Dissecting the Fringe
Watching She Was Probably Not A Robot, Stuart Bowden’s charming one-man show about the apocalypse and a friendly (or at least helpful) robot, I wondered why more shows like this don’t appear on the Free Fringe or Free Festival. The free show revolution which has occurred at the Fringe in the last decade or so has been strikingly dominated by comedy. There are obvious limitations to the kind of theatre that could be staged at free venues, most of which are little more than airless cupboards above dodgy drinking holes. But parallel to the increasing prominence of free shows has been a burgeoning genre, shows which straddle theatre and stand-up and which on the face of it would seem suitable (or at least more suitable) for free venues.
This isn’t entirely true of She Was Probably... It has no set and minimal tech requirements, and while Bowden does use a backstage area for costume changes, these are so simple that it is easy to imagine them working in a more basic space. He does, however, use the full extent of the wide Iron Belly stage, and such space is at a premium in the free venues. Perhaps the most significant demand his show would make, in order to achieve its naïve and slightly haunting atmosphere, is to be insulated from outside noise and latecomers, problems which are particularly acute at free shows.
Bowden’s show is towards the theatrical end of this genre: it is a monologue with the characters acted out, with frequent comedy and some audience interaction. The plays written and performed by Daniel Kitson are closer to stand-up, unsurprisingly given his background. The theatrical elements they use are more to do with the design of the set, lighting and music, and in principle the script and performance itself would work reasonably well (though not as well) without them. A number of performers have staged shows in a manner clearly influenced by Kitson’s, from Stefan Golaszewski’s more straightforwardly dramatic monologues to Terry Saunders’s indie musings. As basically straightforward monologues, any of these could transfer relatively easily to a free venue.
The real reason why theatre has made such little use of the free spaces may be more cultural; the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that free theatre will not be of a high standard, and will not get the press or industry attention focused elsewhere. The sheer volume of free comedy shows has meant that some of these acts have become successful (witness, for instance, Cariad Lloyd who was nominated for a Best Newcomer Award in 2011 on the basis of a free show), and this in turn has made going free a more acceptable option for established comedians. In addition, the financial pressures on comedians incline them towards non-paying venues, whereas this is something from which theatre groups, with more funding available from universities, arts grants and so on, are to some extent insulated. It will probably take one or two successful shows combining theatre and stand-up to lead the way and make at least this form of theatre a respectable presence on the free fringe.