow for a wider scope on subject matter, style and content than many mainstream or commercial theatres could.
London fringe theatres are important in the new writing system because they are small venues whose low profile allows many young playwrights to start their careers in relative obscurity, making initial mistakes far from the public gaze. Staffed by unpaid volunteers and theatre eccentrics, the fringe is one of the glories of London’s can-do culture: in good years… it buzzes with creativity and innovation. SIERZ, P.34. 2011
There seems to be, recently, a growing appreciation for the relevance of Fringe Theatre. I personally feel that this may be due to the number of fringe productions in recent years that have made the transition from the fringe to West End theatres or national tours, which has generated more interest in what was previously seen as a niche area. Combine this with a generation who want everything yesterday, who want to be the first to experience an event, or to be able to say “I saw that when…”; and the opportunity to potentially see the stars of tomorrow, or next week’s big smash hit in a smaller, more intimate setting and the appeal is undeniable.
New work made up more than half of all productions staged in 2013, according to research into the output of 273 venues around the UK… The British Theatre Consortium… found that new work – including original plays, musicals, pantomime and opera – made up 59% of all productions, 66% of all performances, 63% of all seats sold and 66% of box office income… this is the first time since records have been kept that new work has overtaken the number of revivals staged.
The comparatively shorter lead times for fringe productions allow for an immediacy of response, which cannot be replicated with larger, commercial productions. As Michael Billington wrote in his Guardian blog, "...theatre rarely topples governments or incites direct action. What theatre can do is shift attitudes, articulate discontent, and reflect, often with microscopic accuracy, the mood of the nation." (BILLINGTON, 2007) This urgency of reflection is something that fringe theatre does incredibly well, and is another reason, I believe, for its widening appeal.
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As part of my research I interviewed practitioners, directors and writers who work within London's fringe scene. Although the range of responses varied greatly, the Participants all held similar views on the main themes: that Fringe Theatre is essential to the development of New Writing, encouraging writers and directors to develop work away from the mainstream, to take risks and to have the courage to potentially make mistakes. In this way, Fringe Theatres help to shape the future of commercial theatre and underpin the continuation of the theatre industry.
With the abolition of the Rep [repertory theatre companies] came the death of the versatile actor who would throw themselves into any role. As a result, new work which emerged in those times has had to find a home in the self-funded… fringe, which is now the last bastion for new, exciting theatre.
PARTICIPANT A, WRITER. 2015.
Both my interview subjects and the literature I read in support of my research, agreed that work which could be perceived as ‘challenging’ is largely restricted to the fringe theatre. Bennett states that “…theatre directed at exploited or underprivileged groups… has necessarily developed outside the conventional routes of production…” (BENNETT, P.116. 1990) so fringe theatres play a role in encouraging the staging of provocative plays. It is also a place where new writers can make their mark before transferring to the commercial sector, so in this way the fringe theatres nurture the next generation of playwrights.
Operation Crucible: premiered at the Finborough Theatre, then went on to a successful UK tour before heading back for a sold-out run at the Finborough.
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When I spoke with the participants they confirmed that during their time working within the industry, there has been an increase in the amount of New Writing being produced, but that the general feeling is that challenging work is being increasingly overlooked by commercial theatre and this was reflected through the literature sources; that while New Writing is flourishing, the larger, commercial sector, is still relying on revivals to bring in audiences.
…it seems that classics and revivals are still far more prevalent than genuinely brilliant new work. In the last five years [many movie stars] have had West End productions of Hamlet. I believe new work has very little impact on the wider industry until it becomes successful or it has a star getting naked. It’s a sad indictment that seemingly more people go to pantomime in one month than go to all theatre in rest of the year.
PARTICIPANT E. WRITER. 2015
There have been, and always will be, exceptions; for example “King Charles III” and “The Nether” were both examples of challenging, provocative new plays that enjoyed successful West End transfers (and a subsequent UK Tour in the case of the former): however these works originated in smaller, Off-West End and Fringe venues.
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However, the wider theatre industry still gives so much focus to big-budget, West End musicals, revivals of classics and ‘star’ performers.
The wider industry is ruled by punters, the punters want to see stars and shows they think they ‘should’ watch, therefore new work suffers.
PARTICIPANT A. WRITER. 2015
Musicals and West End Theatre attendance is currently the driving force behind commercial theatre. However from within the New Writing sector there was still cause for optimism:
I'm not looking out for trends in theatre or thinking about the sociology of the art form. In the end good work, one must believe, will always find an audience. We are all human beings with the need for story. Robert Lepage has said that if film is communication, theatre is communion. Well I think we need communion and people respond to it if it's offered in the right way.
PARTICIPANT D. DIRECTOR. 2015
There will always be New Writing, because there is always a new story that needs to be told.
PARTICIPANT D. DIRECTOR. 2015
Because of this perceived freedom with the subject matter of New Writing, it allows writers and directors be more spontaneous and honest, and therefore feel as though they can create change within their intended audiences. Fringe Theatres are not always answerable to share-holders or governing bodies, which means they can afford to take more risks with the material they choose to present, and can create their own artistic aesthetic:
I take risks. I take a risk every time I put a play on the stage, whether my own or someone else’s. But then that is what life is about – risk. If there’s no risk, then there’s no worth, in my opinion.
PARTICIPANT F, DIRECTOR. 2015
For the Practitioners I interviewed, Fringe Theatre is integral to the continuation of New Writing, and therefore holds great relevance to the rest of the theatre industry. Writers feel that they can be more truthful when not catering directly to audience demographics, and therefore they may be able to make a more honest connection with their audiences.
Bennett, S. 1990. Theatre Audiences. London: Routledge
Billington, M. 2007. Lifting The Curtain [ONLINE] Available at http://bit.ly/1OnVOoa [Accessed 27 November 15]
Delgado, M & Svich, C. 2002. Theatre In Crisis? Manchester: Manchester University Press
Hemley, M. 2015. New Work Has Overtaken Revivals… [ONLINE] Available at http://bit.ly/1YQOI20[Accessed 15 August 15]
Sierz, A. 2011. Rewriting The Nation. London: Methuen Drama