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.

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Green is not a creative colour (or: the problem with mass participation arts)

Yellow guy from Don't Hug Me I'm Scrared with his clown painting

COMMENT: Mass participation events at arts festivals are fun. It should not be used as a substitute for supporting people’s creativity – and especially not by Manchester International Festival.

For those of us with sufficiently obscure senses of humour, there is a cult series online called Don’t Hug Me, I’m ScaredI can best describe this as Sesame Street if David Lynch had directed it, where innocent-looking “educational” songs turn into surrealistic drug-fuelled nightmares in the final two minutes. My favourite episode of all, however, is the first one: a notebook singing a catchy tune to “get creative”. However (ignoring the upcoming drug-fuelled nightmare for a moment), when you listen a bit closer, you notice that this notebook has very exact ideas of what does and doesn’t constitute permissible acts of creativity. Incorrect art is decried or destroyed; even picking the wrong colour is a serious offence, because “green is is not a creative colour”.

This may not seem relevant to what I’m about to discuss, but please bear with me. Continue reading

5 tips for performing at a Fringe (which no-one ever follows)

The wait is nearly over, fringe season is nearly here, and if you are intending to take part, you are probably well underway getting your show ready. So this is the time of year when theatre bloggers like me give you some handy tips of what to do whether you want them or not.

But this time, I think I’m going to do something different. Plenty of people want to share with you their gems of wisdom that would make every show a success if only people listened to them. Instead, I’m going to give a series of uncontentious pieces of advice which I doubt anyone will dispute – except that I don’t expect anyone to actually do this. And if anyone claims they do any of these things, I refuse you believe you until I’ve strapped you to my high-voltage lie detector machine.

Remember folks, just because it’s sensible doesn’t mean you’ll do the sensible thing. Here are five sensible things I expect you to ignore.

1: Don’t obsess over your ticket sales

Screenshot of Performers' Area page of Underground Venues, showing Sales Reports section.
Damn you Underground Venues, this is all your fault

This is a recent phenomenon. In the old days, in order to find out how the ticket sales were doing, you had to turn up to the box office and ask. That safely limited you to two or three times a day, after which the box office staff would helpfully tell you to stop being this obsessive. Nowadays, however, many venues provide live online sales information to performers. And with the advent of smartphones, this now means you can check your ticket sales every five minutes if you want to. And yes, you want to check your ticket sales every five minutes, don’t you? Stop trying to deny it. Continue reading

An open challenge for Live Theatre

Live Theatre's undercroft

COMMENT: Alphabetti Theatre is a big step in the right direction for Newcastle. Here’s a suggestion for how Live Theatre could do the same.

Tomorrow is the grand opening of Alphabetti Spaghetti’s New Theatre in Newcastle. I’ve been promoting this during their crowdfunding phase, because I think it’s a welcome development in Newcastle. Anyone who have been to the festival fringes at Edinburgh or elsewhere will know how good a play can be from a small group in a small theatre space with next to no budget – and yet, in spite of Newcastle having a lot of groups on this scale, there’s never really been anywhere notable to perform it. Alphabetti’s predecessor theatre, an upstairs room at the Dog and Parrot, was a start, but this has so much more scope.

So, what’s not to like? Nothing really – except that this responsibility shouldn’t be falling to one small group of actors. There are already plenty of performance spaces in Newcastle’s existing theatres that could just as easily do what Alphabetti theatre’s doing. And even with Alphabetti’s new theatre up and running, why stop at one fringe space? Why not more? After all, festival fringes work so well by having different venues and different shows competing with each other, and may the best performers win. But most similar-sized performance spaces stand idle much of the time. This is common practice throughout theatres not just in Newcastle, but across the country. As such, it’s unfair to single out one theatre too much. But with Live Theatre seeing itself as the leading source of new writing in the north east, if anyone has a responsibility to support fringe groups more, Live Theatre does. Continue reading

The Fringe alone: what I’ve learned

Right, with my third of three consecutive plays finally finally finally out of the way, I can now look back at the first one. And although it may seem like a distant memory now, earlier this year I did the Buxton Fringe again. I’ve already written about my experiences last year at the Buxton Fringe, but, hey, what the hell, let’s do another post along these lines. And this year, it may not have been my first year taking part in a fringe environment, but it was the first year I went on my own.

Now, when I talk about doing the Fringe alone, I’m not talking about plays where you are bringing along an actor to do a solo play for you. That’s what I did last year (okay, it was a solo play plus one non-speaking and one cameo, but you get the idea), but I learnt this year the experience of producing a solo play is a very different to one where you’re also the actor. You might be doing someone else’s play, you might have a director back home refining your performance, but you’re the one dealing with the venue, publicising the play, and travelling to the fringe on your own.

I’ll start as frank as I mean to go on. Doing a solo performance at a fringe without support is a big challenge. The personal stakes are high: the play’s success or failure will be entirely attributed to you. Such are the challenges of a solo fringe that I would urge anyone considering doing this to think very carefully about whether you really want to do it, especially if your main reason for doing it is because you think it’s easier than a bigger play. But it can be done – provided you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

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Goodbye Oxfringe, welcome back Oxford Fringe

Logos of Oxfringe and Oxford Fringe

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.)

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Why devised theatre is hard

Three women applying lipsitck in mirror
Skolka (later retitled Ulov), a play about Russian mail-order brides, was an outstanding piece of devised theatre. Sadly, this is the very much the exception.

One thing I kept bemoaning in my roundups of this year’s Brighton. Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes was the number of poor and mediocre pieces of devised theatre. This is a blog for things that are good, so I won’t name and shame examples, but the same mistakes keep being made. The definition of devised theatre is a bit vague, but what I mean by devised theatre is a production where there is no writer and usually no director. Instead, the play is jointly put together by a collaboration of the actors.

There are two things I can say are good about the devised theatre I’ve seen at Fringes. The first thing that has consistently impressed me  is just how slick and how well choreographed these things are, from the fully professional right down to the student productions. With so many theatres terrified of anything in the slightest bit unconventional, it just goes to show what you can achieve when you are adventurous with movement. And the other thing that impresses me is the great ideas that these plays have as their subject matter. But sadly, these great ideas almost always fail to live up to their potential. In the majority of cases, there is little or nothing about the devised play I found memorable. Now, I am perhaps one of the harsher judges of devised theatre – other reviewers are more accommodating than me, possibly giving the benefit of the doubt of a work in progress. But I don’t make allowances for that and I expect devised theatre to be as good as conventional productions with a script and a director.

So why do I keep going to devised theatre if I’m so cynical about it? Is it because I didn’t know it was devised theatre when I bought the ticket? Do I only realise when I’m in the theatre and it’s too late? Strangely enough, no. The real reason I keep giving devised theatre chance after chance is that, on the rare occasion when devised theatre turns out well, it is outstanding. Even some of the most famous plays were the product of devised theatre once. Abigail’s Party is one of the most famous examples. That was once a project where Mike Leigh gave five actors different characters, threw them into a situation and waited to see what became of it – and the rest is history. Continue reading

What I’ve learned from the Buxton Fringe

So, with the Fringe season over for another year, it’s time for a long look back on the season just gone. And for me, the difference this time is that I have been a participant. Now, this is a blog about everyone’s work and not my own, but where I can use my own experiences as help for others, it goes here. So this is a good time to say what I’ve learned from participating in a fringe.

Firstly, a repeat of the obvious. If you fancy organising any kind of fringe theatre, for heaven’s sake go to a fringe festival first and see how other people go about it. In fact, go to several. The more you can learn what works and what doesn’t work from other people, the less you have to rely on your own trial and error. Obvious points include learning to work on a minimal production budget, the importance of top-notch publicity, and doing something that is original without being pretentious – plus, of course, actually producing a decent bit of theatre. I might go over those in more detail another day, but to any fringe regular it would be stating the obvious.

However, this article isn’t about stating the obvious. This is about the little things I learnt from taking part myself, from the niggling to the important. Some of these tips are unique to Buxton, but others are also applicable to other fringes. Since catch-all advice is probably more useful, I’ll start with that. Continue reading