“That’s fringe theatre.”
It’s an excuse you hear a lot when you work on this scale. It’s also an excuse you make a lot. While we were at Brighton Fringe it became something of a catchphrase. Dragging our lighting hire across London in a wheely suitcase; “Fringe!” A slightly (very) wobbly operators’ box, digs with showers not tall enough to stand upright in, or using a Wetherspoons as a production office; “Fringe!” And, obviously, not getting paid – very fringe.
The great thing about it is that it exemplifies just how much we’re willing to put up with for the sake of our craft. When we pause, step back, examine the ridiculousness of the situation and cry “Fringe!”, what we’re really saying is “this is mad, but I love it”.
There is, however, a fine line between the endearingly eccentric and the downright dangerous, and the old “oh, it’s fringe” wave-off can be an excuse for the former but never the latter. Unfortunately this is not always the case, and companies regularly suffer terrible injustices (and sometimes real danger) in the supposed yet hallowed name of “The Fringe”, when really these are cases of severe and often criminal negligence.
I came across a venue which holds true to all that is wrong with “the Fringe Excuse”. For the sake of the visiting company I wouldn’t want to publicly reveal its name, yet not only is the place insufficiently equipped for theatre, it is also riddled with electrical hazards, completely unsanitary, piled high with hoarded furniture over which one must clamber from space to space, and absolutely flouts fire safety legislation. Put simply: if a fire were to start (most likely as a result of the neglected and untested technical equipment), escape from the front portion of the building would be difficult, and from the rear impossible.
To cap it off, the place is ruled over by a semi-deranged owner/manager who drifts from here to there picking fault at the visiting company but countering all blame for her own massive failings with a “well it’s fringe and this is what you should expect” attitude.
Well I beg to differ. True fringe is a collaborative atmosphere where everyone mucks in together to make the creative best of often limited resources. True fringe is saying “we can make this work”. It is not offering a theatre and providing a dirty converted living room with a bit of archaic and incorrectly-installed kit. You clearly don’t get away with with putting people’s lives at risk by saying “it’s fringe”, but neither do you get away with breaching the terms of a contract, or even by merely acting in a way that is not conducive to the collaborative nature of theatremaking. In a way, that is even less fringe than all the fire hazards put together. After all, you can flamebar the hoarded furniture but you can’t flamebar a creatively-retardant attitude.
There is something admittedly quite sad about an unfunded venue run apparently single-handedly by an ageing manager falling into a state of complete disrepair, but at the end of the day theatre is a business and sadly there’s no room for being sympathetic to those who might otherwise scupper our creative efforts by overcharging and under-providing.
The simple and poetic lesson to learn is that, if what you’re using the Fringe Excuse for isn’t at least in some way quite beautiful after all (let’s face it: the shower story is poetry in motion, it just sucked for Zakk being the tallest person in the company) then it isn’t an excuse, it’s a real issue that needs addressing. Get out before you get stuck – or trapped by a fire.