Fringe Theatre: A First Encounter
Fringe is to theatre as alternative is to pop. No, that doesn’t quite fit. Fringe theatre is to theatre what prog rock is to pop – a case of two types of art, grouped as one, neatly juxtaposed and slammed in the same package. The expectation that the recipient will immediately warm to both of them is as presumptuous as suggesting Justin Bieber’s ‘Belieber’ army will happily explore the back catalogues of King Crimson and Yes in between Pokémon marathons. Though to say that they are incompatible or don’t share any similarities is equally to miss the point. All music is made with instruments, all films are made with a camera, all theatre is made with a stage.
It’s a rainy evening on Wellington Quay and Charlotte, one of the actors of the 10DaysInDublin fringe play ‘Spurt’, is buying goldfish. The idea is to have twenty goldfish hanging from the ceiling in bags of water, swimming around for the entire show. “Participation with the audience is key,” she explains happily as she waits for the pet store owner to count out the desired number of freshwater fringe hopefuls in the tank, “I don’t think fringe theatre is ever performed with a fourth wall”. The owner claims he doesn’t have enough goldfish at the moment, but he can order in enough for the morning of the play’s opening. “Do you have any dead ones?”
It’s at this point that Charlotte quickly reassures Ramp.ie that the show doesn’t focus on an obsession with dead goldfish, but is a piece focusing on loss, and a human’s first experience of true grief. The story is loosely based around a boy called Finn, and the deaths of both his father and his pet goldfish on the same day. His emotions are poured into mourning for the latter, while he remains unmoved about the former.
“We’re tired of holding down crappy jobs,” I’m told, as we sit down for a chinwag in the Fringe Lab rehearsal rooms owned by the Gaiety Theatre. The actors all arrive in one-by-one and make no secret of their ambition, talking of moving to England or to Germany, where fringe theatre is really thriving as an art form, and can properly be pursued as a profession, where patronage is never far away and grants for the performing arts are well in excess of what’s available on our dear Emerald Isle. So just how does one afford to be a fringe actor in Dublin? “We have to be creative. To raise money we’ve had raves, table quizzes… used to run a club night, organized themed nights to raise money. But after you’ve received ten or so Euro off of someone for, say, entering a table quiz and buying a raffle ticket, it feels a bit greedy to charge them for coming to the play, you know? They’ve already given so much. It’s not the way it should be.” It’s a sentiment that should ring true across all arts. One need look no further than Amanda Palmer’s recent and hugely successful Kickstarter campaign to see the benefits of an audience, or other source, sponsoring creativity, as opposed to gouging a fan base for every last coin.
After a short wait, the cast has assembled and rehearsals of Spurt commence. It’s clear that the practices have only recently started and the show is still being formed, but opening night is in six days’ time. Is less than a week enough time to create a show and make it work? “It’s not really a problem” says Spurt’s main writer, Karl. It’s been strongly emphasized to us that fringe theatre is very much a collective effort and that all members of a show contribute equally to its content, but when there are such rigid time constraints as here, things can progress much more quickly if there’s a single mind at the helm with a small level of input from the other actors. “Normally we have up to two months to write, rehearse and perform a show. Just in this case, we’ve only got a week and a half to work.” It’s clear that everyone is working hard enough to try and get it all together on such a tight deadline.
But just what are they trying to get together? Still, we are oblivious as to what fringe theatre really is, what it really comprises. From what could be seen, it is a combination of drama, dark and light comedy, a cappella music, dance, monologues and story telling. It is low budget and next to no props are used. The actors strut around the stage slowly, waving their arms gently through the air that will be populated by bags of water containing the goldfish, singing four harmonies of ‘The Drums’ Down By The Water’. Initially, all four actors portray Finn and the different aspects of his psyche. A shocking opening is quickly tailed by a Picasso-esque edit of the Zapruder Tape, with the actors themselves also being the props, from Lee Harvey Oswald’s/the man on the grassy knoll’s rifle to the wheels of the Presidential car.
The artists may dig it and the cynics may laugh, or vice-versa. It seems to be a fine, angular path that fringe artists tiptoe along, sometimes stumbling to the side of creative liberty, sometimes to the side of downright silliness, but always trying to maintain a balance between the vivid and the surreal. Impact and resonance with the audience is the overall goal here. It takes a certain amount of bravery and freedom to act in these roles, swinging from being one character, to being an object, to being a different character in slow motion all in the space of ten or fewer seconds. While the levels of discipline, order and structure aren’t as rigid as what you’d see in a traditional play, the dedication and enthusiasm is certainly matching.
While there is undoubtedly more to come from the play in terms of story, emotion, expression and barminess, before we know it, it’s time for Ramp.ie to kiss goodbye to fringe for today and take stock of what has been witnessed – water covering the stage, Jackie O. weeping for her beloved dead, shouting, head choreography and anecdotes about dead gerbils, and that was just scratching the iceberg. Those who go to a fringe show may well walk out wondering what the hell happened and why their brain is now at a 45 degree angle. Equally they may emerge thinking that it is an exercise in piss-taking and vow never to attend anything so ludicrous again. Others will give it the purity of their hatred for all that is wrong with modern art. The rest will love it and never be able to explain why, other than acknowledging the imagination bleeding all over the stage.
Perhaps, then, fringe can best be considered as high-concept, zero-inhibition theatre. Not for everyone, but definitely worth a peek.
Spurt runs in The New Theatre in Temple Bar from 12-14 August. Tickets are €10.