Rules and Expectations - Are Fringe Festivals Elitist?
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
"Every aspect of society sets rules and expectations." That was one of the more insightful quotes from Intervention Theatre's "The World We Live In" while it was discussing class, and it got me thinking about the rules and expectations surrounding theatre. It is no secret that theatre, in general, is elitist; ticket prices are high, there is competition from other arts, and it is definitely seen as a middle to upper-middle class entertainment. Even shows which make a point of adopting techniques invented by practitioners to attract a wider audience are, arguably, only of interest to intellectual arts enthusiasts able to spot them. I tend to make a point of not dressing up when attending the theatre, in my own small form of protest to the whole affair.
As a festival tradition that was built on the concept of breaking away from the mainstream, the Fringe festival (which started life when a collection of artists who were rejected from the Edinburgh International Festival, and decided to perform in smaller venues in the area instead) should be something of a remedy to this. Smaller venues, ranging from impressive theatres to bars, low ticket prices, and enough variety to make one's head spin. In Edinburgh, that means space for artists to experiment as well as space for more popular shows that will draw in larger crowds. It is near impossible to walk in the city centre without being handed a flyer. When those festivals get smaller though, the restraints become more noticeable, the variety of shows just a little barer.
That is not to say there is any dip in quality; having attended both the Auckland and New Zealand Fringe in Wellington this year I saw some amazing creativity and talent, despite having a total of 257 shows between them this year as opposed to Edinburgh's 3398 in 2017. But to an outsider one can't help but question how accessible it is, whether it holds its appeal. I believe that going to Fringe shows, whether that is one a season or one a night, is something anyone can enjoy, but if there is no entry point then there is little incentive to seek out something so niche and special.
I am currently boarding with a family in Wellington, and upon learning that 13-year-old Zhan'e had never been to a theatre show and was eager to come along to one I looked through my calendar to see if I could find one she could accompany me to. I was surprised and a little disappointed at how few shows I thought would work - something I trusted to be good but that was not so strange that it would alienate her. Given how difficult it was I can't help but think it is a wonder any young people take interest in theatre today. In a city as rife with art as Wellington, this should have been easy.
Even beyond young people though, it can feel very exclusive. I went to see Hilary Penwarden's "The Loneliest Whale in the World" last week and concluded that while very entertaining (I won't deny my temptation to set her song "I'm a bisexual whale" as my ringtone), I could not fairly review it. Partly this was because it was arguably more music and comedy than it was theatre, but I also thought it would be strange and borderline invasive to write a review about that evening's performance on the basis of that night's audience. It was not a sizeable crowd (though Penwarden was delighted with the turn-out), but it was densely populated by people who were quite clearly her friends, and knew a lot more to the backstory of her autobiographical show than I could ever cotton on to. It was still a good show even without being in the loop, but I worry that there are elements of this in a lot of work out there - catering to friends adn others with inside knowledge, jokes and themes. On one hand I am happy for them as it looks like a great deal of fun, but it does add a certain elitism to proceedings.
As do expectations in Fringe shows. We have come to expect a certain audience to come to these shows, and while shows do not necessarily cater for them, they seem to be created with the ideal audience in mind. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Velvet Rhinoceros's "The Worst People", where the creators seemed torn between persuading and entertaining, and so settled for the latter as a way to guarantee applause. At the end of every show you can expect the same "fringe shows live off of word of mouth" speech, but how can we expect word of mouth to have an impact if we only play to the same people over and over again?
Of course, each individual show is made with the objective of the artist in mind, not for the performing arts community as a whole. However, if we want that to be the case for as long as possible we need to collectively evolve to make the Fringe more accessible. That does not mean commercialising and sterilising the productions, that just means changing the perception around them to get more people through the doors, which creates more interest, which creates more art and so on. It is idealistic perhaps, but at some point, we have to consider it an ambition and minimise artistic indulgence.