March 21, 2009

Fringe Festivals: a testing ground or showcase?

Editor    posted 21 Mar 2009, 10:05 AM

Sian Robertson’s review of The Needies sparked a debate that has raised the more general question of whether quality – or rather readiness – matters in the context of a Fringe festival. The last three comments are repeated below. 

Ashley Hawkes : posted 20 Mar 2009, 04:56 PM / edited 20 Mar 2009, 12:00 AM

Wow such passion in these comments, good shit. Anthony to answer your question -No, you did not see the same play. The Needies was very much a work in progress on opening night. The marketing material would’ve led one to believe otherwise but due to a number of factors -it was quite simply a bad run. Of a good play.

To be honest, if I was sitting in Sian’s Uncomfortable Chair, I could very well have written a worse review myself. And from my Directors Chair I seriously considered giving every member of the audience their money back.

I had failed to get the actors to a confident performance level  by opening night. We got into the swing of things on the 2nd night and were at-pace by final night. For the 85 people that sat through the first run, that’s 85 hours our bums will never get back. For the person that emailed me after the second night to thank me for bringing him back to the theatre, the first night was probably the reason you left in the first place!

This just goes to show how much a Fringe show can vary from night to night. Personally I try to book on the 3rd-6th night of a run if I’m seeing a play by an inexperienced company. Experience is pretty much the only thing that can up the levels of performance consistancy. One of the things that bugged me about the Fringe programme was that is was quite difficult to tell who was involved in each event ie writers, actors, directors? I certainly didn’t recognise many of the production company names so choosing what I wanted to see was always going to be a gamble.

I’m interested in experimenting with having the audience pay at the end of the show so as they can (anonymously) pay whatever suits their means and what they feel the play deserves. Has anyone tried this before??

J: email me your address and I will drop your $10 round. Honestly. I actually want to.

Ashley Hawkes

John Smythe  : posted 20 Mar 2009, 09:58 PM

Excellent Ashley – everyone is vindicated.

With such short seasons for Fringe shows it would be a shame if most people booked for later shows.  One of my criteria for ‘professional’ status is that the show is ready on opening night. If it needs to run in, then low-price previews are in order. But from the time full prices are charged, audiences should get what they have paid for. 

A world premiere of a homegrown work is always a special historical event and critics will always want to mark the occasion. It is therefore incumbent on companies to rise to that occasion. 

J2 : posted 20 Mar 2009, 11:55 PM

I can feel a debate coming on!!

While a premiere of a homegrown work is a historical event and should be recorded, it should be noted the context of the event.

The Auckland Fringe (to my knowledge; can’t be *&^’d scrolling through 6 pages of shows to check by the way) hasn’t had a show under $20 a ticket in its debut season.

Good luck finding that during every other week in your calendar.

Most shows were in their debut during the fringe, and that is what the fringe is and should be about; chucking it together and getting it up and running; it is a testing ground.

Furthering the critique of a show during the fringe and comparing it to deadly theatre is like drinking a $10 bottle of wine and saying it’ll destroy the New Zealand wine industry.

(Because the show was only $10!!! thats right $10!!!)

I’m sorry, but smell the coffee beans refresh the palate and be prepared for anything.

John Smythe      posted 21 Mar 2009, 11:54 AM

Fair enough J2: given the low ticket prices* everything rates as a preview/try-out season and it’s fundamental to the Fringe-going ethos that if you strike a dog, hey, it hasn’t cost you much, it’s usually only taken an hour or less, so you move on and try something else. It’s theatre-going as a risk sport. Great.

But most people have limited time and money so have to choose from the great range on offer. Word-of-mouth emanating from the show’s opening is always the most effective. The critic also has a role in indicating whether it might be your thing (as well as locating the event in history and in the wider context of theatre practice, and offering constructive feedback, etc). And most festivals require critics to go to the first or second performance of what are usually very short seasons. Hence, “the readiness is all” (Hamlet, 5 ii).

Consider Flight of the Conchords. They first emerged in the 2001 NZ International Laugh! Festival (Wellington) with their wonderfully idiosyncratic Folk The Word, declaring themselves to be “over being pigeon holed as retro-ass hip-pop future funk, a capella digi-house bongo rock, comedy folk.” Of their debut performance at BATS, I wrote: “With go anywhere voices, they do poker-faced banter and wacky lyrics with a wit and skill that wins huge audience appreciation, not least because we can hear every word.” Word-of-mouth fuelled audience demand saw them pack out Downstage the following year before heading further afield.

As I recall it their 2004 BATS ‘development season’ for High On Folk was not for review and that’s the show that went on to win them awards in Edinburgh, took them to London and brought them back to Downstage as “the almost award-winning fourth most popular folk duo in New Zealand”. And it was at the Edinburgh Fringe that they were spotted by a US talent scout …

The price of their early success was high expectation, hence their carefully sequestered ‘development season’. I think high expectations are also inevitable with a new Thomas Sainsbury play, which puts a huge responsibility on those who stage its premiere. In the case of The Needies it was important to discern whether it was the play or the production that fell short, on opening night at least.

The fact that it’s ‘poor theatre’ with no set or lighting is fine if that is how the playwright has written it: it can be rough as long as it is also ready.

*Breakdown of the 28 Theatre listings for Auckland Fringe 2009:

  4 @ Koha

  6 @ $10 (full)/8 or 5 (concession)

  6 @ $15/12, 10 or 8

  1 @ $16/12

  1 @ $17/12

  2 @ $18/13

  6 @ $20/15 or 8

  2 @ $25/20 or 18

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