BTG is currently inviting reviewers to list legendary plays at which they wish they had been present. My mind does not work that way. I associate big, starry productions with a degree of discomfort or dissatisfaction. They tend to cost a fortune and require lengthy travel so by the time you take your seat it is hard to avoid grumbling: “this had better be worth it”. Besides, if you do see a high-quality production featuring a major star under a gifted director, it is hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the budget and talent involved, when it turns out well. The best you can hope for is not to be disappointed.
Maybe this is the reason I feel such an affection for fringe theatre. the expectations are not as high—tickets are reasonably priced, venues are intimate and in most cases the play is new or at least unfamiliar so there is a chance of being surprised. Or maybe I just have a childish greed for quantity over quality—you can see umpteen fringe shows for the price of a mainstream one.
When lockdown began, the Greater Manchester Fringe decided to postpone its 2020 Festival from July to October / November. Hope Mill in Manchester has recently announced its production of Rent will likewise not be cancelled but put back to October. On first hearing, these announcements seemed optimistic to say the least but thinking it through one begins to wonder if, by being the first to start up again, fringe could save live theatre from the current crisis.
Fringe is the perfect example of theatre: a practical demonstration of the ideal of a play requiring no more than two actors and a plank upon which to perform. As such, it is flexible and capable of working around current restrictions. Limited resources mean that many fringe plays are monologues and even those which are full cast tend to rely on dialogue rather than action to move the plot along. Social distancing among the cast might not, therefore, be an issue.
Fringe plays, unlike mainstream, are not tied to a specific start time of 7:30PM or 8PM but can, if necessary, begin earlier. This will be an advantage with the current restrictions on public transport. Buses in Greater Manchester are currently running deliberately under capacity, raising the possibility passengers can be turned away from buses that are one third full. During the day, this is an annoyance. If, however, your last bus refuses admission, you could end up stranded. The Fringe could minimise this problem with earlier starts allowing audiences greater flexibility and reducing the risk of being stuck.
There is the risk of infection amongst the audience. I’m confident theatregoers have mastered the practice of washing their hands but appreciate we must be alert. Fringe allows the use of unconventional staging—promenade or immersive productions do not require audiences to sit closely together. But, sooner or later, the audience will have to sit in a theatre. The ideal solution would be for mainstream theatres, currently unable to open, to offer the use of their studios to the fringe companies. The fringe is accustomed to performing in cramped, even makeshift venues so, by their standards, the larger studio theatres would allow the audience to spread out. Besides, the companies would probably jump at the chance to use venues with decent sight-lines and acoustics.
This all sounds like looking through rose-coloured glasses. Lockdown reduced us to compliant children whose role was simply to obey orders. The possibility of having to behave like a grown-up and make decisions is daunting. It was a tremendous relief when the organisers of the fringe shows I was due to cover at the start of lockdown cancelled them so that I did not have to test my convictions and decide whether or not to attend. I'm aware that any return to live theatre is going to be tense to say the least with neighbouring attendees regarded with suspicion and possibly audiences having to wear masks. The latter is a real nuisance for me as my breath, when wearing a mask, makes my spectacles steam up. I’ve mentioned this to several people, and they all agree the solution is for me to stop breathing.
There is a snob element to theatregoing and some people regard fringe as little better than amateur dramatics. If fringe is the first type of theatre to get back on the boards, it will be interesting to see if these prejudices continue or if audiences are so desperate for live entertainment, they will try something new. It would be ironic if, after banging the drum for fringe theatre, I find myself turned away from performances sold out to newcomers.