What Is Fringe?

Fringe season is upon us. But does anyone really know what “fringe” means anymore? A new article by the Daily Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen chafes at the idea that the meaning of the word has gotten completely lost.

Christiansen waxes lyrical about the “good old days” when the fringe was truly special:

“I first went there as a schoolboy some 40 years ago, when the programme consisted of a narrowly conceived menu of high culture – classical concerts, opera and ballet, serious drama – with a late-night cabaret or bonne bouche, plus a Fringe that consisted of some representatives of the European avant-garde presented by Richard Demarco (a buccaneering showman who outraged Morningside proprieties), and a smattering of students and amateurs mounting humble shows and innocuous skits in a few bleak church halls.Visiting the Festival was akin to a pilgrimage, matching the austere dignity of this beautiful city. There was only one shop of note (Jenner’s), its windows decorated with photographs of celebrated conductors and prima donnas. Finding anything edible was a struggle, the licensing laws were draconian, and sex was what the coal came in. But it was still fabulously thrilling and liberating fun.”

But I wonder if this view of Edinburgh’s long-lost “fringe-iness” is too narrow? Like many other critics of the Edinburgh Fringe these days, Christiansen believes that the festival has lost its meaning largely because of commercial reasons. It’s “a monster devouring its own children,” according to Christiansen.

Yet surely the idea of fringe extends beyond such concerns as the high prices of accommodation during fringe season, overcrowding, escalating ticket costs etc. There are, for instance, important aesthetic issues at stake of which many commentators have lost sight. What makes a show a fringe show beyond the fact that it’s produced on a shoe-string?

Well, for one thing, there’s the venue. Fringe venues tend to be small. They’re often converted into theatres for a fringe production from other uses. For another, there’s content. Fringe productions focus on showcasing new scripts, provide unorthodox readings of classic plays (often truncated to fit into a shorter time frame) or work with otherwise experimental material. In addition, Fringe shows also seem to define themselves by the sizes (small) — and typical ages (young) — of their casts. Design and technical elements are often sparse, though I’ve seen some pretty elaborate Fringe shows in my time, so I’m hesitant to add this to the list of aesthetic issues that come into play when trying to pin down what Fringe theatre means.

I think, overall, what we must not forget in discussions about Fringe (or, for that matter, “off-off” and “off-off-off” Broadway) theatre is the spirit in which this kind of work should be created: one of rebellion. Many of the great original Fringe festivals that grew up in the latter half of the last century (eg Adelaide, Edinburgh) came about in retaliation against mainstream, juried arts festivals. Any fringe event which has lost this spirit of rebellion cannot be counted as a fringe festival in my opinion.

It’s therefore tempting to see a monster like Edinburgh in this light. The fact that it’s become so huge that it might (as Christiansen hopes) cause the Edinburgh’s original arts bastion — the International Festival — to happen at another time of the year indicates that the fringe no longer exists on the margins as it once did, but right at the center. This image is, of course, decidedly anti-fringe.

Similarly, as events like Edinburgh become increasingly beholden to the laws of commerce, there’s a possibility that the spirit of wild experimentation might be compromised as theatre makers may be concerned with focusing on recouping the high costs of being at the festival each year at the expense of creativity. But neither this theory, nor the common sense point I made above about the front-and-center (as opposed to marginal) position of the Edinburgh fringe can be taken at face value. Just because a fringe festival is, as Christiansen puts it, “raucous, filthy, drunken and commercialized,” it doesn’t mean that the renegade spark has disappeared altogether. There’s as much — perhaps even more — danger to being in the eye of the storm as there is to being on the edges.

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