What defines fringe theatre? It’s such a vast landscape the possibilities are endless. Location, radicalism, financial constraints, the imagination born from those financial constraints – each answer has passionate advocates who constantly use their opinions as barometers to announce either its death or rude health.
I’m as much of an idealist as anyone but I’m starting to feel that in order to get anywhere with this question we need to stop speaking about the fringe as an exhaustive whole and focus on what defines good fringe venues. In doing so I think you can define the fringe because what unifies this eclectic mix of venues is a strong sense of identity.
Whilst their glitzy counterparts on Shaftesbury Avenue house a fluffy musical one moment and the new David Hare the next, the fringe is able to provide what its closest Off-West End neighbours do – committed, holistic programming. Many are both receiving and producing houses through necessity. But those with strong enough reputations are able to pick from appropriate work, work which is as strengthened by its association with the venue as the venue is by the quality of its programming.
As such the Finborough is known by new writers as being as safe a pair of hands as the Royal Court, whilst the Union’s hit rate for new musicals is as high as the Menier’s. The Yard Theatre is producing experimental work that is as exciting as The Barbican while a recent production of The Duchess of Malfi at The White Bear was as rigorous and insightful as any National Theatre revival.
Venues with a strong artistic identity are what the fringe offers that the West End doesn’t
Though resources vary wildly what binds these venues together is a strong artistic identity which enables consistent programming. This consistency builds trust with both artists and audiences, encouraging chances to be taken and bold work to be made and seen.
This is when the fringe is at its most vital. Whether it is in reinterpreting the classics, explosive performance art or premiering a new musical, venues with a strong identity – where audiences are more likely to take a punt on something new – is what this environment can offer.
That a distinctive identity is necessary is proven when you look at venues that have struggled in the past. The Tristan Bates Theatre has a dream location smack in the centre of town. But with a vague artistic mandate and schizophrenic programme it’s an unknown entity that is hardly spoken of, let alone attended.
In a landscape of more than 80 venues and growing, this wishy-washy mentality stops them from being a positive alternative to anything, even the dusty plays of their West End neighbours. It’s only to be hoped that new producers Ben Monks and Will Young can give it some much needed direction.
Venues with a strong artistic identity are what the fringe offers that the West End doesn’t. It’s this collective sense of identity – whatever, artistically, that may be – that binds the fringe together and makes it such an essential part of our vibrant theatre ecology.