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Features Published 14 November 2017

The dark side of the fringe

Following reports of abusive behaviour at Courtyard Theatre, Alice Saville explores how conditions in fringe theatres allow bad practice to go unchecked.
Alice Saville

I’m going to open this feature by saying that I can’t verify the above conversation. I wasn’t there. But the interactions that Kelechi Okafor describes as following her attempts to get her box office receipts following her show’s run at the Courtyard Theatre are completely unacceptable, and they’re something that need to be investigated fully. Explored more widely, words she quotes are also a precise distillation of the potential for abuse in the smallest, fringiest, least-scrutinised corners of the theatre industry.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about off-West End venues like Southwark Playhouse, or well-run, well-funded small theatres like Camden People’s Theatre or New Diorama. I’m thinking of the hidden, undersung theatres that often have a little bit of magic to them. They’re housed above pubs, or in old churches, or in basements down tiny alleyways. They have ramshackle websites which look like they were designed by someone’s teenage cousin ten years ago. They often have resident dogs or cats. Outside the front of house spaces, there are warrens of corridors stuffed with dilapidated scenery and bags of who-knows-what – tumbleweed wigs, yellowed playscripts, forgotten crisp packets. I love these theatres, in case it’s not clear enough already.

This grimy magic goes hand in hand with their flaws – which are, simply, that these spaces are often the personal fiefdom of the owner or artistic director who takes responsibility for them. They’re dream projects, or vanity projects, or oh-goodness-young-Herbert-must-do-SOMETHING-let’s-buy-him-a-theatre projects. They live in the underexamined hinterland between amdram and professional theatre. Their owners are expected to do the jobs of about five people, most/all of which they haven’t been trained for, for scant reward. Even in the very best, most wildly implausible case scenario (a West End transfer) they’ll only see a tiny share of the profits.

But that doesn’t mean that their problems should go unnoticed. Endearing as they might be, under-covered by the press as they definitely are, they’re also charging large amounts of money for a service which they’re often not delivering. That means that people like me need to look at them with clear eyes, not misty nostalgia. A run at a fringe theatre is probably the most expensive thing that most emerging theatre companies have ever bought. They’re dredging up hundreds (or thousands) of pounds to stage their work at a theatre, money that’s found by launching endless crowdfunders or loans or draining savings. What they’re often getting in turn is little or no marketing or PR support (judging by the number of companies who tweet us a press release days before opening night) at a space without a built in audience. They might get someone who can help them with the lighting desk, or who can muck in at the get-out, or they might not – it’s a bit of a lottery. They might not get their box office receipts back for months, or years, after the show. The bit in La La Land where Emma Stone’s character is appalled she’ll have to pay the theatre at all seems deliriously mild in comparison.

And there are darker sides, too, which emerge, periodically, like damp stains from behind furniture as they creep up an ill-maintained wall. The kind of sweary, threatening behaviour described in Kelechi Okafor’s tweets is common. When I worked on a show at the Courtyard Theatre, everyone I met seemed to have a story to tell about its ‘eccentric’ owners. Lauren Mooney has written pieces on the tiny Tea House Theatre and its worryingly dysfunctional advert for a new assistant, as well as the vulnerability of touring artists to decisions by venues like the Luton Hat Factory. Further afield, I’ve heard endless stories of small, cosy, grassroots venues who behave in entirely uncosy ways.  Like the playwright whose work was programmed as an in-house production, only to be bullied by the theatre into contributing hundreds from their personal savings when the theatre didn’t have enough ready cash to buy wood for the set. Or the underpaid assistant who was literally locked into the theatre’s tiny office for hours, as a ‘joke’. Or the artistic director who lost his rag mid-tech rehearsal and threw a fringe company’s entire set into a skip.

There are plenty of fringe venues where this kind of toweringly unprofessional behaviour would be unheard of. And plenty of other ones where it would be a daily or weekly occurrence. To get back to the ‘a lot of money’ point, fringe venues might be built on love, but they’re run on money. If this money comes from consistently screwing over small companies, do they really deserve to survive?

For many fringe venues, their real customers aren’t the audiences who come through the door: they’re the companies who book the space. A simple solution to putting their needs first would be a kind of Glass Door website, where fringe companies could leave reviews of each venue they’d worked at. Imagine if each space was rated on friendliness, professionalism, safety, technical support, PR & marketing and financial propriety – and flagged for abusive behaviour. Even better would be an umbrella organisation of small theatres, where rogue venues would be called to account, support offered, and ideas for best practice were shared.

Increasingly, some younger theatremakers are looking beyond London’s map of established pub venues. And The Rest Of Me Floats, by OutBox Theatre, was a beautifully staged performance that unfolded on the stage of a former community hall, the Rose Lipman Building. Handheld torches illuminated the bodies of queer performers as they shifted from personal testimony to playful explorations of light and their shadowy space. Until We Meet In England is currently unfolding in Safehouse, Peckham, a derelict Victorian house that’s often used for film shoots. Others are starting their own spaces, like Bunker Theatre in Southwark.

As professional publications shrink their reviewing remit, lesser-known fringe venues like Courtyard Theatre are falling off the radar and out of sight. Their overstretched, jack-of-all-trades bosses often don’t have the time or skills to muster up a strong online presence, or to attract new funding sources.

Paradoxically, the things that make these venues so lovely are also, sometimes, the things that are holding them back. Their decades of history breed complacency about the new companies trying to sell their show, now. Their cosy, open-all-day bars make it much easier for their owners to slip into problem drinking, and abusive behaviour. Their laidback atmosphere means that a kind of casualness seeps into all your dealings with them – and if there’s one time you don’t want to be casual, it’s over fire safety, or over getting your money back. Most of all, the model of having a single person holding so much unscrutinised power over so many “little guys” is a deeply unhealthy one.

To survive, these venues need to change. And outside scrutiny might just be the spur they need. As the UK’s biggest theatres rightly come under closer examination, post-Weinstein, it’s worth asking who’s investigating its smallest ones.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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