Make room for theatre

If you are planning on taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, Paul Levy of Fringe Review has some advice:

 Where the budget isn’t there, and also where early reviews of a show are critical of the way the show has been staged in the performance space, it might be worth thinking about “intimism” and going for simplicity.

I would add: if you’re using a projection keep it as simple as possible (or cut it), use minimal lighting, very simple sound, few props. Nothing in the show should depend on tech working properly. It should work very well with small audiences. So design any audience interaction to work even when you don’t have one.

Audiences can become fascinated and drawn in to scenes that open with intimism at their heart – a person writing, tidying, simple sitting and doing something practical – using that time to allow a character to come through – not hurrying but having the confidence to allow essential simplicity to reveal key aspects of the character they are about to see “in action”. (Levy)

It’s incredible how a performer doing nothing can fascinate. In all seriousness, the opening of ‘Hannah Ringham’s Free Show Bring Money’ by Glen Neath when she played with the cables and waited for the audience to settle was riveting. But not everyone has such an enigmatic presence.

Maybe principles of site-specific theatre are useful in Edinburgh.

If you’re in a non-theatre space it’s best to create work that is coming from/inspired by/designed for the space rather than imposed on it. It might be a cunning plan to avoid paying a venue and take over some toilets instead. Performances in toilets are always great. Something to do with the acoustics and the slight teenage thriller fear of a possible murderer in the next cubicle.

Thirsty, The Paper Birds (not performed in actual loos)








The small venues with minimal get in time and basic technical facilities, not to mention sound bleed and other fringe delights make it a challenge for anything that tries ‘too hard to impress’.  Best is just a performer or two in a small, non-theatre space having a chat with the audience.

A play may be over-complex, trying too hard to impress with set, lighting and clever sound, where what is really needed is a good dose of intimism. (Levy)

All very useful advice….I think….or actually is it a bit prescriptive?  Is this telling theatre makers what theatre they should make and how they should behave?

Some theatre makers are brilliant at creating intimate conversational low-tech work suitable for small audiences. For instance Chris Goode’s work and Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe’s the oh fuck moment and Molly Naylor’s show from the year before.

I’m a big fan of the artists mentioned above; they’re great. They gently coax the audience into investing in the process of making/performing/watching the work. I think audiences like their work partly because it’s very good, and also because it’s nice to know you’re going to be looked after and given something to think about. Note to self: Don’t forget to blow those bubbles I got in my goodie bag after Keep Breathing.

Chris Goode in 'Keep Breathing' Drum Theatre Royal Plymouth








But what if you’re not the kind of naturally likable person that audiences want to sit around the table and chat with? What if you don’t particularly want to sit around a table and chat with them? What if the intimate work Levy describes holds no interest for you? Is it the advice that is prescriptive or is it actually the restrictions of the fringe? Does the fringe push the avant-garde into small rubbish spaces and keep it there? Small spaces lend themselves to intimacy and naturalism. Is it really possible to do well with anything more….theatrical?

In its literary policy the tiny Finborough theatre says it’s looking for (amongst other things):

Plays that are artistically ambitious and thematically expansive.

Plays with large casts.

How brilliant! I haven’t seen a thematically expansive artistically ambitious play with a large cast on in a small new writing theatre yet. I shall go and see Don Juan comes back from the war.

I think it is very hard to make the kind of work the Finborough is looking for in such a small space, and even harder at the fringe with budget and technical limitations. In a small space with minimal lighting it’s hard to create any illusion, any magic…any theatricality. The stage inhabits the same space as the audience so the fourth wall is broken whether you want it broken or not. As a performer you have to adjust your energy to ensure you reach the audience rather than project through them or over their heads. A strong energetic performance can be uncomfortable for the audience in a limited space where they can see your sweat and exertion. But perhaps you also don’t want to get too small, to ask the audience to come to you more than they want to.

photo: Eileen Long








A couple of weeks ago I performed Opposition in Queen’s Theatre Barnstaple’s studio space. They call it a ‘studio’ but actually it’s their main stage, they just curtain off part of the auditorium so it doesn’t look so empty.

Queen's Theatre Barnstaple studio

As well as the fact that there was room for my set and all my crazy movement material on stage, the other brilliant thing was that there were loads of lamps hanging from the rig! And in the right places too. This makes a huge difference. The space and performer are made three dimensional, atmosphere and theatrical shadows and strong images are created. There was even a cyc so for the first time since the preview I could have a bit of Robert Wilson style coloured backdrop. The technicians were brilliant. I even got time off before the show to go back to the hotel and lie down for a bit. During the performance everything worked, live twitter feed projection no problem, sound was good (as far as I could tell) and it all went beautifully.

Opposition (Barbican Theatre Plymouth) - photo: Eileen Long








Opposition may be a solo show, but it’s big, and finally the space was big enough to contain it, to allow the ideas the space they need. The feeling of performing on a stage like that is incredible. It’s possible to project energy and work with performance presence in a way that is not attainable in studio spaces. The show was louder, bigger, stronger and funnier than any previous performance. An audience member’s laughter even got recorded onto one of my loops. The distance between the audience and me seemed to allow them the space to respond to the work. Then when I did break the fourth wall something actually broke, the shift had more impact. I even had to go down some stairs for the audience interaction bit. Normally going into the audience involves half a step forwards….

Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter











When I’m performing in a large theatre I’m overwhelmed by a sense that this is what I want to do. I never quite get that at the fringe. In fringe venues it’s more this is what I have to do in order to get somewhere else.

I think the idea of using a main stage as a ‘studio’ is brilliant. It gives the performers a chance to really perform. It doesn’t cost the theatre any more (as long as it’s not being used that night anyway), and perhaps saves them a bit of technician time and hassle.

Doing Opposition at the Edinburgh Fringe last year was a kind of great and definitely crazy experience. I didn’t lose money thanks to the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth and I got some excellent reviews, but other than, the London based nationals didn’t make it – being a regional artist that was one of my reasons for going. I expect a few people heard about my work that wouldn’t have done otherwise, and I got a few tour dates out of it. I got the feeling you need to do it at least twice in a row to get known up there. If I go again I’d do the full festival rather than just the last two weeks.

This year, I don’t want to make small, intimate work, or big, ambitious solo work. My next piece, Hunger will have a small cast and gorgeous (and probably complex) stage design and sound. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice producing it on my own in Edinburgh. I’ve also discovered that it’s a bit easier and a lot cheaper to invite people to see my work at a venue in London. And as long as I don’t coincide with 2,000 other shows in the same city there’s a good chance they’ll come.

5 thoughts on “Make room for theatre

  1. The best example of a performer has to be ‘young men dressed as an old man dressed as gorilla’ which has been on as part PBH’s Free Fringe for the past few years.

    Clearly this is just a massive plug for my own book, but I’ve just published a guide for performers going to the fringe based nine years experience of producing shows.

  2. Oy! That Fox bloke can’t plug his book unless I can plug mine. The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide ( addresses some of the good points you’re making here. If you have a show that depends on high production standards, then it’s certainly possible to do it on the Edinburgh Fringe, but you do have to make extra efforts to find the space that suits what you’re trying to do. As you suggest, that could mean extra finance to help you, but always worth holding out for the best conditions. Good luck!

  3. Hey Mark,
    Thanks for reading. Your survival guide is great. Maybe I’ll take my next show to the fringe in 2013 – unless anyone wants to step in with a bit of (a lot of) finance. This time might go as an audience member and actually enjoy it.
    btw my top tip for performers is to book yourself a 15min shoulder massage with Lindsey at the Underbelly every couple of days.

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