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Fringe Versus Mainstream

September 23, 2008

Last night, around 35 Bay Area theatre community members gathered at Last Planet Theatre in San Francisco for the latest in an ongoing program of "theatre salons" hosted by a group of six local performing arts people, myself among them.

The theme was "what is fringe?" and we spent the evening eating, drinking, and hotly discussing issues surrounding notions of fringe theatre. Wide-ranging ideas came up during the conversation, but we essentially kept returning to one issue: Whether fringe is a type of theatre (ie something that can be defined by its content and other associated factors) or the name given to a particular arts experience, usually a festival.

To some, the fringe specifically denotes a festival of uncurated theatrical work such as The Edinburgh Fringe. Any use of the term beyond that is meaningless. Others, meanwhile, think that there is such a thing as "fringe theatre" and more or less define the concept along the same lines as one would "alternative", "experimental" "outre" and other similar terms.

For me personally, the most interesting talking point of the evening stemmed from the beginnings of a discussion we had about the distance that local artists feel between the fringe and the mainstream. In the Bay Area -- and I suspect it's the case all over the U.S. -- there exists a wide gulf between the small, alternative world of theatre-making and the relatively-moneyed, mass market world. The gulf exists not just in terms of the size of the budgets, but also in terms of the content as well as the artists and the types of venues involved.

We didn't get a chance to explore issues of the relationship between fringe and mainstream theatre as much as I'd have liked to last night. But the ideas have been pinging around my brain ever since. It was particularly interesting in light of yesterday evening's event to come across Nicholas Hytner's (pictured) article in from yesterday's edition of the UK Times this morning. I'm pretty tired of British newspapers publishing articles with self-important headlines like "British theatre is the envy of the world." But a paragraph in Hytner's article about the fringe caught my attention:

"Maybe the biggest change in the British theatre since the foundation of the National in 1963 has been, if not the assimilation of the fringe into the mainstream, then at least the blurring of the line between the two," Hytner writes. "It's a mark of the health of our theatre that artists and audiences now travel happily between the two, and that the discoveries of the new wave are hungrily coopted on behalf of the wider audience. The fraternal dialogue between fringe and mainstream means an artist like Emma Rice can base her company, Kneehigh Theatre, in Cornwall, work at both Battersea Arts Centre and the NT, and collaborate cheerfully with an enterprising commercial producer to draw the crowds to the West End. And if you go to Edinburgh now, you can't really tell whether the Fringe or the official Festival represents the establishment."

It's been a while since I lived in the UK and worked in its theatre community, but if what Hytner says is really true, then the British theatre is indeed enviable for this very reason. Artists working in the theatre on this side of the pond just don't get to move as freely between the fringe and the mainstream. Why? Just as the literary mid-list has dwindled to close to nothing in the book publishing world, so mid-sized theatres are a rarity in this country today. As a result, artists find it hard to transition from making work on a small scale to a larger scale. Plus, there's the need for artists to sustain themselves with better paying jobs in the industry that make the economics of performing on the fringe untenable. (You can put on a sold-out, critically-acclaimed show at the fringe, but if you can only charge $9 a ticket perform just six times in a 50-seat house, you're not going to make enough to keep a roof over your head.)

In the rare case that an artist does manage somehow to score that breakout hit enabling them to leap from the off-off-Broadway scene to Broadway (or at least the fringe scene to more mainstream venues), then it's usually a one-way journey. People over here "graduate" from the fringe. They don't hop freely between the margins and the mainstream several times in any given year.


  • I think this post sums up one of the things that makes me grateful to be covering theater in Chicago. Not that it's paradise, but the schisms between fringe/storefront/alternative/whathaveyou and midsize/major regional houses are nowhere near as pronounced here.

    By Blogger Kerry, At September 23, 2008 at 9:56 PM  

  • "Strummin' my pain with her finger's.
    Singin' my life with her song...."

    Christian Cagigal
    Best of SF Fringe 2004
    Precarious Theatre Founding Member
    SF Mime Troupe Former Member

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 25, 2008 at 1:55 PM  

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