The Fringe TheatreFest in Barnstaple is in full swing in for its 12th year. It has created the kind of buzz that is a rare commodity to package. Part of the success of the Fringe TheatreFest has been the way it has stuck to its original principles.
Organisers Bill Buffery and Gill Nathanson experienced the Canadian fringe phenomenon and put it into action in Devon.
“The principles have remained exactly the same,” said Bill when we spoke to him. “We’ve grown it little bit by little bit.
“We started in just one venue, over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with about 8 shows. But right from the beginning it’s followed very particular principles we’ve borrowed from Canadians.”
In Canada, ‘fringe’ is a trademark and for a festival to call itself a fringe it has to follow certain rules.
First, fringe means fringe theatre, and that focus isn’t diluted.
Second, and this is something that can come under pressure, it is unjuried. That is to say the selection process is fastidiously random, so nothing, not even subconscious cultural preferences, gets in the way of what’s performed.
“When people apply for our festival, it all just goes into a hat and gets drawn out of a hat,” said Bill. Of course, that could mean that what looks fabulous could be on the waiting list, but that’s also part of the fringey strength. The rollercoaster ride of the unexpected.
And what’s more, 100% box office goes back to the companies.
“Our experience in Canada was that the fringes were geared towards the performers – it was possibly to make a living out of fringes in Canada,” said Bill.
Although the selection process is random, the Fringe TheatreFest team stay in control of the programming. That programming has grown from just one event to events taking place throughout Barnstaple – they cover every sector of the town architecturally as well as in terms of audience.
Creative and cultural buzz
There are something like 80 companies giving about three performances each in a crowded programme which creates a real creative and cultural buzz in the town, which is something the TheatreFest people are trying to encourage.
The innovation of alternative venues and taking the fringe to the street has increased the visibility of the events, but also engages another demographic and places important, thought-provoking work in the face of a new audience, raising questions about what theatre can be.
In the 90s, Bill was running a company called Orchard Theatre Company. In the changing funding and theatre environment, he and Gill took some advice to explore the Canadian fringe experience to recharge their batteries.
“We just fell in love with an arts platform that neither of us had experienced before,” said Bill. “It was clearly owned by the people of the cities, who engaged with knowledgeable dialogue about what we presented and the shows we were seeing – that fired us up.”
They became obsessed with what these festivals were about: not just the art but providing a focus for conversations between very different viewpoints.
In order for their idea of a fringe festival to work, they needed to find willing partners.
“That happened in 2007, when the then management of the Queen’s Theatre in Barnstaple provided us with the infrastructure in terms of box office and marketing, and the local college joined with us to provide the venue,” said Bill.
Since they’ve grown they’ve found other people willing to take part. The festival is entirely run by volunteers, including Bill and Gill. Those volunteers run up to 80 for the duration of the fest, with 6 who work on it throughout the year.
They’ve worked closely with Barnstaple’s town centre management which represent the small traders, but they have also reached out to some of the larger businesses.
“We’re now feeling that we’re more and more embedded not just in the cultural life of the town, but also for the financial life of the town,” said Bill.
One of the changes they’ve witnessed, particularly in the last couple of years, is the need for creating a safe place where diverse views can be represented.
“It’s become an impetus,” said Bill, as he described the role of theatre to get people together and inspire them to share views and even disagree politely. Conversations that spring up in the beer tent that can rival any arts review and informed debate can bring people together.
They have also been thinking consciously about the journey of the audience, and not just what the companies get out of it.
On top of that, they’ve been quite strict with companies, asking them to attend for three of the four days to make sure they engage with the fringe fest, other performances as a whole and also the town.
“We want companies to view this as a place where they can find inspiration,” said Bill.
This approach to the fringe ethos isn’t unique in the UK, but it is does pose some cultural questions that touch on class, hierarchy, control and variety.
“What I learnt to really love in Canada was to go to shows that had different levels of competancy,” said Bill. “But what fascinated me was to see what it was that was making these people put this thing on stage. What was driving them.”
Bill has a lot of respect for audiences, and he’s excited about the way fringe broadens the theatre experience, helping people expect the unexpected.
A lot of people can “find the engagement of a show in a tent or on the street or in a pub, as something fun they can appreciate,” said Bill.
Find out more about the Fringe TheatreFest in Barnstaple.