This post contains a review of the production The Importance of Being Earnestina from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2009
First of all, I should probably explain what the Fringe is, or what it's actually a fringe of. All of my information here is courtesy of my cousin Xela, who did her dissertation on the Fringe, in all its Fringey nuance.
After World War II, Edinburgh started an arts festival. It was intended to revive culture, and probably also to bring in some cash, and Edinburgh was physically almost untouched by the war, so it made a good location. Since the festival (today, the Edinburgh International Festival) was government-sponsored, it was by-invitation-only. Some enterprising uninvited theater companies decided to capitalize on the crowds by setting up shop independently at - you guessed it- the fringe of the festival. The Fringe is now skillions of times larger than the Festival, with over one thousand shows a day. Shows range from children's shows to stand-up comedy to dance to music to improv to opera - if it can be done for an audience, you'll find it here.
This is sustainable because of the Fringe's unique management structure. There is a small board - the Fringe Society - responsible for things like the program, the main box office, and the web site, along with other advertising. They do not select or subsidize any shows. The middlemen are the venue managers (of which my cousin was one), who book everything from university theaters to church basements to giant purple inflatable cows (more pictures here). Theater companies then contract with the venue managers to use the space. A portion of the box office goes back up to the Fringe Society, and although a show does not have to be affiliated with the main Fringe, they nearly always choose to be. With over 1000 shows a day, you have trouble being found if you ARE in the Fringe program and web site. Heaven help you if you're not.
Although there are no numbers (available, anyway) I suspect that lots of shows here lose money. Many are actually free. The Fringe has some cachet in theater circles as a place to be discovered, so many people are here hoping a promoter will pick them up for a tour (especially stand-up comics). There's also, I think, the fact that without the need to be prescreened, anybody can put on a show, picking up some resume cred and some experience. And then of course people do it because being on stage is their passion.
Justin and I saw our first Fringe show yesterday, a student production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, gender-flipped to be Earnestina instead (all the male roles were female, and all the female roles were male).
One of the hallmarks of the Fringe is that you never know if you're going to wander into a cheesy little student production, a phenomenally gifted student production, a terrific professional production, or even a junky professional production. This was clearly a bit on the cheesy side (although other people gave it very good reviews) but that's all part of the whole Fringe experience. In any case, it gave Justin and me a lot of great conversation topics for what could have been adjusted to improve the play and the reverse-gender conceit.
Here are some random thoughts on the play. If you don't know it, by the way, I recommend the film version (with Colin Firth, Judi Dench, et. al). It's very well done.
1. Lady Bracknell becomes Lord Bracknell
This actor was the weakest link in the show. He rushed his lines and sometimes ran over the tail end of the other castmates. But beyond that, he never really used the gender flip to do anything interesting with the character. Lady Bracknell is a famously masculine character, a battleaxe, and it really didn't add much to have her played by a man. Justin and I decided if we redid it, we would have enjoyed seeing a blustery, crusty, harrumphing old man interpretation. Think the elephant from Disney's The Jungle Book: "A handbag! Hrumph humph humph!"
Whenever you do a British show with U.S. actors, the question is always whether or not to put on an accent. At multiple moments in the show, I found myself thinking, "So they are doing accents," and then realizing whoops, they're just actually British. Most of them, anyway - two of the cast, seemed to have other regional accents, or maybe just speech impediments (one sounded Caribbean, one actually sounded French), and were at times very difficult to understand.
We loved the church basement where we saw this show, but it was even better because yesterday was stunningly beautiful, clear and warm, and we got in a hike up Calston Hill before the show. I know some people have asked for pictures, but until we get internet, that's going to be dicey. We took a lot of great ones and I'll endeavor to get them up.
All right! Must get lunch before trying for student tickets to a Chinese production of A Midsummer Night's Dream! As we have no IDs yet, wish us luck.