Small bit of news from the relatively obscure Fringe scene down at Oxford. This may seem trivial, but this potentially sets an important precedent throughout the world of Fringe Theatre. So, the news is that that Oxfringe is no more. Stepping forward its place on a permanent basis is Oxford Fringe. And chances are most of you reading this are wondering 1) what’s the difference, and 2) why does this matter?
So, for the majority who have no idea what I’m on about. Oxford has had a long-running fringe festival, and until 2012 is was overseen by Oxfringe, who made decisions on matters such as registration fee, fringe programmes, and so forth (just like Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton all have bodies that oversee these things). Then, in 2013, Oxfringe was unexpectedly cancelled. No public reason was ever given, but the unofficial word is that it was down to internal problems between the organisers. By this point, however, the venues were already booking up acts. So the venues took matters into their own hands, pooled their programmes together as “Oxford Fringe”, and Oxfringe effectively went ahead in everything but name. (Oh, and when I say “the venues” took matters into their own hands, the other version of events is that it was Tom Crawshaw of Buxton and Oxford’s Underground Venues single-handedly rescuing the fesitval. I know Tom, and he’s not the sort of person to claim it was all down to him even if it was. But you get the idea.)
This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement for 2013, with Oxfringe promising to be back in 2014. Now, it’s becomes a permanent, and from now on it’s Oxford Fringe all the way (with, incidentally, Oxfringe – or what’s left of it – backing Oxford Fringe all the way). Whilst last year’s festival was a hastily-arranged programme consisting on major venues clubbing together, this year it’s been made clear that Oxford Fringe is still an open festival – so if the established venues won’t have you, you’re still welcome if you find your own. And chances are most of the people going to this won’t notice the difference.
So why is an administrative story from a minor fringe such a big deal? The reason is that this confirms a long-standing theory about British fringe theatre: no-one owns the festivals. The governing body of a Festival Fringe is the most dispensable part; the real power lies with the venues and the performers. I have no reason to believe that the fringe societies of Edinburgh, Brighton or Buxton are in danger of collapsing due to infighting or any other reason, but if that ever was to happen, we can safely assume the venues would step in and keep it going, creating their own fringe if they have to.
But the implications potentially go further. In the case of Oxford, the venues broke away because they had to, but what’s to say they couldn’t break away from an active fringe if they didn’t like the way it was going? That could be a good thing or a bad thing. It might be bad if, for instance, the super-venues at Edinburgh broke away to form a fully-vetted “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” (not that I think they’d ever do that). But on the whole, I think this is an important check and balance. If the Edinburgh Fringe starting overcharging registration fees to turn aspiring actors into cash cows, or started censoring acts who were critical of an ethically dubious sponsor, you could expect acts and venues to break away en masse. So there’s no chance of that happening.
If all this hypothetical talk of overcharging and censorship sounds paranoid, it’s not as unlikely as you think. In Canada, where you are prohibited from starting a Fringe Festival without permission from self-appoint Fringe authority, there are allegations of both. It is unfortunate that Oxford has had to go through such a faff to carry on doing the same thing, but the fact that it was the venues and performers who took ownership of the fringe – and not some authority controlling whether they can do it – is something about the British fringe ethos that we should be proud of.