This month Edinburgh hosts the world famous Fringe festival, featuring thousands of acts performing a three week programme of experimental, disruptive, sometimes painfully bad and often inspired theatre, comedy, cabaret and dance. As a standalone event, it can’t be beaten, but for those looking to get their cultural fix a little closer to home there’s much on offer within the region’s year-round fringe theatre offering.
“There’s some incredible varied stuff taking place in the north. You’ve got everything from big musical productions to little one-man shows. It’s an incredibly vibrant scene and it’s only going to keep growing,” says Matt Woodhead, artistic director of Sheffield-based FYSA Theatre Company.
FYSA is just one of dozens of new independent theatre groups that have sprung up across the north in response to government cuts to arts funding. Providing a vital outlet for challenging new drama that would otherwise struggle for exposure, fringe theatre offers an important alternative to the mainstream fare and classical revivals that fill most big theatres.
A complete list of all the independent companies and venues operating in the region would fill this page, but some of the most interesting include Manchester’s Box of Tricks, Gap and Monkeywood. In Liverpool, Writers LABB and the Unity and Lantern Theatres deliver a dynamic mix of original plays.
Across the other side of the Pennines, there’s Sheffield’s Theatre Delicatessen, based in a former Woolworths. In Leeds, Slung Low, Unlimited and RashDash consistently produce high quality work in pop up-venues on often limited budgets. The north also boasts a healthy festival scene with The Great Yorkshire Fringe, JB Shorts, Re:play, Shiny New and Greater Manchester Fringe among the many events showcasing original work.
“For me, fringe theatre is really about engaging with different communities who are not on the theatre scene and giving them an opportunity to be a part of it. That’s when it’s really exciting,” states Woodhead, citing lauded FYSA productions The 56, about the Bradford stadium fire, and E15, about social welfare, made in collaboration with local participants.
Providing a platform to an altogether different side of fringe theatre is the 150 seat Hope Mill Theatre in the Ancoats district of Manchester, which specialises in musicals and staged an extended month-long run of the Tony Award-winning Parade earlier this year.
“We want to be the Donmar [Warehouse] of the North West,” proclaims director James Baker, formerly of Salford’s Kings Arms Theatre.
“If you say fringe theatre to some people they imagine a lone actor sitting on a chair. What it really means is ambition, innovation, the nurturing of employment opportunities in our cities. Not going: ‘You’re trained now. Head to London.’”
Supporting a thriving fringe theatre scene are a number of regional theatres, including the Lowry in Salford, Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse and Civic in Barnsley, which all regularly showcase new work and develop fresh talent.
“Without them your work would just get left in a pile that no one reads,” says Ruth Hartnoll of Writers LABB, which was born out of a young writers programme at Liverpool’s Everyman & Playhouse.
“We do what we do because we love it. Not necessarily because we want to make money, otherwise we wouldn’t be in theatre,” she jokes.
“We don’t have to play by the rules and can therefore offer groundbreaking work,” agrees Siobhan Noble, co-owner of Liverpool’s Lantern Theatre, which sadly closed its doors last month following the sale of its building. Nevertheless, her love of fringe theatre remains undimmed.
“We are extremely passionate about the work that we create. The stories that need to be told, especially in our current political climate, can only really be told independently.”
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