We’ve been doing a bit of thinking and a bit of writing and want to tell you something about the future, and this being Forest Fringe it feels only appropriate that we begin this, potentially quite long letter with some kind of tree-based metaphor.
Imagine you have a garden, and in the middle of that garden you plant a tree. I’m not saying what kind of tree, it’s not that kind of a metaphor, but suffice to say it was nothing as clichéd as an acorn. Perhaps some kind of birch.
It feels important at this stage to say that it was Forest Café who did the serious planting. Not us. We came in later, first Debbie and then later Andy, to help put something together from an idea and a generous opportunity that Forest had created. Without the Forest Café having offered us the opportunity to use the Bristo Hall each summer since 2007, Forest Fringe would categorically not now exist and all of the 200 plus companies that have worked with Forest in the last four years would in some way have been affected. The Forest Café make wonderful things happen and they’ve continued to do that almost totally independently for a miraculous 10 years. They are the kind of quiet treasure that we are too capable of overlooking when ageing stars are wheeled out on Radio 4 to advocate for venues they haven’t been back to in a generation. By most standards the Forest Café is a young institution but nonetheless an important one and one that we think should be cherished.
The situation today is, as many of you know, that the building currently occupied by the Forest Café has been put up for sale after their landlords were put into administration. All the information is here. The Forest Café’s brilliant response to this is to attempt to raise enough money to buy the present café outright; if that is impossible, then they are at least looking to find a new space to call home. Forest Fringe would be incredibly grateful for any support you can offer in their endeavor. Some of the organisations that have grown out of the café, such ourselves and Forest Publishing, will no doubt be able to continue on regardless of what happens to the café. Without that home however, they will not be the same.
So to return to the earlier tree metaphor, through an unexpectedly fruitful combination of careful nurturing, nutrient-rich soil and a series of strangely warm summers, the tree thrives quite incredibly. Within a few years it’s really something, quite the most instinctively delightful combination of bark and leaves. Admired across the neighbourhood even by those who have never seen it, it is a tree like the trees in Where the Wild Things Are or Kevin Costner’s seminal early 90s epic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s a fine tree. Good for building dens. Yielding a good amount of fruit. Excellent views of the surrounding area.
Immediately our thought then was, I wonder what we can do with this tree. Worlds of possibility open up; worlds that become increasingly less frivolous the larger the tree gets. You could hang a big swing in it for everyone to enjoy. Or you could build a house in its branches for everyone to live in. You could harvest it and feed people. Or you could take its seeds and plant more trees like it, build it into a pretty impressive forest.
This is the place we’ve found ourselves. Encouraged and excited. Propelled towards new places and new opportunities with an energy that probably at times was also in part down to a fear that without the momentum that had sustained us up to this point we’d start sinking, like the old cartoon character running on water. At the heart of this is of course the youthful assumption that you always have to be moving somewhere, and not just moving but running.
And in all of this we’re so fixated on the fucking tree and what we could or should or have to do with it that we don’t really notice that it’s taking over the entire garden, pulling down fences and turning the grass a weedy yellow colour. Our lives are being taken over by this magnificent, terrifying creation, before we’ve got any kind of system in place to regularly feed it, or ourselves. And all the while the weather’s getting colder.
It’s getting to the point where it seems the only sensible thing is to abandon the garden altogether and go live in this amazing tree. After all, what are the chances of ever being able to grow something quite so fortuitously impressive ever again?
We asked ourselves, how might we live in the tree? How might Forest Fringe, which quite genuinely engulfs all our time anyway without anyone involved earning a penny from it outside of the month of August (and even then only expenses and accommodation for the three of us running it), become something we could actually do and still be able to live and eat? And would that be the right thing to do anyway?
We looked at all kinds of things we might do. We spoke to generous, helpful people at the Arts Council. We met with other brilliant organisations doing unusual and interesting things. We talked with many of the artists that have been involved in Forest Fringe. We experimented with some of the new ideas we’d had, such as the Microfestivals and the Travelling Sounds Library. We wondered about spaces and producing. About partnership and funders.
We thought also about what Forest Fringe really was – we tried to think about the use and misuse of rhetoric that we’d adopted around it. We thought about whether we were showing enough genuine care for the artists that came to work with us. We thought about the immense amount of responsibility that we felt towards those people who’d invested so much into the idea of what Forest Fringe was, and how important it felt not to betray that. We thought about what we wanted to achieve through Forest Fringe. About audiences, theatregoing or otherwise.
We thought about whether we always wanted to be doing this. We talked to others in a similar position in organisations like Residence and STK International. Artist-led companies that had grown up, at least in part, because there were not enough spaces or support for the artists who built them to make the work they wanted to make. A few years later suddenly here we all were at conferences and festivals, being applauded for making those organisations by people who still had no intention of even watching, let alone supporting, the work being made in them and through them. After a point perhaps it becomes easier to like an organisation like Forest Fringe or Residence (or even just the idea of them) than it is to actually like, or even go and see, any of the work being made by them. Sometimes it feels like it needs to be written in lights – we don’t just want you to admire what we’re doing, we want you to engage with it, to believe in it. We don’t want to be drowned out by the sound of purse strings being tightened and draw bridges being raised. We want to be really listened to – that’s the main reason we’re here. Otherwise we might as well all go home.
Then we thought also about individual moments. About the feeling of seeing several hundred people crowded in a stairway at the Forest café listening to someone give their one-minute-manifesto this summer. We thought about the manic energy between shows when strangers from different companies are hauling chairs around and laughing and joking. We thought about the flat we shared with the artists in our first year in Edinburgh and the wine that was shared and the conversations that were had. We thought about those families who’d never heard of us but had read about the Paper Cinema in the Guardian, who wandered in and found themselves mesmerised. We thought about how much help we’d needed at the start and how much help everyone had been more than happy to give. And how wonderful that was. And how important that felt.
And in the end I think we’ve come to the decision that trees aren’t meant to be lived in. Even Kevin Costner knows this. As anyone who has watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as much as Andy has and Debbie hasn’t can tell you, they are a resource, a meeting point, a platform from which to see and to speak; a place of safety and support. They are not all that stable, not all that practical, they grow in response to the landscape around them and are a nightmare to transplant once they’re there. You cannot really build anything substantial on them or with them without damaging what makes them such a valuable resource in the first place.
All of which is a not simply a means of torturing a metaphor until it gives up and dies (or more accurately, finds itself kneeling at the feet of Kevin Costner begging for forgiveness, which is let’s be honest about as close to death as you can imagine), but actually a means of trying to explain a long process and a lot of thoughts and a global recession and the loss of a venue and some exciting new ideas and in the end what it is that we’ve finally concluded out of all of that.
And we think that what we’ve concluded is this:
Forest Fringe is a community of people born of an opportunity offered in Edinburgh by the Forest Café. It is born of the peculiar politics and circumstances of Edinburgh. Of how important Edinburgh remains as a gathering point and an opportunity for theatre and the arts in general. Forest Fringe itself is those things more than anything else – a gathering point and an opportunity, for people sharing perhaps similar though by no means identical ideas about what live performance is and why we bother with it.
Above all else we want Forest Fringe to remain those things. This is now a time when funding is going to be increasingly difficult to acquire; when a collective, collaborative approach to making and presenting live performance work will be ever-more important; when we will need to find ways to build more resilience and imagination into where and how we present both our work and ourselves as artists; when the politics embedded in how we choose to make work must be championed in the face of ideologues who believe we must always justify ourselves on their terms.
For all these reasons it feels to us that Forest Fringe can best serve the artists, audiences and supporters that make up the community around it by refusing to be reshaped into a conventional arts organisation, with all the necessary funding and organisational hierarchy that entails.
Instead we want to move in the other direction. Forest Fringe has only ever functioned through the commitment and generosity of those people involved, who did so because they believed in what it represented; an opportunity, a meeting point, a shared space and quite a lot of fun. That being the case we believe that the best thing we could do is to continue to sustain Forest Fringe through that collective energy, by focusing on what we’re able to achieve in Edinburgh and giving up more of the responsibility for making that happen to the artists that are so much a part of Forest Fringe anyway.
We don’t want to be year-round directors of Forest Fringe and to be paid for being so. We will find other more appropriate means of sustaining ourselves. Increasingly we’re realising that to transform Forest Fringe into a fully-funded, year-round enterprise would be to irreparably dismantle a lot of the best things about it. We want Forest Fringe to be something that we do in our own time because we believe in what it represents.
Which is not to say we don’t want to use the experience of Forest Fringe and the profile that it has helped us achieve to create new projects and events and ideas, responding to different sets of circumstances in different places. We’re of course massively interested in how a similar collective, artist-led approach to touring or to running a permanent venue might work.
Fundamentally we love what Forest Fringe is at the moment and we think in the present political and theatrical climate it feels important that it exists as a collectively self-sustaining space for the unusual and the experimental in the midst of the commercial mayhem of Edinburgh, and we don’t want to ruin that. What we want to do instead is make what happens in and before Edinburgh more manageable and sustainable for us by inviting more people to be a part of making it happen.
Small is beautiful. Part of the value of Forest Fringe seems to lie in the fact that it makes little effort to disguise its sometimes impressively ramshackle workings. The more people that feel involved in those workings, the greater the degree to which Forest Fringe can sustain itself beyond those of us who run it at the moment, changing and evolving to the circumstances of those artists who need it to exist, beyond the waxing and waning of interest and publicity and funding. A space that can continue to serve its temporary festival community indefinitely, as a place to meet, to talk, to share ideas, to champion the overlooked and the unusual, the earnest and the experimental, the heartfelt and the political. That is what we hope to achieve in the coming years.
So that’s about the end of this very long letter.
Equal apologies and congratulations to everyone who’s made it this far. I hope there’s something worthwhile in all of that. Questions, thoughts, anything please do let us know below.
In a couple of days time we’ll let you know what we hope that all means practically in terms of the next six months, what we’re doing in Edinburgh and what small things we might be doing before then.
For now, for you patience, a song.
Thank you for reading,
Andy & Debbie