Life on the Fringe (of the arts, not society)
A few months ago it was announced that South Street Arts Centre is in danger of being closed due to proposed budget cuts by Reading Council. South Street is special to us here at Colour of Fruit, as it has been the venue for both our previous productions here in Reading and we are incredibly grateful to them for the welcome they have given us during our experiences with them.
It was with reticence, therefore, that I set about looking elsewhere for a venue for our latest play. Of course we want to support South Street during the consultation period, and though our business is certainly not of great significance to their overall turnover, every little helps as they say, and hires from local companies can only paint a better picture for those making the final decision as to their future. But I really felt, in my heart, that our beloved MacDevitt's studio was really not the right venue for us this time.
And that got me thinking about why. And that got me thinking about the importance of choosing the right venue in a way that I haven't really before. The space in which you present a play is often an afterthought, unless the play itself is site-specific. One blackbox theatre looks a lot like another and if you're using a blackbox theatre then you can really just rock up having given no real thought to the specific environment.
But if you're using a space that wasn't designed specifically for the putting on of plays, then I think you have to give it just a little more thought.
Non-traditional venues are undeniably trendy, especially in London where even fringe venues are difficult or expensive to procure, companies with maybe a little less cash to flash are reaching out into the ether and coming back with plays staged in old office buildings or underground tunnels or basements or wherever else they may find available. My favourite of these is a pub theatre.
Pub theatres are warm, and informal, there is a certain comeraderie between the cast and the audience, I think by virtue of being often in quite close quarters, you feel like more of a team than you would in a formal theatre environment, like this moment is unique and you get to create it together.
The pub theatre tradition hasn't really spread to Reading yet. Until the first Reading Fringe Festival a few years back theatre in Reading was really only to be found in arts specific venues like The Hexagon, South Street, and The Rising Sun Arts Centre. What has been so wonderful about Reading Fringe is that it seems to have opened up the minds of creators and business owners alike, enabling them to see new possibilities in the spaces available to them. A hotel banquet room, a community hall in the back of an office building, a bus stop, all can be cunningly converted into a theatre platform with a little creative thinking. It's maybe not people's first thought when they think of going to a play, but to quote the great Timberlake Wertenbaker, people will use their imagination. And people with no imagination shouldn't go to the theatre.
Of course when you go looking for a venue you are keeping certain things in mind. Is the environment manageable? Is it quiet enough? Is it big enough? All of these things mean that some of my favourite pubs in Reading weren't even an option for me to approach, though I wish they were.
Iguana is the perfect little spot for us to have washed up on. I remember it from my clubbing days (such as they were) as dark and slightly intimidating, but it feels nice to be going back and finding it bright and welcoming and an excellent size for the kind of evening I had in mind. It feels good also to be making use of what I consider to be a Reading landmark.
This is an exciting time for Reading arts creators, with the 2016 Year of Culture just around the corner, Reading Fringe going from strength to strength – and developing their own pub theatre downstairs at the Purple Turtle – and the petition to save South Street at 8,000 signatures, it is clear that the people of Reading are passionate about their arts and culture identity. Hopefully we can make a small contribution as all of this greatness continues to develop.