… to this post I wrote yesterday about how a close-knit artistic community could exclude new audiences.
Hope you’re well.
So first things first, you are absolutely not ‘being an arsehole’ in raising this. The question of who is seeing the work and who feels comfortable seeing the work is an absolutely vital one. It’s worth asking over and over again. At Edgelands this summer John McGrath of National Theatre Wales said something that I have been endlessly recycling ever since, which is that when we talk about audiences we should only ever be talking about those people who are actually sitting or standing or lying in a room (or any space) with us whilst something is happening. An audience is those people who are present and nothing else. Because once we start generalising when we talk about audiences we can quickly disengage with a multitude of difficult questions; questions about who the work is for, who it is reaching, what is doing with or for those people and what kind of relationship we as artists or as curators or whatever want to have with them. So yes, always as an artist or as a curator I think people could and should be asking themselves who the audience actually are.
By John’s definition of what an audience should be (those people here, doing or watching the thing that is happening now) I think you are being pretty hard on Forest Fringe and by implication myself and Debbie and the way we run it. By your own admission you’ve never been to a Forest Fringe event and so have no idea who is in that audience. Despite that you assume here in a couple of places that it is made up mainly of supportive artists and that this is somehow what we mean by providing a safe space:
When they’re not performing new work in front of a supportive audience, they can become that supportive audience.
no audience member wants to walk into a room to find themselves in the midst of a party where everyone knows everyone else except them
This is an assumption that has been made before about Forest Fringe and it is one that actually gets me quite upset. In the first instant because it is patently not true. Last year by a conservative estimate we had between 1,500 and 2,500 people attend events at Forest Fringe, from an all night Daniel Kitson storytelling marathon, to 13 ‘sold out’ (around 70 people per night) performances of Dan Canham’s 30 Cecil Street to over 200 people squeezed into an Amanda Palmer gig. Suffice to say I did not know the majority of these people, as has been the case for every year of Forest Fringe since I have been intimately involved in it. As you know, in February we went to Lisbon to run a Microfestival there and me (or indeed any of us) not already being Big In Lisbon I didn’t really know any of our audiences there either. I’ve just got home from the Gate, it was a smallish but really appreciative audience of somewhere between 30 and 40 people tonight, of which I think I knew about six or seven. I couldn’t tell you about the other artists but I would say there were a good number of people there totally unrelated to the event and those performing in it.
The second reason it gets me cross is because of the disdain with which it implies that Debbie and myself (and by extension the artists we work with) hold ‘the general public’. There is a suggestion in there somewhere that we don’t really care whether they feel like they fit in or not, because we’re basically doing it for ourselves and our friends. Actually I believe strongly that quite the opposite is the case.
As I’ve said before, if you wanted to create a safe space in which artists can show work to other artists in a spirit of uncritical supportiveness you would absolutely never go to the woundingly exhausting effort of putting on a two week long programme of work at the Edinburgh festival. You wouldn’t do your utmost to generate as much publicity for that work and that programme as possible. You wouldn’t then continue to experiment with new places (across the UK and beyond it) in which to present that work and new means by which to present it, all the while being paid virtually nothing for doing so. None of which is to disparage the often brilliant environments people do create quite intentionally in order to provide a safe space to show work to other artists (Residence in Bristol’s Tiny Ideas being one very good example), but that has absolutely never been what Forest Fringe was about.
On the contrary, we want to invite those people in who perhaps don’t think this kind of work or this way of presenting work is for them. I believe absolutely in the value and quality of what the artists I work with are doing and I will break myself nearly in two to try and get people there to see it. All people. Any people. This is one of the reasons why we so value the fact that Forest Fringe is free. Because as you will have seen from the free events at Fierce, it encourages people who wouldn’t otherwise to take a risk on something that they haven’t heard of before. And yet somehow we’re still by some people assumed to be more exclusive than a venue on the other side of the city that is charging you £20 for every single show you go to.
We couldn’t make Forest Fringe at the Gate free. On the simplest level, by the terms of our agreement with the Gate we weren’t allowed to. A box office split of nothing is not exactly a good deal for a professional theatre in the middle of an expensive part of London that is trying to pay the bills. We did however make it as cheap as possible and none of the artists or the people organising it are really being paid what their brilliant work deserves. We are doing it because it is an opportunity to try and bring new people to our work, to build an interest in what we are doing and why we are doing it. As you’ll see on Thursday, I start every night by introducing who Forest Fringe are for people who don’t know, what we do and why, before explaining how the night will work. It is similar to what we used to do at the end of each night in Edinburgh, thanking people for coming and asking them to spread the word. In both instances that introduction or that thank you is there as an invitation. A means of opening ourselves up to those people who might not be sure if they fit in. Some people may still not feel this is for them and that’s fair enough, but we’re doing all we can to make them feel welcome.
I’ve been going on for quite a bit now, so I’ll probably stop. But just to say that none of that is intended to de-legitimize the question you are asking (which is such an important one) or to deny your right to ask it. I’m actually very glad that you did because it is something that matters a lot to me and I appreciate the chance to explain a bit of all of this. And perhaps actually part of the problem is mine, or rather Forest Fringe’s – a confusion over what is meant by a ‘community of artists’. I would see the ‘community of artists’ that have gathered around Forest Fringe as being the equivalent of the staff of an organisation, not its audience. And in fact I hope that perhaps having a community of artists in place of a staff structure, and a wider community of audiences and supporters that extends beyond that, encourages there to be less of barrier between those people doing and the wider public, not more.
Finally, on the subject of the quiz. It was just a quiz. It was intended as a bit of fun, for those that wanted to. We were very explicit that no one would be missing out on anything by going and that similarly everyone was very, very welcome to stay. Plenty of festivals that I have been to have a quiz. At the last Supersonic in Birmingham my team actually won the quiz though it had frankly dick all to do with my contribution. Some people like them and some really don’t (my girlfriend for a start) but surely everyone is familiar with the format. I’m struggling to understand how that something that would make people feel more or less like they belonged in a place. I don’t assume when I walk into a pub (or a festival) and a quiz is happening that consequently everyone else in the room knows one another and I don’t automatically assume that I am not welcome. Quite the opposite sometimes. The person who won the quiz (although I will admit that this was on a technicality after the Gate’s artistic director and Mr Haydon himself got the highest points total) is not someone I have ever met before. He was pleased, and I hope he’s coming back next week.
See you on Thursday. I really hope after all of this that the audience is not entirely made up of friends of mine. That would be slightly awkward. I have a good feeling it won’t be though.
Back to me again now. I feel a bit of a dick for not doing any proper research before mouthing off yesterday, but I’m also glad that this has been talking about a bit. I’m not qualified to champion the cause of the potentially overlooked new audience member, as I don’t really feel over-looked, but I definitely think that a lack of artist/spectator divide can cause its own problems.