What runs for three weeks, is guaranteed to piss people off, to make them laugh and think, and features thousands of performers from around the world? The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Originally conceived as an alternate theatre festival, it now includes representatives from all areas of the performance arts. This year’s festival is composed of around 50% theatre, with the balance made up from comics, dance, and music.
In 1947, the Edinburgh Festival was established as a means of reuniting Europe through culture. With hopes of cashing in on the attendant publicity and press, six Scottish and two English theatre companies showed up uninvited. Thus the alternate festival was born on the “fringes” of the official event.
Now fifty-eight years old, it’s no longer as fly-by-night, but performances still happen in the unlikeliest of places. Bars, church basements, high school auditoriums, the street and, even the occasional theatre have all hosted Fringe events. Sometimes content and location meet in a jarring fashion forcing a quick rescheduling of venues; Lady Chatterley’s Lover was considered a little too risqué for the basement of a Catholic Church.
Until 1968, all scripts to be performed had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, to assure these outsiders did not cross the boundaries of moral decency. Even this protective measure hasn’t prevented attempts by outside agencies to ban productions. From the police, to trade unions, and church groups, they have all had a go at stopping shows. As is the case, the most effective means of censorship is staying away from a performance.
I’m sure that a lot of you are wondering, what exactly is “fringe” theatre? What seems like a straightforward question has a fair number of answers. If it is considered to be on the outskirts of what is considered “normal” theatre, then it obviously changes with the times. Less then two hundred years ago Opera as we know it today was considered revolutionary and fringe, with performances being banned because they caused riots or incited dissension.
Content that would have been found offensive or subversive twenty to thirty years ago is now perfectly acceptable, but the “fringe” movement maintains its momentum and continues to expand. What then keeps audiences and performers attending and creating for Fringe Festivals around the world? What makes it so unique?
Having been involved with the operation of a short-lived fringe theatre festival, and from working on the fringes of Canadian theatre for ten years, I have formulated a couple of opinions about its ongoing attraction to audiences and performers.
Theatre, like film, is an art form dependant on audiences for their survival. If no one comes to a your shows the company won’t be around for very long. Theatres are constrained by their interpretation of audience expectations. For the most part, they believe they have to stay within certain boundaries or risk alienating customers.
If a company finds a formula that works to attract an audience, they will stick with it, even long past the point of it going stale. A summer stock theatre would never dream of performing anything more challenging than light musical comedies because history has shown them that’s what people want.
Even not-for-profit companies, which are supposedly the home of new and alternate theatre, who receive government funding, still depend on their box office for a healthy percentage of their revenues. They can only be as innovative as their audience will allow them to be.
Fringe performances have no such restraints. Either because they are one-off companies put together for that show alone, or small enough that overhead is not a consideration, their box office receipts are of less consequence. Most companies simply hope to cover the costs of being at the festival, and the travelling to get there.
It’s amazing what can be created when theatre people are given their heads. Like thoroughbred horses let loose on the backstretch, the explosion of energy is a wonder. Playwrights try out new works, performers push themselves past previous limits, and experimentation is the norm not the exception. Artistic and societal boundaries are not just pushed but end up broken in pieces on the floor.
Half of the fun of a fringe festival is not knowing anything about the work you are going to see. Even the most horrendous flop is redeemed by the fact it was a failed effort at something new and different. The sheer numbers of performances guarantees that you’ll see as many magnificent failures as successful experiments.
Theatre depends heavily on its relationship with the audience. For a performance to be able to take on a life beyond the proscenium arch, through what is known as the fourth wall of the stage, a connection must be made between actors and audience. Without that bond, it just becomes a hollow exercise of one group of people watching another, smaller, group of people doing something.
With the ever-increasing size of houses, the dependence on spectacle, and the need to, “play it safe”, the joining of actor and audience has become a rare occurrence. The immediacy that differentiates theatre from film is disappearing. A fringe festival is an opportunity to recapture that feeling.
With venues so small that actors could be almost sitting in the audience’s lap, separation would be impossible even if desired. In fact, the majority of the material is created with this relationship in mind. There is more direct interaction with an audience at one fringe show, than is usually on offer for a whole season at most theatres. Both the audience and the performers feel they have participated equally in the event.
Theatre at a fringe festival is no longer the “show” it has become today. It is a return to the roots of theatre – travelling caravans of actors setting up in the village square to enact the tales that everybody loved and knew would bring life to a standstill. That’s the atmosphere that is created at a good festival. The fair has come to town and the rides will take your breath away.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the granddaddy of fringe festivals. It has gotten so large that it even has spawned a Fringe, fringe festival of its own. Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson all began their careers here. Robin Williams, Jude Law, and Hugh Grant have all performed at the Fringe.
There are now fringe festivals around the world. From major theatre centres to small towns, the attraction of inexpensive accessible theatre is almost impossible to resist. It’s theatre far removed from the glitz and glory of Broadway and Phantom of the Opera. Immediate and in your face, a fringe festival is a forceful reminder of theatre’s great potential to communicate ideas and emotions.
The Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival opening on August 7th this year marks the beginning of the fringe season. If you are lucky enough to have a festival in your town, or to have one in the vicinity, do yourself a favour and take a chance. Go and see theatre as it’s meant to be performed.