What's The Big Deal About Fringe Theatre

Many imagine a night at the theatre as being a bite to eat in a London restaurant before strolling along the glittering, bustling streets of the West End. They also imagine it costing half a month’s rent per ticket. But, all across the country there are pubs, cafés, parks, and even storage containers putting on great shows for a fraction of the West End price on every city’s doorstep.

Yes, it isn’t only the Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Fringe putting on wacky theatre and performance for hungry audiences to devour. There are hundreds of fringe theatre festivals buzzing away across the UK.

Fringe theatre is defined, rather dryly and in contrast to its wild and wonderful nature, as experimental in style or subject matter, with the term originating at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (founded in 1947).

In New York, fringe theatre is called Off-Off Broadway, and can be viewed with a certain level of contempt. Distancing it from the bright lights of Broadway through the term Off-Off Broadway definitely doesn’t help its image as an isolated, dusty group of productions only filling two or three seats a night.

But this isn’t just an image problem on Broadway: this lack of respect for fringe theatre is certainly still the case in the UK, with shows that don’t have the mighty push of a well-known theatre company behind them often getting unfairly labelled as poor substitutes for the ‘real thing’ in London.

This is even the case in industry, where some may argue that fringe theatre is now being used simply as a pathway to mainstream theatre.

However, fringe theatre in the UK is one area of the arts that is growing feverishly. Brighton Fringe is only nine years old, and yet its sales have grown by almost 70 percent, with Edinburgh Fringe’s sales growing by almost 50 percent.

As with anything in the arts in the current political and financial climate, fringe theatre is always teetering on the edge of a cliff, and many fringe festivals have sadly had to darken their stages.

But this isn’t due to its lack of relevance in today’s society. By and large, fringe theatre festivals allow anyone to submit work regardless of whether they’re professional or amateur. Shows with any style or theme can be staged and shows are often put on in the most unlikely of places, adding to the unique experience fringe festivals offer everyone involved.

Importantly, fringe theatre is still the perfect space for shedding light on alternative and never-before-seen stories and is a brilliant way for new writers to get their work on stage and voices from marginalised groups of people ignored by mainstream media to get their voices heard.

Experimentation is encouraged and expected with fringe theatre, and fringe audiences will often be more open to having some weird and wonderful experiences that put them out of their comfort zone and open them up to something new.

For writers, it’s one of the best platforms to experiment with craft, character, and story. For actors, it’s a brilliant way to raise their profile, try a new style of performance, practise shaking off that stage fright, and to make hundreds of creative connections. As an audience member, your role is simply to soak up a huge amount of theatre without dropping a huge amount of cash.

 

A 2018 article in the Stage newspaper broke down the costs of running a West End show and how those costs are reflected in the ever-increasing ticket prices. It explained that for a show to just break even on the West End, every ticket in the theatre has to sell for £27.92, with every ticket sold under that price losing the production money. And this is only if the show fills 100% of seats, which, unless you’re lucky enough to be running Hamilton, doesn’t often happen.

Of course, the cost of running a fringe show at one of the larger festivals (we’re looking at you, Edinburgh and Brighton) are climbing. Will this mean that only the larger, more affluent theatre companies will be able to afford to enter fringe festivals, essentially making it a smaller version of the mainstream? Hopefully not. Creativity has value wherever it may come from.

Although casts are smaller, tech teams have less shiny equipment to work with, and props and costumes are often borrowed and stolen from anywhere and everywhere, the stories, performances and overall experiences a fringe theatregoer can enjoy offer just as much as, and sometimes more than, what you could find in larger, more established theatres.


Lois Zoppi @LoisZoppi

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