Tuesday 10 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate

[first draft – still needs a bunch of formatting, and probably some more writing. Not to mention pictures and all that jazz. Still, thought I'd post anyway just so y'all knew I hadn't been idle all day]

Back Story -

Forest Fringe kicked off in 2007 when Deborah Pearson (full disclosure: a friend) took the opportunity to put on *some stuff* in the strange, unweildy, church-like space located above Edinburgh's Forest Café .during the Fringe festival.

The next year, she was joined by the then up-and-coming blogger, Guardian blogger, budding academic, former Aurora Nova press officer and occasional maker of work Andy Field (full disclosure: also a friend), and the two stuck together a two-week (?) programme of free, lo-fi, Live Art-y/ish performances, reading and happenings.

It's difficult to overstate now just how important Forest Fringe seemed to be for the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe. The main thing was that it was free for the artists who used it. It was also pay-what-you-can to the punters (altho', I would be fascinated to know how much this policy ever actually collected over the years. My guess is somewhere under twenty quid, but I'd be happy to be wrong). Very simply, this meant that for the price of the train fare and finding somewhere to sleep, a wide variety of artists could present work in a non-commercial environment. They could put on something *because they wanted to* without fear of the financial consequences. Similarly, exhausted Fringe-goers, used to being bled dry financially by mainstream venues, could just wander in and see *something* for whatever change they happened to have in their pocket. Or for free.

Also difficult to overstate is just how much press the damn thing got in the early days. Or rather, Forest Fringe (FF) was always very good at getting previews. And blogs. And think pieces. Allegedly, this is because the management are part of an ill-defined, shadowy, metropolitan elite who exist solely to promote and foist their unpopular vision of Art onto helpless hapless Fringe-goers (see the comment thread of EVERY SINGLE GUARDIAN BLOG EVER WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT for further details). What always seemed to be harder was for FF to get actual reviews of specific shows. Possibly I'm imagining this, but my impression was always that, thanks to various factors (number of shows in Edinburgh, length of runs at FF, the often “scratch” nature of the performances), individual shows rarely got proper write-ups.

Reviews -

On one level, this felt right and proper. If there's a minor kerfuffle about reviewing preview performances of “proper” plays, then on some levels reviewing scratches is an even more delicate matter.

At the same time, a notable feature “scratch culture”, at least as fostered by the BAC, is the feedback form.

And anyway, not all the stuff at FF was “scratch” by any stretch of the imagination.

Although some of it has, famously, been durational – and how to best/properly review that?

A lot else that FF has presented over the years occupies that interesting realm that, well, that the more old-fashioned sort of theatre critic might term “not proper theatre”. Well, fair enough. I think there are probably plenty of acts who have performed there over the years who wouldn't self-identify as “theatre” either.

Perhaps, then, another of the problems that faces FF as far as reviews are concerned is the lack of an agreed language with which to describe the work. Or at least, a lack of accessible terminology. Or even, more stupidly/simply than that, the lack of a proper *section* into which a finished review might be put – if the piece in question hovers round the margins between Dance, Theatre and even possibly Comedy.

At the same time, inventing a new category – “Performance” or “Live Art” seem the likeliest contenders – seems to run contrary to the whole spirit of an enterprise whose guiding principle has been to open up and make more accessible sorts of work which might have hitherto been deemed obscure, obscurantist or “niche”.

Which, less-than-neatly brings us to the present.

The Present -

Now Forest Fringe are presenting a two-week residency at London's bijou Gate Theatre. Gate *Theatre*. They're not above the Forest Café and there's no Fringe Festival. They're also charging for tickets. And there are proper seats.

All of this points to the huge success that the Forest Fringe *brand* has enjoyed; the very fact that a project which is essentially curatorial by nature has established an aesthetic that another artistic director (the Gate's new artistic director Chris Haydon – full disclosure: friend, but not relation) can wish to import wholesale – effectively *programming* *someone else* to do their *programming* for a fortnight...

MixPod -

Curation seems to be something of a *thing* at the moment. Quite by chance, I happen to have just got to the chapter about it in Simon Reynold's excellent Retromania, and cultural theorists on Twitter seem to be forever linking to new essays on the subject.

The previous chapter of Retromania dealt with the iPod. Reynolds, a lifelong record collector, wonders what to make of an object that can contain in a few square centimetres the same amount of music that he spent most of his life carefully accruing. The book also considers the change that the advent of YouTube has had on *scarcity* - the fact that, thanks to a fevered few years of uploading, one can now find online pretty much anything that was ever filmed. Nothing is *rare* any more, you just need to know to look for it.

Interestingly, a few short months before the first co-curated Forest Fringe, Field wrote the following blog for the Guardian:

Theatre Needs its iPod Moment (not his title, it needn't need pointing out).

In a key passage, he suggests: “What I want is a more iPod-like relationship between careful planning and chance. A structure which truly places chance at its heart, allowing it to weave little moments of carefully planned artfulness into impossibly rich, unpredictable tapestries that seem to reach deep into our minds and pluck at exactly what it was we were thinking; mixing things together into unique patterns that we never thought would work and yet strangely, brilliantly, really do.”

Although he's talking here about single pieces of theatre, taken out of context, the passage could easily be framed as a description not only of how FF worked, but of why it succeeds. Meanwhile, in Diana Damian's (excellent) new Exeunt interview with not only Field, but the two actual curators of Forest's fortnight at the Gate, Chris Thorpe (friend) and Dan Canham, Thorpe hits on an even more useful analogy:

“It’s like one of those evenings that you spend with someone, like an old friend or perhaps someone you just met. You take it in turns to play each other different tracks because you’re making a live mix-tape as you go along. You’re trying to excite each other and say this is something you might not have heard before, or if this is something you know, let’s listen to it together.”

Between them, these two passages seem to perfectly encapsulate the spirit in which this “curation” has taken place.

The reason that Forest Fringe has become so successful over that past five years, is precisely thanks to this combination of careful curation, real enthusiasm and chance. Hand-picked artists taking chances on new material, while lined up in such a way that, at best, they coalesce into something greater and more meaningful than the sum of their parts.

Which, handily, is also a pretty neat description of how and why the first night was so good...

Go to: Forest Fringe @ The Gate – 1

[oh, ridiculous bit of serendipity – today's Guardian has a nice Q&A with Simon Reynolds about Retromania]

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