fringe theatre

   Fringe or alternative theatre defines itself against the mainstream subsidized and commercial theatre establishment, deriving its experimental and political incisiveness through its own active exclusion from the mainstream. It challenges dominant dramaturgical traditions by focusing on the development of new innovative forms of theatre. The term ‘fringe’ theatre was originally coined to describe the theatrical events spontaneously staged on the ‘fringes’ of the Edinburgh Festival (see Edinburgh Festival and Fringe). Pervaded by the radicalism and revolutionary optimism of a younger generation, fringe theatre exploded during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Music, political ideology, performance and visual art contributed to extricating theatre from previously elitist confines. The fringe proliferated in non-traditional theatrical spaces such as pubs, clubs and warehouses, while the ensemble and touring group structures of early fringe formations (transporting theatre nationwide to unconventional audiences) were indicative of its originating ethos as a democratized theatre of resourceful collaboration. An initial American impetus began with Jim Haynes’s Traverse Theatre Club, Edinburgh (1963) and Arts Laboratory, London (1969), Charles Marowitz’s Open Space Theatre (1968) and touring companies such as Inter-Action and Freehold. Pioneering early British groups included The People Show (1966), The Pip Simmons Group (1968–74) and Portable Theatre (1968–72). Eminent playwrights like Pam Gems, Howard Brenton and David Hare emerged from the left-wing inclined fringe.
   From early fringe venues like Ambiance and the Almost Free, spaces including London’s Waterman’s Arts Centre, Gate and Bush fringe theatres and groups like Shared Experience (1975), Paines Plough (1975) and Actors Touring Company (1978) continue to nurture new talent (for example, Sarah Kane, Simon Bent and Enda Walsh). Selective Arts Council funding for small theatre companies during the Thatcherite 1980s strangled new creativity, the boundless energetic fervour of previous decades soundly dissipated in a creatively and financially spliced morass that created a specialized and institutionalized fringe. With the fringe encompassing agitprop, alternative comedy, improvisation, mime and the cultural concerns of other specialized small theatres, companies like Tara Arts (1977), Sphinx (1974, formerly Women’s Theatre Group) and Talawa (1986) have survived financial constraints to stage boundary-breaking plays in and beyond their respective Asian theatre, feminist theatre and black theatre moulds. The National Theatre production of Tara Arts’ Tartuffe (1990) exemplifies the coalescing agendas and conceptions of fringe and mainstream theatre. Through a mutually beneficial interaction, a threatening mainstream appropriation of the fringe is conversely perceived as evincing a permanent fringe influence on British theatrical life.
   Further reading
    Rees, R. (1992) Fringe First, London: Oberon (an experiential insight into the early fringe through former touring company Foco Novo).
   SATINDER CHOHAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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