Feature: Forest Fringe

Moment 1: It’s raining, and I’m upstairs at the Gate

Let’s start with the beginning and work our way back; it’s a rainy afternoon in April; the clouds hang thick above the city, casting a concrete light all over town. You’re defiant of this urban lethargy; you’ve made your way to the Gate Theatre and are sat in the small black-box that hovers above the wave of noise drifting from the pub underneath.  What happens next?

“It’s like one of those evenings that you spend with someone, like an old friend or perhaps someone you just met. You take it in turns to play each other different tracks because you’re making a live mix-tape as you go along. You’re trying to excite each other and say this is something you might not have heard before, or if this is something you know, let’s listen to it together. That feeling of excitement, of discovering something new, something about the people you’re with, having a conversation around that and what it means… I wanted to create that atmosphere.”

Chris Thorpe is inadvertently weaving a history of the Forest Fringe within the line-up of the week he is curating at the Gate, shaped around a series of solo pieces he will be reading, sat on a chair in front of the audience with only a spotlight to make him visible and a mic to project his words. What he reads is different every night; it’s a combination of texts he has written for Forest Fringe over the years, a new piece he has written especially for the London residency, and text he is developing for multiple voices embodied by one. Thorpe’s work is focused around the act of speaking; the deliberate choice of reading rather than memorizing points towards the immediacy of the act. “It takes the focus away from the memory trick of knowing and learning. I want to take away the kind of tight rope walk that can distract when you’re watching someone speak a lot of text” he tells me; it’s not about watching someone perform a skill, but engaging with storytelling as a form of conversation. He isn’t sure what text will be read out on which evening; the specificity of that won’t mean anything to anyone else apart from himself.

Thorpe’s work returns to the idea of crafting words and building dense landscapes and narratives; the unexpectedness of his storytelling is juxtaposed with a variety of other works in rejection of any associations with showcases, a distinction which he has gone to great lengths to make. Lucy Ellinson, for example, is doing something she’s never done before: bringing heavy metal and politics together. Thorpe will be playing guitar. “I’ve consciously tried to curate it so there is a huge variety of work that reflects the scope of what Forest Fringe is trying to do, but also brings artists with a similar ethos who might be in the early days to make connections, so to widen everything out.”

So what you will be experiencing is a series of constructed happenings that take place in a certain order, to which everyone in the room will be participating.  “Forest Fringe is a coloniser; when it’s in a particular place it seems to be symbiotic to it, but it brings its own determination to create a certain kind of atmosphere and openness.”

Moment 2: On the edge, between the body and history

Performer and dancer Dan Canham was living in Limerick, Ireland on the West Coast a while back. It’s an evocative and dangerous city; a frontier town as far west as one can get. Looking out means following the sea all the way to Canada. “It’s on the edge of Europe and Ireland, it’s got a reputation for being poor and rough- which is true. It’s a run down, dead city, and I was living there and knew I wanted to make a piece about it, and didn’t know what that would be. I started looking at buildings, and found a theatre that was thriving in the 19th century and was now boarded up. It grew to symbolize the rot at the heart of the city, and the idea that once cultural spaces start shutting down, things disappear quickly. It was a beautiful building, and I got the keys and we made a film in there  looking at the poetic history of the place, and eventually came back to that material with a live show.”

The shell of the show is the same in its London run that spearheads the second week of Forest Fringe’s residency. Because it’s a show about theatres, and it’s been performed in so many different spaces, remnants and sediments have found their place in the movement and tone of the piece. “I’ve absorbed fragments which influence how it is played”, Canham tells me. There’s a toying with expectation that comes from the framework of dance which Canham is engaging with, but the conversations emerging during the week are shaped by a variety of work.  If Thorpe’s week is loosely associated with impromptu narratives and extraordinary stories, from recounting a long bus journey to the most north-westerly point of the British mainland to a lecture performance inspired by daily ephemera or an incision into the world of pageants, Canham’s is underpinned by an inherent interest in theatrical spaces, punctured by documentaries, live gigs and talks.

“There’s a sense of engaging with theatre as you might with another live event, for example, a gig, and a journey away from formality that’s progressive as the night continues. Because I use dance as a tool, it’s part of my theatrical palette.  I try and stay away from the usual dance paradigm of extraordinary bodies doing extraordinary things; for me, it’s much more sculptural.”

What underpins Dan Canham’s work is an interest to respond to intangible elements of live performance in its natural state; elements like play, generosity and an openness to embrace the unknown. This an ethos which guides the artists involved in the micro-organism that is Forest Fringe. Being open to constructing a live encounter is a vulnerable position, one guided by a certain risk that is bound to celebrate the improbable and the spectacular. This is an endeavour both historical and contemporary. As Andy Field tells me, “we’re interested in what theatre can do, and not necessarily with a focus on the self-referential performance. It can mean doing things in a very straight way, playing with old formats or investigating new ones. It’s about not knowing the result.”

Moment 3: The Colonisers

I’m talking to Andy Field in a small cafe around the corner for Birmingham’s Art Museum; we’re discussing audiences and the positioning of theatre in a wider cultural apparatus where distribution is dominant. “Let’s acknowledge that we live in an age where a You Tube clip can be done in ten minutes and reach six million people in say, two months. Then the question that strikes me as most interesting about live performance- if we admit it’s never going to reach that many people, and that there are other ways to do that- is what’s important about being in a particular place and time.” In that sense, form is the most exciting thing, prompting an exploration of the immediacy and collectivity of the theatrical encounter. And the possibilities for conversation suddenly multiply.

To illustrate a point about audiences, Field draws me a diagram. There’s  an A4 white sheet of paper; half of it is then covered by another smaller sheet. On top of that there’s a coin. “You’ve got the whole world here”, he tells me pointing to the large sheet of paper “and within that people who know about and go to theatre here”, the smaller half that sits on top. “Within that, you might have people interested in experimental work, we’ll call it that for the time being”, he says pointing to the coin. “By the time you get there, your audience feels tiny not because it is, but because it’s a ghetto within a ghetto. There’s a potential for people to be fascinated by things that strike them as odd, and when you present your work in the context of a particular theatre ecology it might feel small, but it’s an interesting challenge to grow out of that.”

In the past three –five years, Forest Fringe have presented work across the map, from weekend-long residencies at the BAC to collaborations with Shunt, Latitude, where they are coming back this year with two evenings of theatrical parties, to a microfestival in Lisbon. “Things are shifting; it’s a moment of crisis and opportunity, and the societal modes we have at our disposal are changing. Networks are becoming important, and so is that fluidity. You can take a historic perspective and say that exciting things happen as a function of communities, out of the shared sense of moment and building upon each other’s ideas and practices.” Consequently it feels important for there to be structures in place that provide artists with opportunities to coalesce around an idea of space, but also allow for a sense of ownership that is beyond modes of presentation.

The non-institutional element of Forest Fringe is important. In its inception, and in its current proviso, it’s an artist-run collective. “It remains messy and transgressive enough that it feels retained by that group of artists to whom it belongs.” Field underlines that Forest Fringe started off in the context of Edinburgh not as a place but as an event, a point around which artists have located themselves. It’s a useful anchor, a locus of activity that also gives them freedom to be peripatetic. “After a point, an organization has its gravitational pool, you develop a centrifugal force which brings people together and it means artists inherently want to keep in touch. That is important because you know the moment at which you stop being useful; if the people don’t want it anymore then it falls apart.” Being displaced from its home in Edinburgh which is under threat of being bought over by Assembly, has given Forest Fringe more impetus to be nomadic. “It’s like that Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall. An organisation, much like a relationship, is a shark; it needs to keep moving otherwise it’s going to die. I don’t want Forest Fringe to be a dead shark.”

Afterthought: the day after

Thorpe points out that it’s important to be careful about “mythologizing something to the point where it feels exclusive. I don’t think Forest Fringe does that, it manages to keep a crucial openness.” There’s no lineage to trace on the work presented; Forest Fringe is an important cultural intervention because it’s constantly shape-shifting, curious about its future and keen to embrace new audiences and experiences whilst at the same time capitalizing on a formal play that attempts to return theatre to a meaningful live encounter sustainable outside commercial constraints and responsive to a changing context.

Hannah Arendt wrote that storytelling reveals meaning without committing to the error of defining it. This stands true for both the work that Forest Fringe makes visible, but also its structural framework. You can expect the unexpected; but there’s a more intricate cultural impetus behind that. There’s tenacity at play, in the way that Forest Fringe is a way to make visible a cross-section of theatre practice that can be both epic and intimate, challenging and subtle, whilst being resistant to the particularity of a context.

With the Gate residency, Thorpe, Field and Canham bring a changing hybrid to an institution that embraces international new writing. This is not necessarily resistant to the demands and expectations of that institution, but engages in a curatorial and formal dialogue that calls into question approaches to programming, but also exemplifies a way of introducing a series of questions into the framework of an evening. Curation as a form of distribution and presentation within the context of theatre and performance remains a process rather than a strategy. In that way, Forest Fringe feels like an open-ended conversation that wants to take a fraction of the future of a practice into its own hands.

Written for http://exeuntmagazine.com/author/diana-damian/.


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