How do we define the space of the Fringe?

This weekend marked the beginning of this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival with plenty of people filling up Fringe City with flyers and street performances. This year I am actively involved in the festival in two ways, reviewing for Broadway Baby and with Witness Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest which I’ve directed. In previous years I haven’t really been so actively involved in the Fringe, and so have missed out on most of the buzz surrounding it. This year I’ve been fervently keeping up to date with all the new announcements and goings on, and getting very excited for the commencement of events.

The weekend’s shenanigans didn’t fail to live up to my expectations, with possibly the exception of expecting Fringe City (Brighton’s answer to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile) to be a little busier. There are definitely people walking through oblivious to the fact there is a festival going on, with no intention of taking a flyer for any show at all. But then myself and the Victorian characters I spent my time with met the lovely members of the aptly named My Lovely Productions, and got ourselves invited to a networking event with free tea and cake. It was a very nice break from flyering in the cold and an excellent example of the open spirit of the fringe and the opportunities it can offer.

My awareness of this spirit of the Fringe as a highly involved participant has got me wondering about the nature of the theatre festival and its relation to perceived elitism in the theatre. There’s been some great coverage over on A Younger Theatre of the recent Sampled festival, and this article questions what it is a festival offers and how open it really is/can be. “A festival attempts to create a lively atmosphere around a given space, attempts to make the audience connect the dots and enjoy the work on display” – a point which is all very well and indicative of the open, celebratory atmosphere of festival; but where is this audience coming from and how is this space defined?

Recently I tried to book tickets for some shows at Brighton Festival, only to find that they were fully booked quite far in advance of the show itself. It appears I am of the fringe mindset where a ticket can often be bought on the day for most shows. This seems to demonstrate the open access feel of a fringe festival; it’s much easier to walk into the fringes than into the main centre, not least because here tickets aren’t booked up months in advance by those in the know. I feel a similar annoyance towards shows in those theatres with ‘friends’ schemes – members of which can book most of the tickets before anyone else has even got a chance. I understand the necessity of such schemes in the ongoing funding battle for theatres, but it reeks of exclusivity and somethings needs to change.

This is where Fringe often differs with ticket prices generally being lower and not favouring those with copious amounts of cash. Saying that, all this is coming from someone “in the know” about theatre in general and those who aren’t “in the know” (nor desirous to be) probably see even my so called open access fringe festivals as elitist. The open space of the fringe is defined by those making, enjoying and celebrating theatre and so may be – in reality – just as closed as those large scale walled off theatrical institutions.

Why would you go a fringe festival if you don’t like theatre, why would you go to Sonisphere if you don’t like heavy metal? There’s such a diverse selection of work on offer at a fringe festival, and so much of it spills onto the streets of an otherwise ordinary city. It’s interesting to consider whether it is the role of the fringe to spread its enthusiasm for the art form to those not normally invested in it.

This is a question that I certainly don’t have an answer to, but it’s one that I will continue to work my way through whilst writing up my fringe experience throughout May. How is the space of a fringe festival defined, and how open is it really? Any thoughts on the question do let me know!

But I will leave you with this lovely song from Sigur Ros – the aptly named Festival, let’s hope this May’s festival is as good as this sound.

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