Introducing the outdoor festivals

You may have noticed I’ve not been giving you a blow-by-blow account of how Coronavirus is affecting theatre. I made the decision some time ago to catch up on things when they were getting back to normal – there’s only so many stories of closures and redundancies you can carry before it gets depressing.

But … things are starting to move again. Outdoor theatre got the go-ahead on the 11th July, and all being well, indoor theatre gets the go-ahead on the 1st August. In practice, most indoor theatre is likely to resume much later, with ongoing social distancing remaining a barrier to viability. However, it looks like outdoor theatre is pushing ahead. Some of the permanent outdoor venues were very fast of the mark, with the Minack Theatre famously restarting its live storytelling on day one. However, the more interesting development is a speedy reinvention of indoor events as outdoor events.

Not everything has worked out – an intended tour of Six as an outdoor drive-in show was abandoned over uncertainty of possible future local lock-downs. But this hasn’t deterred everyone, and here’s a couple of notable festivals coming up.

The Warren Outdoor Season

It’s not clear exactly what’s going on with Brighton Fringe at the moment. As is stands it’s still postponed to autumn; I’m getting contradictory signals as to what this actually entails. However, one venue has chosen not to wait and is instead reinventing itself for the current climes. The Warren – in normal years Brighton fringe’s most prominent venue by a long way – has reinvented itself as an outdoor socially distanced venue for two months.

Although this is officially a stand-alone event, this can be considered an unofficial part of delayed Brighton Fringe. We have yet to see what’s in the full programme, but several of the acts in the press release I recognise as Warren / Brighton Fringe regulars, with long-standing Shit-Face Shakespeare taking the headline spot. Komedia (also a venue during normal fringes) is also collaborating with the outdoor fringe and supplying some of the acts. Similar to its Victoria Gardens counterpart, this pop-up venue on the beach will be open from 10.00 a.m. to 11.15 p.m. each day, with several performances lined up. Following the models being pioneered elsewhere, seating is arranged by socially-distance tables with one six-seater table per household (or social bubble if that applies to you), with a speaker on each table.

If you’re comparing this to a regular fringe experience, however, there’s a couple of snags. The programme appears to be dominated by music and comedy and looks light on theatre if that’s what you normally come to see (although I did see Box Tale Soup’s Little Grimm Tales in the listings up so far). And if you usually fringe on your own own, you might be out of luck: ticket are sold per table. Early birds start as £30 – bargain for a household of six, but steep if it’s just you. I do hope, once Outdoor Warren gets into the swing of things, they work out a way to cater for solo fringers rather than allow tables to go unsold.

This, as far as I can tell, replaces The Warren at an autumn fringe. That decision, I think, is understandable. Unlike many fringe venues, which function as venues the rest of the year and could simply brand anything that happens to be on in October as Fringe, a month-long pop-up venue is a big financial commitment – especially when it’s still far from certain what you could earn from ticket sales and bar takings. And if you’re going for an outdoor festival, August and September beats October for obvious reasons.

Don’t panic about an imminent breakaway – I am assure the Warren intends to revert to business as usual for Brighton Fringe 2021. But in a world where many venues are understandably playing it safe, I have a lot of respect for those who find ways to get going. This sort-of fringe runs 5th August to 27th September on the beach next to the Pier.

The New Normal Festival

Meanwhile, there’s an equally ambitious scheme going on in London. This is taking place in the grounds of a building called Royal Victoria Patriotic buildings. Like The Warren, it has a mixed programme, which has now been announced. As far as I can tell, these people don’t have much to do with the Edinburgh Fringe, but to some extent they’re aiming the event and Londoners who would otherwise be at the Edinburgh Fringe that month. I certainly recognise a few names as Edinburgh regulars (Showstoppers and Notflix catch my eye). It’s a less intense programme – more like two shows per day instead of five – but there still looks to be something for everyone. Again, comedy features heavily, but this seems to catch all genres, including theatre.

Unlike Warren outdoor, this works a bit more like a normal theatre, with tickets sold the usual way per person instead of per group. As a result, they’re using conventional seating, keeping sales down to a socially-distanceable number, and expecting the audience to arrange themselves responsibly. Masks are also highly encouraged although not mandatory. You should also be aware that tickets have to be brought in advance and close two hours before the respective performance.

Although this has a smaller programme that Warren Outdoors, it is worth keeping an eye on this because it will be one of the first venue to run regular performances (as opposed to the more heavily managed government pilots). It should therefore give us a good transition from seeing how social distancing works in theory to working in practice. This festival might be called The New Normal, but a more accurate title might be The New Medium Term. Those Londoners who can’t wait for their fringe theatre fix can come on the 3rd – 31st August.

Garden Fringe

This is a lower-profile scheme that may or may not come to much, but it’s worth a mention because it’s something different, and nice if it comes off. This is a joint venture from Greater Manchester Fringe, Camden Fringe World Fringe and Eventotron. (Camden Fringe 2020 is definitely off, but Greater Manchester is now officially taking registrations for October and November.) The idea is to pair up performers with private gardens to get some outdoor performances going. You can sign up if you either want to perform or you have a garden you wish to put to use.

How much actually comes of this is anybody’s guess – it will depend a lot of how many people follow in Nathan Cassidy’s footsteps who are determined to perform wherever they can whenever they can. My guess is that we will see the most of Garden Fringe in Manchester and London where the people pushing this are based. This is, in all probability, a stop-gap until autumn/winter when things can start getting back to normal. But it’s an interesting experiment, I wish it well, and I’ll certainly check out anything that finds its way north-eastwards.

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