Thoughts on The Fringe
by Heidi Heimarck
When I lived in Minneapolis, an actor who became a great friend finally let me in on his story. He had been in and out of prison throughout the 1950ís, and not until he saw "Waiting for Godot" at San Quentin did he find any sense in the world. Suddenly, he knew that there were others who knew what waiting meant. There were others willing to explore the only thing he had known, in a way he had never imagined. He started reading plays, started performing them in prison, and eventually, with his release began his life as an actor. Through art he discovered himself as an artist.
Artists speak because they must. Underlying their art is an impassioned rejection of complacency and an unspoken realization that to be vulnerable is paradoxically to be strong. This is why I love The Fringe. The passion and the drive is evident; spoken in a new voice, often in a way we never could have imagined.
What is Fringe Theater? To define a genre like Fringe Theater seems to place inappropriate constraints on a form aimed at diversification. To define is to have power over. Definitions lead to rules. Rules create boundaries. Boundaries restrict freedom. And to allow any individual voice to bear the authority of definition allows that voice a power which no other individual or the Fringe community as a whole could equal. So this is not an attempt at definition, but rather an attempt to realize a calling some of us in The Fringe seem to feel.
Fringe Theater tends to be produced in smaller venues. Intimate theater, intimate space, intimate self. Recently, a patron of our theater said after a performance, "You were so real. At first, I felt too close to the actors, like they were on top of me, I was on top of them, but then I got drawn in, and was totally connected. Thereís not much separation between us and you. And you were so real." This was baffling as we had struggled with the various physical and vocal and internal masks needing to be assumed while creating and playing these strange characters. How could she have thought it was real? The core of her comment had to do with proximity. In the realm of spatial intimacy, there can be no lies, no hiding, no solid imaginary fourth wall. The wall is paper thin, if it exists at all.
There is an art to playing an intimate space; different from film and different from large-scale proscenium. Those of us who choose to explore the intimate space are sometimes questioned about our ability to play a larger venue, to adapt technically to a house of 500 or 1000. Do we really want to? I canít think of how many times Iíve gone to a large proscenium theater to see a large-scale production, and afterwards, felt somewhat entertained; but totally disconnected, somewhat hollow, a bit agitated, and generally disappointed. Yes, this is probably due to sitting in the cheap seats, which are far away and useless. So can anyone truly play a house that big? And no matter how well the actors tried to reach the back row, or how many body mikes were utilized not for effect but for volume, Iíve noticed that those who start the standing ovation are always sitting in the first or second row. Theyíre still the ones who got the experience.
The Fringe Theaterís artists are there to work. Not for much money. Not for much glory. Not even for reviews (because thereís no guarantee any reviewers will deign to appearóbut thatís another article). They are not there in the hope that someone else will discover them. They are simply working. They work because they must. Frequently, many of those in The Fringe are driven to work to the point of near exhaustion and near poverty. There is no glory in a suffering artist syndrome, but there is extreme glory in an artist working because s/he must work.
Lately, a general trend is leading being "Fringe" into something one has to be prepared to defend, instead of being held up in admiration and reverence. Fringe being defined as intimate or as political or as new has been replaced with poor or reckless or unsuccessful. Some of the media as well as some of the artists are responsible for this shift in definition. Perhaps a new definition should be created after all. But what simpler definition than Fringe Theater is played in small venues? Or, Fringe is self-defined by the effect of spatial proximity to time and emotional reality?
Fringe theater artists have created some of their own problems. Designers who try to emulate an expensive look rather than work with what they have, often find themselves with an unfinished set. Costumes are half-finished, and production elements have not been coordinated. I learned, a few years ago, to try to see shows as they are presented. Did the design elements, regardless of cost, serve this production and this space? Did the actors, regardless of skill, give their best truthfully? Did the director weave the text and actors and design to a purpose? Are the words worth hearing? Even if only one of these questions is answered positively, there is evidence of some artistís growth, and that artist should be honored and recognized for his or her lack of complacency.
The Fringe is no longer a tenuous experiment. As important as indices of public acknowledgment such as the Seattle Fringe Festival are, is the vitality of a complex network of artists and audiences committed to risk in the theater. We must continue to support each other. We must realize that art begets art. The more art the better. What Fringe Theater does now, theaters like the Seattle Rep will do in 10 or 20 years. This is the nature of the edge, the fringe. With growth what was once the edge becomes the center over time. Or it falls away. New edges appear. This is what happens naturally. Beckettís "Waiting For Godot" which, over 35 years ago had its premiere for an audience of 2 in a small theater in Paris is a prime example of the edge becoming the center. The history of theater is filled with similar public resistance to the unfamiliar, which only reinforces the idea that the best drama is likely a prophecy, a projection of how we will see the world, not how we do see the world.
Fringe artists: do not strive for the center, you will become it. Do not long for the success or recognition of your piece of theater before its time. You are at the edge. You are on the fringe. The center becomes you, even at a distance.