Manchester, with its thriving theatre scene, hosts two festivals celebrating new and fringe theatre in the same month, writes Matthew Badham
Writing about Manchester’s theatre scene recently, playwright Simon Stephens noted that it seems like everybody in the city is “in their own theatre company or writing their own plays [and that] it feels like something remarkable might happen here”. Some, however, would argue that remarkable things are already happening – in July there are two examples of the city celebrating new and fringe theatre.
The Flare International Festival of New Theatre takes place at venues across Manchester next week.
“It’s great for all the artists to come together as one big international community of new theatre-makers to see each other’s work and extend international networks,” says artistic director Neil Mackenzie. “It’s also wonderful for audiences to see a whole range of creative approaches to making theatre from all over the world.”
Asked to pick out a couple of shows that are emblematic of the festival’s approach, Mackenzie initially balks at the task, before relenting.
“It’s really difficult. I guess I would say Body On by Tamar Blom and Kajetan Uranitsch is one fantastic piece – funny, shocking, clever and touching all at once – by some great young theatre artists, who only graduated last year, but have already won awards and acclaim in Holland. And I’d like to say Welcome by Mareike Wenzel and the New Collective from Georgia: a piece working from a traditional theatre script – Chekhov’s Three Sisters – but transforming it in quite radical ways, exploring issues of immigration, homeland and the welcoming of strangers – but we still don’t know if the Home Office will grant them visas, which is more than a little ironic.” Not only ironic but prescient. Days after he speaks, the visas are refused.
The Greater Manchester Fringe – fringe to Manchester International Festival – has an anything goes approach to its programming.
“If you come to us with a show, we will find a way of putting it on,” says Zena Barrie, who runs the fringe theatre festival along with Lisa Connor and Iain Scott. To some, this open door policy probably sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it is all part of its mission to nurture up-and-coming performers (including comedians and musicians as well as theatre-makers).
“Fringe is a priceless testing ground for ideas and talent,” says Gareth Kavanagh of Lass Productions, which won the Manchester Theatre Award for best fringe production in 2013 with The Best. “Festivals help as they provide a low-risk platform for performers and a chance for unconventional venues to test the market.”
As a testing ground, can the fringe fare be of variable quality?
“Ultimately, yes,” admits Kavanagh. “But as long as things are sensibly priced, then that whole voyage of discovery aspect can be part of the fun. Last year, I saw a one-man show about Richard Burton that was extraordinary.”
The fringe’s unconventional venues can lure in some punters who wouldn’t normally set foot in a theatre, as Barrie notes, referring to the example of Len Johnson: Fighter. “A brilliant piece of new writing by Colin Connor, it told the story of the greatest middle-weight never to be champion, who was denied this opportunity because of his colour. They transformed the upstairs of the Kings Arms pub in Salford into a boxing ring and brought in an audience that had never been to the theatre before, including boxing fans and members of Johnson’s family.”