Feature: What Exactly Is Fringe Theatre?

Sara West debates what we actually mean when we say Fringe Theatre

This is an interesting one isn’t it? Lots of us like to talk about fringe theatre, and certainly we like to see fringe theatre, but it’s a slippery term to define. And do we mean venues, or the productions, or the creatives?!

If we want to find a beginning, 1968 is a good year to start. Until this time the Lord Chamberlain had been the official licenser of plays and had regulated restrictions on drama since 1737, because actors are well known for being a suspect bunch of degenerates who could subvert the compliant and submissive general public if not prevented, right?! The Theatres Act of 1968 finally put an end to that and abolished theatre censorship. As a result, a whole new genre of performance exploded on to the stage starting with the rock musical Hair, which famously, shock-horror, included nude scenes.

It was no coincidence then that ‘alternative’ theatre in London also began in the same year, when the American Jim Haynes set up the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. The Arts Lab facilitated a collaborative environment for newly founded ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ theatre groups, as well as offering free rehearsal space for companies on the condition that they performed in the Arts Lab theatre. Although the venue itself didn’t last long, it did start a movement that offered an alternative to mainstream theatre. Undeniably political in its intention, creators of theatre were supporting and reinforcing global outrage found in events like the anti-Vietnam protest movements of the mid-1960s.

In the following year Tony Bicât and David Hare, both Cambridge University alumni, formed Portable Theatre. This was a year that saw widespread political unrest in Britain, where a youth-orientated ‘counter culture’ flourished and was seen to challenge the existing order. The two recruited actors from the Arts Lab to create a touring company, hence, ‘Portable’ theatre. They had basic costumes and minimal sets but managed to create and sustain powerful performance pieces, the like of which had not been experienced by audiences before, but which proved captivating and popular.

And so now a pattern emerges: ‘Fringe’ theatre is most likely to be a minimal production with few actors promoting a political motivated narrative, quite possibly concerned with social injustice and always different from the mainstream – subversive even. Early fringe was also responsible for a different type of play. Starting with a generation that had grown increasingly distrustful of the way in which politics were presented and the authenticity of political life in general, shows were developed that played with form and moved away from a linear narrative. Highly surreal, comic strip and anti-naturalistic presentations became more popular and today the most interesting productions have continued that trajectory, incorporating endless forms of diverse and inclusive performance genres and delivery mechanisms.

Another characteristic of fringe IS its slipperiness; its refusal to be defined. When content is highly relevant to the present and has a desire to break down social taboos, the raison d’etre of the performance is to prompt a response from the audience and deliberately create something that is at odds with the mainstream. If successful and the audience are informed anew, then fringe playwrights and actors tend to move on and find new subjects to bring attention to, but let’s not ignore the training ground that is fringe. All playwrights, performers and other creatives have to start somewhere. The King’s Head in Islington for example, the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare, remains strong since its inception in 1970 and has proved an impressive training ground for playwrights, directors and performers alike. Names like Joanna Lumley, Maureen Lipman, Hugh Grant, Steven Berkoff and Tom Stoppard (to name but a few) have all graced the venue throughout its history.

There are currently 19 or so functioning pub theatres across London, all fostering new talent. Tickets are as cheap as a couple of pints (or a large glass of overpriced wine!) and produce some of the most thought-provoking theatre. Writing in London Pub Theatres Magazine in 2019, Annie Powers declared “The joy of fringe theatre is its adventurousness and inclusiveness. I have often left a mainstream theatre feeling disappointed but have never walked away from a fringe play without feeling either exhilarated and inspired; challenged and disturbed… Fringe productions make you think and that is, in my opinion, what art should do”.

There is more to say about fringe clearly, much more than this article will allow, and I have deliberately not written about the fringe festivals, as they are worthy of a dedicated feature all of their own. What I will say is that fringe is a fundamental part of theatre ecology and increasingly the best fringe venues are embedded in their local community, reflecting the social identity of that group. It will be interesting to see how those venues develop in the future: as their permanence within their community solidifies, do they lose the label of fringe? And does it matter? The young reactionaries who were behind the explosion of the first alternative performances are now the influential elder statesmen of the theatrical elite. As long as new talent and new ideas continue to push from the bottom, theatre will continue to reinvent itself, question the establishment and provide a voice for disaffected or marginalised communities. And that’s just one of the many joys of live theatrical performance.

We plan to publish 26 individual features during 2023, released every other Tuesday. They are linked only by being about theatre and/ or reviewing. You can find all features published as part of this series here.

Source: Theater -


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