Access to London Culture Can Start at the Fringes

By Jay Menard

Interested in dipping your toes into London’s theatre scene? It can be intimidating jumping in with two feet — so why not approach theatre from the Fringe?

The London Fringe Festival kicks off tomorrow and it’s a great opportunity for you to explore theatre in a relaxed, low-barrier-of-entry way. And I wanted to take this opportunity to share my experiences, both specific to Fringe and as someone who has seen (and reviewed) my fair share of theatre over the years.

I’ll be reviewing some of this year’s plays at theatreinlondon.ca. And I’d like to encourage you to get out and see a show or 12. Here’s why:

But First — The Name is Misleading

Let’s just get this out of the way. The term “Fringe” is a potential barrier for the mainstream theatregoer. The average casual attendee who thinks nothing of dropping serious money on multiple mountings of Elf or The Buddy Holly story at The Grand, or are lining up for the remount of Rocky Horror (third time’s the charm, I guess!) often blanch at the idea of a Fringe play.

Fringe, by its name, suggests rough-around-the-edges work or alternative content. And, in some cases, that’s what you get. You’ll have people workshopping and refining their plays on the fly. But on the other hand, you’re going to get some really beautiful and poetic works. And, if you’re lucky, you’re going to see something at a Fringe Festival that you would never see on a more traditional stage. Fringe is about flexibility and opportunity.

But it doesn’t mean amateur or sloppy.

Often the plays aren’t all that avant-garde. There are some beautifully scripted, personal works, that are not “odd,” “weird,” or “quirky” at all. So let’s just take those definitions off the table.

Manage Your Expectations

I never go into a show expecting it to be terrible. But I go into shows understanding what I’m getting into. From a visual perspective, I know that a show at the Grand and a show in Procunier Hall aren’t going to be the same. And that’s fine.

What I expect, though, is to be treated with respect no matter where I am.

That means delivering a good story, with a solid plot, that’s capably acted. I want to be entertained for the duration of my stay. I want to be moved to laughter, to tears, or to introspection. I don’t want to walk out feeling I’ve wasted my time.

But if you’re going to come to a Fringe show expecting sweeping sets, majestic costumes, and all the frills of higher-end professional theatre, you’re going to be disappointed.

However, if you show up, open to opportunities, willing to invest in someone’s personal story, or ready to experience something new, you’ll have a good chance to be thrilled.

I’m not going to lie and say they’re all winners. But that’s the same that could be said for what appears on London’s stages throughout the year. My experience has been that out of every 10 plays I see, one is transcendentally good, three are very good, two are average or nondescript, three are poor, and one is absolutely terrible.

That’s no different for Fringe.

Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of plays. I can honestly say that two or three of the best performances I’ve ever seen have been at Fringe. I can also honestly say that the worst play I’ve ever seen in my life was at Fringe. You pay your money and you take your chances.

Growth, Experimentation, Change

It seems unfair to say that Fringe performances are low-risk when you consider how much time, effort, and personal investment it takes for Fringe performers just to get from show to show. But the cost of mounting a show is relatively small — which allows for more experimentation.

That means you get to see shows that you won’t see anywhere else, because the format allows it. It means you get to see writers, directors, and actors grow and develop year after year.

(Or, you can watch writers, directors, and actors stagnate — I was once criticized in a review by a friend of the director who stated something to the effect of, “This is getting boring, why don’t you write something new. You’ve said the same thing about the last five of [the person’s] plays.” The irony that the last five of those plays were identical in style and tone, showed no growth, and were basically the same thing was clearly lost on the star-struck writer.)

The positive thing here is that you truly appreciate the former when exposed to the latter.

There’s an incredible diversity amongst the performers, not only in the traditional sense, but also in their skillsets. I’ve laughed uproariously, then fought off tears by the same person in subsequent Fringe shows. Yesterday’s slapstick comedian will be on stage today, pouring his or her heart out to the crowd.

It sounds cliche, but there really is something for everyone: drama, comedy, magic, dance… You will find something that interests you out there.

Now, why is this all important?

Theatre is an Option. Actually, it’s Many Options

I was one of those people. You know, the “London sucks. There’s nothing to do here” people. As an arrogant little prick of a late teenager/early 20s, I thought that London had nothing to offer. It wasn’t until I left for Montreal and came back that I learned differently.

Part of that was my fault and part of that was the community’s fault. And it hasn’t changed.

Last year, I had to laugh as one organization had the audacity to hold a discussion asking, “How do we get people involved in London’s culture?” Gazing so deeply into their collective navels, they failed to notice that there were at least 15 to 20 Fringe plays happening during that very meeting, within a radius of only a few blocks.

As tone deaf as that event was, it was also reflective of an issue I’ve had with London theatre in general — and that’s that it doesn’t do a very good job of promoting itself outside of its own circle. It doesn’t make it easy for people outside of the community to find their way to shows.

The local theatre community is very insular. You see the same people at the shows; you see the same people on the stage or mounting the productions; and you see money flowing in a circle. I may put on a show today that you’ll see, but when you mount your show next week, I’m going to be there. The money only temporarily changes hands — getting new people into the crowds is a challenge.

Fringe is a low-cost, low-barrier of entry option for many people. And, hopefully, any new attendees may be tempted to return during the year for other shows. After all, you’ll find a good number of local actors, writers, and directors in Fringe — and you may be inspired to follow their careers and see other shows throughout the year.

That said: to the theatre companies, it’s important to remember that nobody is obligated to see theatre. It’s not better or worse than any form of entertainment. Theatre companies are competing with going to the movies, Netflix subscriptions, dinners out, and attending sporting events for a limited family entertainment budget. You’ve got to give them a reason to choose you — and then you have to deliver on those expectations.

They’re not doing you a favour. They’re choosing to spend their entertainment dollars on you. Make it worth their while.

The audience is there. People pack The Grand Theatre night in and night out because they know they’re going to get a return on their investment. They know they’re going to get a certain quality of show and have a reasonable expectation of being entertained. It doesn’t mean that every show is a hit (the last production at the Grand was underwhelming, to be generous), but people aren’t going to feel their money is wasted.

So if the audience is there, how do we get them coming to much-cheaper shows at The Arts Project, the Palace, or Procunier on a regular basis?

These people are also likely not in your social network. They live all throughout the city and respond to different media. A simply Tweet or Facebook post is not going to reach them. You have to go where they are and convince them to come.

London really doesn’t suck. It just sucks at getting the word out and promoting it. And it just sucks that it’s so hard to find great content. Once you’ve penetrated the “inner circle” you realize that there are countless stage performances, concerts, events, and other social gatherings and activities. Unfortunately, the prospective attendee has to do most of the work because the presenters are often focused on preaching to the converted.

So start with Fringe. Just one show. See where that goes. Chances are, you’ll realize there’s much more that this city has to offer.

And what you may find is that the only thing that really sucks is how much great entertainment you’ve missed out on in the past!

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