Putting together the first ever Plymouth Fringe Festival along with Dan Baker, Matt Hall and Beth Shouler has been an honour. It’s been a chance to meet some amazing artists, invite some we already knew to this lovely city of ours and truly celebrate theatre and live performance in Plymouth.
But, amid all the funding bids and partnership conversations, I’ve often wondered what the function of such a festival is. What does it add to Plymouth’s cultural offer, which already contains a fair bit of theatre, to add a festival on top? We’re certainly not ones for doing things just for the sake of doing them – maybe this was a chance to reach new audiences or new artists, to make theatre more visible in the city or break down barriers to attendance?
I have to admit, in the chaos of tech rehearsals and keeping everything running smoothly, I’ve not had many chances to actually watch shows yet. But yesterday I managed to catch three, all in auditoriums full of faces I didn’t recognise and companies whose work would likely not have come to Plymouth had we not used the festival to prise open more theatre doors for artists.
But the moment I truly got the point of all this hard work was at roughly twenty past midnight as I wandered through an abandoned funfair on Plymouth Hoe, led by the hand of Brantley Rodgers as part of Aminal’s Night. Dream. Sleep. Perhaps it was the quiet where the rest of my week has been almost deafening or the treat of being able to focus on simply being in the world of a show rather than wondering whether I have any responsibilities if the theatre sets on fire mid-performance.
Now, I like being inside, I like early nights and I like sitting on my arse wherever possible. But the festival let me put those preferences aside and try something different. Outside of the context of the festival I might have given NDS a miss and headed home to my Stephen King novel and the last remaining Twirl but something about the energy in the city made me not want to miss out. I’d spent the day giving audience members tips on what to see and it would have felt criminal not to follow the suggestions that had been thrown my way.
And for my new found adventurous spirit I was rewarded with a touching show which provoked a real guttural emotional response and made me view the city I’ve plodded about for twenty two years through different eyes.
It wasn’t necessarily the outdoor nature of the show that hit me but the fact that it would have felt odd in a traditional season of work yet, this week, it felt completely natural. Particularly, it didn’t feel very ‘Plymouth’ and not in a ‘this is a local festival for local people’ way. Like many other shows at the festival I got the overwhelming feeling that our Janner audience, which is still fairly traditional in its preferences, would have been unlikely to take a punt on something so different but this week there’s barely any tickets left for NDS.
This week has been eye opening. During many of the fringe events which have sprouted up over the past eighteen months, the audience has been fairly static with the same supportive faces popping up again and again. Yet, so far at least, this week feels like a breakthrough. Not only are new audiences taking their seats for shows by emerging artists, they’re taking risks on the kind of work they might previously have shied away from. And, as I stared past a lut up Smeaton’s Tower at the lights making their way across the channel, it all made sense.