I’ve been struggling with a concept over the past couple of weeks.  I’ve been reviewing shows at FringeNYC, and seeing a lot of new work and yet…  It hasn’t really felt like I’ve been at a fringe festival.

I should unpack that.  What I mean is that fringe festivals, in my experience, are events happening or, maybe more properly, positioning themselves on top of the edge of what’s happening now.  The mainstream is where you have your Andrew Lloyd Webber and your Spamalot; your Tennessee Williams, your Woman in Black, and your Midsummer Night’s Dream; these established forms proven to be popular and lucrative.  The fringe is where you get Fuck You! You Fucking Perv! and Dr Professor Neal Portenza’s Interactive Goat Hour, and Bootworks Theatre and Sound & Fury and Made in China!  The experimentation is happening on the fringe; the irreverence, the exploration, the uncertainty and the inquisition.

The first fringe started as an attempt by uninvited guests to capitalize on the newly founded Edinburgh International Festival in 1947.  The guerilla nature of the act, co-opting the event and subverting audience energies towards work created by less established artists was inherently daring.  The philosophy of open access (allowing anyone with an idea to rock up and put on a show) was quickly settled on as a guiding principle, and remains at the core of what drives the fringe in most places around the world today.

School of Night

At festivals like EdFringe and Adelaide, the gates have been flung wide, and one can expect to see everything from polished professional productions like The School of Night to a young man dressed as a gorilla dressed as an old man, sitting in a rocking chair for fifty-six minutes and then leaving.  You take the good with the bad and, obviously, there can be quite a lot of bad, but that’s sort of the point.  The fringe is a no man’s land where anything goes, and that’s why it’s so vital – because the fact of it, the fringe, creates impetus for artists to create new work, and new kinds of work.

we scorn the profane in favor of reverence

One thing I found a bit unexpected, upon first having moved to Britain, was the comparatively ubiquitous sense of barely restrained rebellion ever-present throughout many segments of society, but especially among the arty set.  Industrial actions (strikes, to US Americans) are so much less commonplace in the United States than in the UK, and this may be symptomatic of a more insidious condition – a sort of ‘willingness to obey‘, which I never noticed before leaving the country and now seem to see everywhere I look.  We put up a resistance to rocking the boat in the US; we scorn the profane in favor of reverence, and nowhere is this more true than in our theatres.

In Britain, there is an almost belligerent tendency to question authority to a fault, and this obstinance extends into the way of thinking about theatre and performance.  Now, obviously, this is not to say that every piece of British theatre is ground-breaking, or that every Brit is a revolutionary.  Far from it.  The West End is doing just fine, thank you very much.  But there is that restless sector of society, less interested in refining than in innovating, which (perhaps infuriatingly) insists on questioning the generally accepted conventions.

‘Well, why should we perform in a theatre?”

This process is so much a part of the experimental theatre scene, that an innovation scarcely hits the pavement before it, too, is being questioned.  And this sense of adventure, or anything-goes, party-time action is not confined to Britain’s fringes – One encounters the same electric question marks in Australia, Europe, and Canada – pretty much all over the place.  But it is decidedly less common in the United States.

Patty Hartigan, writing in the Boston Globe more than fifteen years ago, sums it up.  “Apart from a few progressive colleges with well-founded performance programs, presenting opportunities for experimental theater dried up nationwide, starting in the early 90’s.”  The frequently political nature of experimental theatre is seen as irksome by a consumer driven economy and its proponents, and funding is difficult to come by for companies not treading the company line.  Even the seminal Living Theatre was forced to close its doors last year, and as its co-founder, Judith Malina shuffled off-stage, barely a whisper was heard.

The Living Theatre“If this was Japan, if it was France if it was Canada, Judith would be a national treasure – She would be recognized for her contributions […] I mean we’re talking about one of the architects of the counter-culture.”  Penny Arcade said in an interview with NPR‘s John Kalish.  As Malina exits stage-left, dreaming of creating a performance with fellow residents in her assisted-living facility in Jersey, we’re left with one less light in an increasingly darkened theatre.

When Peter Brook described deadly theatre in The Empty Space in 1968, his work was still considered to be very much avant-garde, but now it’s required reading for theatre students.  Impetuous innovators inevitably become the old guard, given enough time.  In our current situation it may be difficult not to think that all the revolutionaries have given up or gone home. And not to get too X-Files here, but maybe that’s how they want us to feel.  A defeated people is a malleable people, and so corporate fascism wins the day.

But it’s not just about funding and diplomacy, Theresa Rebeck suggests, in a 2009 post to the Lark Play Development blog, that theatre artists in the US are too focused on experimental work and that “while all us intellectual and hip theater artists are so busy running away from what may or may not be conventional, audiences are pretty much running toward it”.  But don’t be fooled by the wording “all us intellectuals”.  Rebeck is not siding with the progressive cause here.  She goes on to say that:

“[The Dorset Theater Festival] started out their season this year with Jack Gilpin starring in Conor MacPherson’s St Nicholas; it was a terrific night of theater, but didn’t sell many tickets. Just last week, however, they opened The Hollow, by Agatha Christie. This production is a boffo hit; they’ve sold more tickets to the Agatha Christie play (staged with dazzling panache by artistic director Carl Forsman) than they have sold to any production of any other play in the last three years.

three full hours of some pretty hilarious Agatha Christie.

Does that make the audiences in Dorset stupid? I’m sure there are plenty of theater artists who would say, well, it doesn’t make them smart. On the other hand, these are not people who just stay home all night and watch television, or go see bad movies about idiots blowing up airplanes. These are people who got in their cars, drove to the theater and paid $45 each to watch three full hours of some pretty hilarious Agatha Christie.”

Laughing Audience

Rebeck thinks it’s a case of audiences balking at a naval-gazing culture of pretentious artists.  But audiences in places like Edinburgh aren’t so much more sophisticated than the Dorset Theater Festival’s patrons as one might think given her post.  They’re mostly just ordinary people, drawn to the spectacle of a city-wide festival, and yet ticket sales are for EdFringe, the largest celebration of experimental performance on the planet, are on the rise, while American audiences would evidently rather laugh at Agatha Christie for three hours. 

So we’ve got funding streams not supporting experimental work and audiences not buying tickets for it.  And these sound like pretty solid reasons to color inside the lines, but we’re not talking about a uni-directional traffic system – these streams flow both ways, and a healthy culture of experimental work will certainly breed some failures, but it will also yield some astonishing success.  And America is not immune to success, contrary to what anyone might have to say about it.  Sleep No More is proof that Americans love a good show as much as anyone.

So…  Back to US American fringe festivals and the diversity (or lack of diversity) of work present.  I hear what you’re saying.  You’re saying, “But FringeNYC isn’t a true fringe – it’s juried.”  And, while I’d agree with you that this particular festival is not in keeping with the spirit of fringe (in more ways than one), I’d have to disagree that this is the root of the problem, because every other fringe festival I’ve been to in the US so far exhibits the same lack of artistic daring.  And the majority of them (like the Orlando International Fringe, for instance) have been unjuried and *mostly* uncensored.

So what gives?  Where is all the trial and error?

I speculate that theatre makers in the US have a sense of reverence towards the canons of theatre.  That we have a tendency to hold what goes on in a theatre as sacred, and (for the most part) not to be fucked with.  And since returning to the US, I have seen this sense of propriety echoed time and again, from Los Angeles to Orlando.

SM TshirtPerhaps the most clear evidence of this rigid adherence to conventionally accepted practices is in the role of the stage manager, as performed here and abroad.  American theatre practitioners will all be familiar with a certain type, which immediately jumps to mind at the mention of the SM.  Dressed all in black, he or she (usually she) has a carabiner with a role of glowtape, some black tie-line, and a massive ring of keys clipped to his or her belt.  There’s a counter-culture reference or snarky clogan on the t-shirt, and a no-nonsense stride as he or she steps into the room, usually holding some sort of sign-in sheet or attendance sheet, and he or she is perpetually in a ‘not on my watch’ frame of mind.  We once showed up to a theatre we were meant to be loading into at a festival in the midwest, and we arrived a little ahead of schedule.  The SM strode up to us and perfunctorily told us that we could take a seat and wait; we still had six minutes until our assigned load-in time.

Now, I know what a trial it is working out schedules, especially at festivals where there are literally infinite numbers of moving parts, but we happened to be the only act in this particular venue.  At all.  She was so matter-of-fact I thought she was joking at first, but she wasn’t, and for the duration of the two week affair, we didn’t get a millimeter of flexibility from her.  I was tempted to label her a jobsworth, but there was nothing malicious about it.  She was just doing her job, and she honestly believed that things just needed to be done the right way.  And that meant, the way she had been taught in stage management school at university.  There was no sense of adaptation, no working with the new set of parameters.  Just a regimented, black and white approach to doing the job.  Outside of work, she was fun-loving and (somewhat) carefree, but when we stepped inside the theatre, she meant business.

there is an accepted, right way of doing things, and then there are loads of other, wrong ways

It’s as though the mindset is (generally speaking) that there is an accepted, right way of doing things, and then there are loads of other, wrong ways.  But this caricature of a theatrical professional is practically unheard of in the UK.

So we’ve got a reciprocal cycle of makers, audiences, and educators all feeding a system of *mostly* samey work, on the fringe and off.  And it’s terrifying to me.

I had a conversation yesterday with a talented maker and a good friend, Azure Osborne Lee, on the topic of a show we had both seen at the fringe, tangleplay.  The work was a fairly experimental piece of theatre about a woman who undergoes an ordeal at the hands of a mysterious group of proctors.

The show had some fairly serious issues, Azure described it as having been “a bit too rapey for [him]”, and I had to agree – the position the audience are placed in is fraught with dilemmas arising out of our proximity to the character/actress, and her mediated torture.  But despite these glaring ethical questions, we both agreed we liked it for its daring, and that work like this needs to be encouraged in the US, not for its content, but for its approach to theatre making.

Experimental art has always been important, in every society.  Work that pushes norms and gets people thinking and talking is essential to having a healthy socio-political system.  We need more work that provokes unquiet and refuses to take the party line in the United States.  And this is especially true right now.  In the wake of the the Aaron Swartz debacle and that astonishing business in Ferguson, we need to be asking more questions.  It’s all too easy to get distracted by the shiny things on television and go out to buy a new treat, but treats aren’t always good for you.  People may find the malcontent to be an irritation – it’s so much more pleasant when everyone just plays along, isn’t it?  But pleasant doesn’t get things done.  Pleasant doesn’t close down gitmo or bring back the genius we lost to Carmen Ortiz and her enforcement squad.

Not every work needs to be earth-shattering, or get us up out of our easy chairs with pitchforks in hand, and not every experimental work will, but the fertile ground has to be there in the first place, and we’ve spent decades salting the field.