Unconventional Theatre in Unconventional Spaces: A Punk Theatre Movement
[Fringe (n) the outer, marginal, or extreme part of an area, group, or sphere of activity. Similar: unconventional unorthodox offbeat alternative avant-garde]
Over the past few months, COVID-19 has collided into our lives and left the future unclear. UK theatre is one of the industries most affected, grinding to a halt overnight with no clear notion of how or when it will be able to restart. Venues, companies, and artists alike have found their creative futures under serious threat, and we are surveying a bleak horizon filled with funding cuts, closures, delays and uncertainty. However, one thing is sure: there will be irreparable damage. We can’t help but question whether UK theatre, as we know it, can survive.
So why do we at Frisky feel inspired?
We have been struggling with this question, wondering: is it inappropriate to feel inspired right now? Are we being insensitive to the severity of the situation? Or are we just weirdly masochistic, still feeling positive despite watching our opportunities and projects fall away? Don’t get us wrong, we deeply feel the loss of the jobs and residencies we worked so hard to gain. But the chance to reflect over the past few months has shone a light on the immense fragility of the theatre industry and clarified that more power needs to go back into the hands of independent artists. Fringe theatre has become increasingly elitist and inaccessible, with artists competing for meagre opportunities, limited spaces, minimal resources and dwindling funding. And so (Frisky's innate tendency towards masochism notwithstanding) we’ve realised that it’s actually the possibility of new beginnings in a post COVID-19 world that has got us so excited.
The closure of UK theatre is uncertain and scary, but it’s also an opportunity to reset; the re-defining of our creative approaches is there for the taking. We’ve used this time to imagine the future of theatre that we would like to see, and we have a question for you.
Why don’t we use this window of opportunity to join forces? Let us artists with a shared vision form an alliance and collaborate to give rise to the new birth of the theatre industry which we co-define.
We’re talking to any artist with a point of view, not just established fringe theatre makers. We want to reach beyond the networks many of us have made during Edinburgh/Brighton/Vault festivals over the years. Albeit fantastic platforms, these festivals have become prohibitively expensive for non-mainstream artists. Consequently, they have become elitist, making it impossible for artists to maintain that fringe spirit and test risky ideas. We recognise that this isn’t necessarily the fault of the venues; they are also suffering from the precarious demands of the arts industry and rely on safe content from artists they know will sell tickets. However, it does leave them with an inherently contradictory approach which sits uneasily alongside their founding principles.
Moreover, this elitism drives out diversity, which was already lacking, as these festivals inform UK wide programming. This has left the entire industry painfully non-diverse and exclusive. We’ve been encouraged and inspired to see so many voices shouting alongside us that Black Lives Matter, but we at Frisky, and the wider arts industry, need to acknowledge it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be active and vocal in breaking down the systemic racism in our country, and in this case, in the arts industry. It is our communal responsibility to create a space where all artists can flourish based on the content of their work alone.
Many artists leave the industry prematurely, faced with the difficulty in finding a venue that will back them, coupled with the inscrutable nature of funding applications, demanding a specific set of skills to execute them. Furthermore, the minimal amounts of government funding and the ever-narrowing criteria of what they want to see made, has forced artists to push their ideas into those boxes. We understand why this has happened, but it has left the work feeling at times safe and repetitive. Theatre used to be more expansive than this. It strikes us that this whole system so desperately needs a shake-up that regardless of COVID-19, the radical fringe theatre scene in the UK was on its way to dying anyway.
We need to find a new model, a new method, to present our work and develop our audiences.
When observing other art forms, it seems to us that theatre has been left behind. Musicians already collaborate and create their own events and festivals, enabling them to support each other, start movements and therefore be more in control of their own fate and industry. Artists in theatre, however, are at the mercy of festival programming and funding agendas. Often, it is more of a situation of who-you-know and how-much-you-have rather than the quality of your content. We’re tired of a situation where fringe artists constantly knock on doors, begging for spare change, reviews and acceptance from people quite often out-of-touch with our voices and scene. And as a result, many of our artists and audiences alike are becoming disillusioned with ‘theatre’ and questioning whether it’s even a place for them.
This is wholly unacceptable because theatre doesn’t need to be this way. Frisky united with a wilful desire to create riotous, interdisciplinary theatre that is uncompromisingly our style, punky and guerrilla by nature. We want to rid theatre of its pretensions and celebrate new voices and under-represented stories in a refreshing way. We believe this rebellious spirit, coupled with a sense of community and collaboration is key to our futures. This is why we want to start this conversation. Fringe artists, by our very nature, have already demonstrated tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit: developing precarious passion projects; making work against-all-odds; sticking ideas together with bubble gum and spit in true anarchic and D.I.Y fashion. We, if anyone, can make projects HAPPEN.
Now imagine if we joined forces.
Together, as a united force, we can change a competitive industry into a community. Together, we can find unconventional spaces, self-programme festivals and events, and share our skills, resources and fundraising techniques. COVID-19 has shown us how important community is and reminded us how much we can achieve through grassroots movements. We are convinced that this is the time for change and uprising. Fringe artists: this is OUR MOMENT. Even after lock-down is over, it’s going to take a long time to get back into the swing of the industry as we knew it. We have a window of opportunity to rise up and make change. Therefore, we are inviting all of you risk takers to come to the fore and shout about how we see the future. Theatre needs to seep out of its confines and emerge stronger from it. Let’s make alliances, fundraise together, find spaces, programme ourselves, and create ideas and performance on our terms.
At Frisky we are proposing a new theatre wave, and entreat you, theatre and other artists alike, to join us. Join the conversation of what we can make happen together. COVID-19 will not defeat us, we refuse it to be so. It will be the catalyst for us to carve a brave new world, with some fucking fantastic shows.
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With love from,
Written by Camille Dawson
Edited by Rebecca Hill
Image by Serena Ramsey