Some delightful news for the beginning of maybe the year’s most depressing month (it’s cold, it’s not Christmas and the only thing to celebrate is the ineptitude of some 400 year old Catholics) – today Forest Fringe became the 20th winners of the Peter Brook Empty Space Award.
Who knows how this decade will come to be written about in the years ahead? It may well be viewed as a wretched one but perhaps it might be seen as positively halcyon compared to what will follow. One thing’s for sure – it started with anxiety about a tech-driven financial bust that proved unfounded and ended with the real deal, the kind of recession that carves itself into people’s lives for a long time. In the end, the big theme wasn’t war or the clash of civilisations but the one that’s never really been out of currency – money.Money was the making of theatre this decade – there was a lot more of it to prop up the subsidised sector, and even if you couldn’t exactly point to a golden time in the West End in terms of art, it was certainly a gilded one. Yet now that the whole house of cards has fallen down, it’s probably time for theatre-makers further down the chain, who are most exposed to the vagaries of the economic climate, to say that if they’re being forced to beg, borrow or even steal to survive, then ’twas ever thus – because so-called boom years had their downside, too, in keeping costs high, and curtailing unprofitable experimentation.Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Edinburgh Fringe where spiralling rental charges have conspired to restrict the affordability of a festival that is supposed to be the greatest artistic free-for-all on earth. I’ve seen at first hand how deranged the economics of bringing up just a relatively straightforward monologue are, even during a downturn; the risks of working on a more ambitious scale seem to grow by the year.Which is where one has to salute with all the force of a Tattoo gun at midnight the efforts of the team behind Forest Fringe, which has in the space of a few years become an essential fixture at Edinburgh without actually joining itself to the Fringe as such. In its adopted church hall venue at Bristo Place, it operates not merely, prosaically, as a festival within a festival – but as a sort of other world, a boundary-pushing playground where, thanks to multiple volunteer efforts it’s not the money that counts at all, but the stuff that happens between performers and their makeshift surroundings and between performers and curious visitors. If I could have wished away the hundreds of other chores that descend on a journalist while covering the festival, I’d have happily hung out at Forest Fringe for the entirety of its duration.It seems to me that in its back-to-basics approach, it is totally forward-thinking – and potentially revolutionary in scope. Whatever the next decade holds, the seeds of the next wave of theatre – and probably even of our recover itself, lie in the expansive, inexpensive miracle that is Forest Fringe.