Forest Fringe: Evolving Field of adventure

Matt Trueman
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As Forest Fringe prepares to take up a two-week residency at the Gate Theatre, Matt Trueman talks to the organisation’s co-artistic director, Andy Field, about spreading its wings beyond Edinburgh

When talking about their artform, passion comes easily to young theatre makers. However, few can match Andy Field for effortless precision. At only 28, the co-artistic director of Forest Fringe is regularly invited to give presentations or join panel discussions at major arts policy events. He deals in difficult, slippery ideas that would, in lazier minds or mealier mouths, come across as naive, hippyish ideals.

Yet Field not only pins them down, always qualifying to make himself perfectly clear, he makes them seem grounded and achievable. Conversations with him leave you energised and inspired to consider the alternatives. It is not hard to understand why, in 2009, he and co-director Deborah Pearson became two of the youngest ever entrants in The Stage’s list of 100 influential figures in UK theatre. Field was all of 25.

They were included, of course, because of Forest Fringe, which had hosted its second programme above the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh the previous August. That it existed, let alone found an exciting line-up and an eager audience, proved the possibility of alternative models against the supposedly fixed – and increasingly commercial – framework of the Edinburgh Fringe. There were no venue hire or programme fees, no fixed slots, no frantic five-minute get-ins and no 50-word blurbs. Every event was free, with audiences invited to donate to the artists afterwards. It received a Herald Angel and a Special Mention at the Peter Brook Awards, which they would later win outright.

In fact, the previous year – its first – had been a low-key affair. Pearson had run it single-handedly, and Field was one of a handful of artists showing work. They agreed to co-direct another programme for 2008. “No one really heard about it in the first year,” he says, quite matter of fact. “At that stage we didn’t have a theatre licence. It was very unstrategic; just an opportunity that arose which Debbie decided to take.”

In fact, Field believes this has proved Forest Fringe’s key asset, allowing it to adapt in accordance with the needs of contributing artists. “We never had an agenda for it, so it’s developed more like a theatre company than a venue. Over time, it’s sort of matured like an organism.”

“There’s very little infrastructure beyond the artists themselves, so we can shape to fit them,” he explains.

Five years on, Forest Fringe is facing a very different set of circumstances. First and foremost, it faces the prospect of homelessness. The Forest Cafe was granted a stay of execution last year, after the charity that owns it went bust in October 2010, but has now lost its lease entirely. Currently, Assembly is in negotiations to buy the building in Bristo Place, formerly the Edinburgh Congressional Church, with local restaurateur Malcolm Innes.

The Forest has two potential new locations, which Field says “will afford new challenges and new opportunities.” While Forest Fringe will have a presence this year, it will be on a reduced scale. A hiatus was always planned. Pearson is taking a sabbatical to get married and the Olympics add uncertainty, but mostly Field wants to avoid “the gruesome unending cycle where you have to come back bigger and better each year. The fringe is really guilty of measuring footfall in ticket sales and saying success is measured by perpetual growth, so we’re taking a breather to assess where we’re at and what we need to do.”

Ultimately, for Field, Forest Fringe is not the important thing – the artists are. “It’s less a brand than a kitemark,” he says, “and less a kitemark than a club with a very open-door policy. Forest Fringe has become a useful collective noun for the artists we work with.”

They are increasingly central to the organisation. Two years ago, with regular arts council funding a possibility, Field and Pearson sat down to work out where to go next. “The challenge was to manage getting bigger without losing what made it good in the first place,” he says. “In the end, we decided that what Forest Fringe did was provide a different relationship with and context for artists. So we decided to invite artists to facilitate any growth themselves.”

Contributing artists have always volunteered with the running of the Edinburgh venue, doing stints on box office or cleaning the toilets, but last August, the Edinburgh programme was largely curated by core artists. That model continues for the forthcoming two-week residency at the Gate Theatre this April. “We want to hand over the means of production to the workers, as it were,” Field half-jokes.

The attitude ‘What do you want? How can we make it happen?’ continues to change Forest Fringe’s output.

“This really exciting generation of artists now want to head out internationally and there is interest in them doing so. Forest Fringe can provide a context and a means of them doing so.” Last February, supported by the British Council, Forest Fringe ran its first microfestival overseas, taking over Culturgest in Lisbon for two days.

“It’s a creative project in its own right. An adventure. So if any opportunity presents itself and strikes us as valuable for artists and for audiences, then, yeah, we’ll give it a shot,” he says.

“Equally,” he continues, “when it stops being useful or interesting or vital, people will leave and it will stop. There’s no reason to keep it going for longer than necessary. That’s really important. Too many arts organisations go on longer than they should. That’s not necessarily their fault. It’s that people don’t value the temporary; the value of something that happens fleetingly, but is exactly the right thing at that moment and for its own lifespan.”

* Forest Fringe will be at the Gate Theatre, London from April 9-21

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