Phil Willmott: Let’s be proud of fringe theatre again

Louisa Lytton and John Last in A Broken Rose. Photo: Scott Rylander Louisa Lytton and John Last in A Broken Rose. Photo: Scott Rylander
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I’ve been thinking it’s time we became proud of the words ‘fringe theatre’ again.

It’s a sad fact that there are a gazillion more people who want to make their living in theatre than the industry’s commercial and subsidised sector can sustain. For many of us, at some time or another in our working lives, there’s no alternative but to volunteer our downtime to be in fringe shows if we want to play a great role, work on a great play, bulk up our CV and showcase our talents.

We need to start celebrating the productions we make under such circumstances. And we need to find new ways to promote them so they are seen by theatregoers as an exciting and enticing alternative to the mainstream. It’s not the fault of this generation’s arts editors and critics – they’re increasingly beleaguered, their income and the space in which they can write is dwindling to the extent that it’s actually quite difficult to know what’s on beyond a handful of favoured venues.

So how did we get to this state of affairs where fringe theatre has become virtually invisible and has vanished from most theatregoers’ consciousness?

You used to be able to guarantee about four reviews

When I started making fringe theatre in the early 1990s, you could pretty much guarantee a review in City Limits, Time Out, the Evening Standard and The Guardian, and you could build a reputation and base a career on the profile this got you. Then, two incredibly destructive things happened that remain corrosive to this day.

Firstly, the star rating system, which we all know is awful (leading to snap evaluations for ticket buyers based on a graphic and not a considered reading of the review). But also Time Out’s theatre pages, under the editorship of Jane Edwardes, decided to divide anything outside the West End into ‘Off-West End’ or ‘fringe’ for the purposes of listings. (In those days the magazine had lots of space to cover theatre and was a powerful force. Venues and productions would stand or fall based on Edwards’ support or disinterest.)

Suddenly, we were all pitched into a mentality where there was a premier league, first division and second division, with everybody scrabbling to climb the ladder and not be relegated to the fringe category, with the resulting lack of press attention and sales.

Up until this point, fringe was not a pejorative term. It didn’t mean shoddy, second rate, amateurish – as it’s regarded now. We had the London Fringe Awards and we were proud to win and be nominated for our fringe work, because it meant we were an edgy, dangerous and exciting alternative to the commercial work in the West End.

Since the invention of Off-West End, everybody’s been screaming that their production or venue falls into this category, desperate to be regarded in the same light as Shaftesbury Avenue.

Hire costs of spaces regarded by critics as Off-West End rocketed and lesser venues were left in the wilderness to wither and die thanks to the resulting lack of press coverage and consequently puny audiences.

Who’d want a London Fringe award for, say, acting now? An actor would regard such an accolade as an insult.

I’d love to see us proud of being an alternative to the West End again. Yet in London at present, if you’re an unknown company with no track record, your only hope of consumer press coverage is if you can afford to hire an expensive Off-West End venue. And often these venues are so costly and have so few seats that it’s impossible to make the money back, even if you sell out.

Obviously review space is tight, and getting tighter by the week. Critics and arts editors have to be selective. But while fringe continues to be a dirty word in London, I’m afraid everyone’s press coverage here (and subsequently their audience) will be dependent on how mainstream they can afford to appear.