Walking through the Assembly Rooms foyer just now it struck me that there are absolutely no original playscripts for sale here this year (the script of the verbatim World War One drama Forgotten Voices is, however, available). For a venue that used to be regarded as one of the more prestigious of the Big Five (Pleasance, Underbelly, Traverse, Gilded Balloon and Assembly) this seems incredible. In the past, the Assembly Rooms has hosted tours of Shopping and Fucking, Disco Pigs, etc. and seen the premieres of plays by Liz Lochhead and etc.
This year it is hard to think which of the shows housed here actually demand publication. Perhaps, in retrospect, the sell-out success of Scarborough will prompt a London transfer – but with its deliberately fringe-friendly standing audience configuration, it is difficult to imagine the venue that will want to stick its neck out. Soho studio, perhaps? Trafalgar Studios Two?
The same scriptlessness is true across other venues (with the obvious exception of the largely published output of the Traverse). Following past Fringes, plays like Peter Morris’s Age of Consent and Guardians, or Adriano Shaplin’s entire oeuvre have been transferred and subsequently published. It is hard to imagine what might receive the same treatment this year*. I would love to read Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, and also Hippo World Guest Book. Similarly, I think La Femme est La Morte might profitably unleash an enjoyable rash of student productions if it were published – although given the vast amount of copyright material within the show, which is in part effectively jukebox musical, I foresee problems. But, depressingly, I can’t imagine any publishing house touching them in a month of Sundays.
Overall, this feels like a Fringe during which the written word has been utterly steamrollered by the devised and the performance-based. So many shows, even if written in part, seem to take much of their life from the specific performers involved. Roles have not so much been allocated and assumed as created from scratch. I’m not complaining, or even sounding the alarm just yet – one year’s worth of successes on the Fringe certainly doesn’t represent anything like a trend, but I do find it interesting. Not least because if the Fringe represents artists doing what they most want to be doing, then the way that most theatres are currently run seems to amount to a vast obstruction to this material.
The pervasive management model of a literary department and the requirement of an extant script prior to rehearsal would disallow many of this Fringe’s greatest successes from inclusion. In one respect this is why the Fringe is so valuable – it allows artists to stage the work and potentially achieve entry into theatres without having to submit non-existent scripts or draft exactingly detailed proposals. They can simply do their thing, prove that it has an audience, and wait for the offers of a transfer to roll in. That’s the theory, at any rate. But then a new problem arises: given the way that London theatres have chosen to brand themselves, there don’t seem to be many plausible spaces for these deserving shows to go. There’s the Lyric Studio, The BAC, The Shunt Vaults, possibly the Arcola, and God help us, the Soho, but off the top of my head, those are about the only places in London that I can imagine seeing any of the innovative, non-literary work which I’ve been enjoying on the Fringe. And there are problems with each – the Lyric, and Arcola are already programmed well in advance. The BAC has an almost pathological aversion to a decent length run and the Soho already has a problem with its image as a scattergun receiving house with nothing even faintly resembling an artistic policy.
Okay, there are all the non-producing, non-artistically directed Fringe theatres, but these generally have such appalling hit-and-miss reputations that audiences tend to stay away in droves. Come on. When did someone last go to the Oval House, White Bear, Etcetera or CPT with the same confidence that they go to the National, Royal Court or Almeida, without a friend being involved? Sure, I’ve seen some astonishing work in some of the spaces on the former list and some utterly abysmal work in the latter, but at least with the latter one has a sense that there is some guiding intelligence behind the work rather than an ongoing desperate struggle to pay their rent by filling the space with any company prepared to stump up the exorbitant weekly-rental charges.
So, what to do? The Fringe is dominated by a sort of a work that while prevalent and wonderful for a month in Scotland, seems largely unable to find anything like the same homes in London. A show can sell out Edinburgh for a month, but totally fail to even reach London (or anywhere else) or to make an impression once it has finally snuck in. Perhaps it is something about the rare atmosphere of the Fringe. For one month, people put their prejudices on hold, shelve their preconceptions and simply go to work hoping to be amazed. Do audiences in London behave in the same way? Perhaps it also has something to do with the almost tapas-like way in which theatre is consumed during the Fringe – shows are never even one’s sole daily, let alone weekly or fortnightly theatrical fix – they are one piece of a multiple-show puzzle. So the hour-or-under format rises to the fore. What might feel unforgivably brief in London seems mercifully compact in Edinburgh. Audiences want a brief intense hit, not a feature-length thought-provoker. Attempts to recreate the heady Edinburgh atmosphere in London would ultimately lead to the collapse of all concerned. The Fringe can only be intense because it has parameters, if it was as long as everyday life, it would be approached as sensibly.
I guess the obvious, if boring, answer is that since the Fringe cannot be recreated, we should simply give thanks for its existence, enjoy it when it arrives, and then go back to normal life. However, there are clearly lessons regarding alternative modes of creating work aside from the single-playwright method which need to be learned by producing houses across the country if they are to capitalise on some of today’s brightest young talents.
*Yes, SilverTongue Theatre’s Man Across the Way at the Underbelly is also published, but as a consequence of its pre-arranged post-Edinburgh transfer to Theatre 503, whose chief script reader Will Hammond also works for Oberon.