So, whilst Blunt and Bryant’s fans are busy having a scrap ever elitism in arts, here’s something going on in the north-east that does something about this. As I wrote earlier this week, money can be a barrier, but the bigger barrier is not knowing the right people in the right places. And one of the many contributing factors in theatre is a polarised view of big and little artists. In many places, a lucky few have links to big theatres that get all backing and all the attention. Everyone else doing stuff of their own backs gets ignored and has no support. And if you’re in the second group, it can be nigh on impossible to get into the first group without friends in high places.
Well, up in Newcastle, there’s a low-key project going on that might be able to change this. There’s a small group called Alphabetti Spaghetti Theatre who are setting up what they call a “fringe theatre” (more on this in a moment). For most of the last two years, they were running an upstairs space in a pub called the Dog and Parrot. But last summer the owners decided they didn’t want them at Dog and Parrot any more, so they’ve decided to go a step further this time and open an actual theatre space. Details of the plans are still sketchy, but I understand they’re going to be programming touring shows looking for a space in Newcastle first, and take it from there later.
Before the festival fringe supporters get too excited, let’s keep this in context. This is not “fringe theatre” in the sense of an open-access festival fringe such as Edinburgh, Brighton or Buxton. It’s a theatre space of a similar size to a typical space at a typical fringe, but Alphabetti Spaghetti’s new theatre is probably not going to be an open access theatre. That is not really surprising – festival fringes are open access, but most venues are not: anyone can take part in the festival if they find a venue, but the major venues can only accommodate a finite number of acts. In the absence of a Newcastle Fringe, Alphabetti Spaghetti’s “fringe theatre” is more like the fringe theatres in London: year-round venues, smaller than the big theatres, more inclusive than the big theatres, but not the places where anyone can be a hit. If the north-east wants a fringe theatre scene to rival that of Brighton or Buxton, we need a festival fringe.
Even so, this theatre is a big step in the right direction. There was progress being made already: there are a lot of small-scale groups already active in Newcastle and this has grown in the last few years, partly thanks to support from The Empty Space and Northern Stage. But so far, this has had little impact in the public radar. Almost all the attention is still on the Theatre Royal, Tyne Theatre, Live and Northern Stage, and small groups cannot realistically compete for attention. Get a permanent fringe theatre space in place and I perhaps things will change. There’s no knowing how things will turn out, but look at the attention that “London fringe” theatre gets, and that’s a good precedent for up here.
And good, now that you’ve made it this far, this is where I ask you to give them your money. It’s a crowdfunded project, it’s a third of a the way there, a lot of arts council money is dependent on this, so these guys could really do with your help. I know there’s loads of crowdfunded theatre projects out there, but most of them only benefit one theatre company for one show. This one, on the other hand, stands to benefit a lot of people for a long time if all goes well. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of tempting goodies up for grabs here too. So come on, stop making excuses, click on this link and give them your flipping money.
There is one other thing that people could do to help. It’s not money, and only a few people can help here. If this venue is to live up to its full potential, it’s going to need to be taken seriously by the local press. This needs to be more than a place where wannabe thespians perform to other wannabe thespians – it has to be seen by the public as a valid alternative to the high-profile professional theatres in the region. But this change of attitude is fully possible. Brighton and Buxton fringes have the local press fully behind them, and people have learnt to see them. London fringe theatre are taken seriously by Londoners. If they can do it there, we can do it here, but it’s going to need the wholehearted support of the Chronicle and Journal.
Best of luck to Alphabetti Spaghetti with this. Exciting times could lie ahead.
UPDATE 04/02: And they’ve done it. Alphabetti have hit their target with three days to spare. It even looks like they’ve done it properly. I’ve been a little sceptical about crowdfunding, because I’ve seen a lot of campaigns where they get less than 50% of the money, only for the rest of the money to be found at the last moment, which suggests there’s been a backer in reserve all along. Well, if Alphabetti had a secret backer, they didn’t need one, because they’ve got money from all sorts of people over the whole period. I think you can still donate if you wish, if any of those rewards appeal to you.
They’ve also secured their Arts Council funding that was sort-of dependent on this crowdfunding. A good start – now all eyes are on the opening and beyond.