Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.
This podcast series aims to look for ways to involve more and more people in theatre, either as audiences or practitioners. This episode features Michelle Flower, co-founder and organiser of the Camden Fringe theatre festival. The Camden Fringe takes place every August and is now in its 8th year. Listen to her discuss how the Camden Fringe came into existence, why you should never accept first price when it comes to West End tickets and how more and more venues are using popular culture to attract new audiences.
Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscribe to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!
Everything Theatre: Hello and welcome to the 10th episode of Everyone Theatre, our podcast series focussing on involvement within theatre – both for audience members and for practitioners. I’m delighted to be speaking to Michelle Flower, who is one of the founders and organisers of the Camden Fringe festival, which runs in August this year. Thanks for joining us! The first question is about. Could you tell us a bit about your story and how it is you came to work in the theatre industry? And perhaps a few words about how the Camden Fringe came into existence?
Michelle Flower: Well, my revelation with theatre was going to the Edinburgh Fringe when I was 16. I went without my parents, just with my friends when I had finished my GCSEs. I was far too young for that sort of thing, but I was really into comedy, and wanted to go and see lots of live shows. We ended up hanging around in bars (which we shouldn’t have been) and seeing lots of standup shows. I remember thinking “I want my life to be like this all the time, I want to make this sort of thing happen”. Eventually I did go into producing shows at Edinburgh, and then ended up running a theatre myself in london – the Etcetera Theatre. My business partner and I thought that we would continue producing shows in Edinburgh, but we became a bit disillusioned: Edinburgh can be very expensive, and we now had this venue in London which we ran. In the end we though “Why are we doing this? We have a venue in London. We live in London. Why don’t we stay in London and put on a festival?”. And we called it the Camden Fringe. It was a bit of a punt when we did it. We gave it a shot and tried to get some shows in London in august.. and it worked quite well! It all came from this random idea, and has now turned into a proper festival, which is now in its 8th year.
ET: We are very big fans of the Camden Fringe, its lovely to have this showcase of theatre and comedy in London. It has a great atmosphere. Now I imagine in all your years producing shows in Edinburgh and organising the Camden Fringe, you must have come across some interesting situations either on or off stage. Is there any one which comes to mind which you might like to share with us?
“Fringe Theatre always has a slightly last minute feel, and anything can happen!”
MF: There have been loads of brilliant things, but I was thinking about one in particular when I saw a documentary on TV recently about Uri Geller. Now a few years ago, at the Camden Fringe, someone put on a show about him, which he himself turned up to watch. I had this very surreal moment when I was in the Etcetera Theatre sitting behind Uri Geller, watching him watch a show about him. It was quite bizarre. On a different occasion, on the first day of the festival a few years ago, we had a company doing a show in a park in Camden. Unfortunately the car carrying their props had a crash, and they called me saying “there was a really important prop which was damaged, which we can’t replicate – can you help?”. I asked them what it was, and they replied that it was a Moon, which they carried aloft on a stick. They needed us to help make a new one. “So you want to make a moon on a stick?”… And we did make a moon on a stick: we cobbled it together out of glue, paint and cardboard which we found at the Etcetera. It was brilliant – Fringe Theatre always has a slightly last minute feel, and anything can happen!
ET: Now, we have been planning this podcast for a while, and back in November last year we did some market research. We walked around the Southbank and Covent Garden asking people on he street about their theatre habits. We managed to boil down people’s responses into three main stumbling blocks, which stop people from becoming audience members. I’ll ask you about each of these in turn. The first is that people have a conception that theatre is an expensive habit – what would be your response to people who claim they can’t possibly afford to go to the theatre?
MF: Well, generally if you go to a fringe venue, it can cost less than going to the cinema. You won’t have extortionate nachos and popcorn thrust upon you, so it will probable work out a bit cheaper! Then, there are also always deals to be had. A lot of West End theatres set their prices quite high so they can discount them. Never accept first offer when it comes to ticket prices! Check out the half price ticket booths, and find offers online and in Time Out. Obviously everything is kind of expensive these days, but West End theatre definitely isn’t more expressive then, say, going to a football match, and Fringe theatre certainly isn’t more expensive than going to the movies. So, shop around and keep and open mind, and theatre will become more affordable than you expect!
ET: So you mentioned shopping around – now the second problem is that there are so many venues in London that it can be a really daunting choice. Where would you recommend prospective audience members begin?
MF: It depends on what you want to go and see. Personally, I really like pub theatres. That’s what the Etcetera is, and most of the Camden Fringe venues are too. There is something great about pub venues: people can go there without worrying about dressing up. It’s like going to the pub and getting a drink, but then you just head upstairs or downstairs and watch a show. I personally recommend the Hen and Chickens theatre on Highbury corner: they have a lot of comedy o n there – I’ve seen Eddie Izzard do a warm-up show, and I think sarah Millican has been previewing there recently. So there are some really familiar names to be seen in a very intimate venue if you keep an eye out. Another great place is Upstairs at the Gatehouse, which is another Camden Fringe venue. That one is in Highgate, and is quite a big space, about 120 seats, above a Wetherspoons (so the drinks are definitely cheap!). They specialise in putting on revivals of established plays. For example, they recently had Avenue Q on, and they were the first show to do so outside of the West End. Their tickets are usually about £12, which is great value to see a show which has just come off from the big theatres. If people feel that they do want to get into theatre, I think that pub venues are a great way to start, as they are generally very welcoming and not as intimidating as a big West End theatre.
“There is something great about pub venues: people can go there without worrying about dressing up. It’s like going to the pub and getting a drink, but then you just head upstairs or downstairs and watch a show. “
ET: I suppose that the Camden Fringe would be a great way to get a sample of a lot of different pub venues, too?
MF: Yes! We have shows that start in the afternoon, and even at 10:30 AM at the weekends, so you could definitely take a day out an tour around the various Camden Fringe venues. They are generally within walking distance of each other, or at worst a short tube or bus journey to the other side of the Borough of Camden. You could bounce around between venues and see a lot of different shows. In a day you could probably fit in 5 or 6 shows for a budget of £30 to £40 if you were cunning about it!
ET: Sound like my ideal day out! Now the third and final obstacle we identified was that there is a group of people who claim that theatre simply isn’t for them. This could be because they never got into it, or maybe they had a bad experience or were dragged to a terrible show when they were at school. How can we avoid this kind of thing happening in future?
MF: It’s a tricky question. I guess theatre isn’t for everyone, just like football isn’t for everyone. I have never been to a football match and don’t intend to. Actually though, a lot of the theatre that is on at the moment is a lot more open : it is populist rather than elitist. You don’t have to be very educated or experienced to go to the theatre these days. There are a lot of plays based on films and books, and things which are familiar. For example, recently went to see a production of a Hammer Horror film, Theatre of Blood, at the National Theatre. It was a brilliant show, but based on a pretty low-rent source: a hammer horror film! That would be a great place to start if you were getting into theatre. Or you could see Dirty Dancing the musical – I haven’t seen it myself, but it would certainly not be intimidating to a first-time theatre goer. There are pub theatres which do Sci-Fi, and productions of Sitcoms, etc… there a plenty of venues putting on shows based on familiar material, which is less scary to first-time theatre audiences. And there is also a lot of great children’s theatre out there. A lot of kids are getting to see things like In the Night Garden, which is quite an exciting immersive theatre experience. Hopefully that will mean that the next generation are a little more open-minded about going to see shows!
“A lot of the theatre that is on at the moment is [very] open : it is populist rather than elitist. You don’t have to be very educated or experienced to go to the theatre these days. There are a lot of plays based on films and books, and things which are familiar.”
ET: That’s certainly the hope! Now, we’ve dealt with audiences, but now for practitioners. It’s a tough economic climate at the moment, and quite a lot of new creatives teams trying to make it in the industry. It’s not very easy to break through – so what would be your top tip?
MF: Well, I would suggest they start by seeking out a nearby fringe festival. When we started the Camden Fringe, there were just a handful of festivals: obviously Edinburgh, and also Buxton and Brighton. But now, there are far more places hosting fringe festivals, such as Reading and Bedford just to name a few…They are all over the place now! These are a good way to put something on while being part of something else, while there are people about and the atmosphere is supportive. We send our performers lots of information and are here to help them out. For example we give support about how to market their shows. A lot of these teams are very creative, with great performers and writers, but they might not know how to get audiences in to see their shows. Certainly it can be expensive to put on a show, but you can do it cheaply. You can find affordable venues, but even if you have trouble, you don’t need to use an established theatre – you could use a room above a pub and turn it into a performance space (of course it is always easier if your show is based in a room above a pub). You don’t necessarily need a theatre with lights and sound, and all the equipment. You could put on a show outside, or into a more unexpected place – you can do all sorts of interesting things which don’t necessarily break the bank. You just need to get out there and do it. That’s how you learn, by making mistakes, having success and leaning from that. That’s how future practitioners will come about, by getting out there and doing it.
ET: Great advice. The last question is “what’s next?”. In this case the answer is quite obvious, but would you tell us a little bit about what is coming up in August?
MF: The 8th Annual Camden Fringe starts on the 29th of July and runs for 4 weeks until the 25th of August. It is all across the borough of Camden, from Highgate, all the way to Covent Garden, where we have a coupe of small venues in theatreland. It turns out Camden is quite a big borough! We have 17 different venues and 180 different shows. Not all of it is drama – we have comedy, dance, magic, some musicals… a bit of everything! The website is CamdenFringe.com for a list of everything that is on. If you are unsure of what you want to see, they all have a write-up and a picture to help you decide. Just come down and explore! You can also find out what other audience members have enjoyed on Everything Theatre, with their Big Audience Project.
ET: Yes, for the first time this year, we are going to get members of the public to send in short reviews which we will publish on site, to help people make up their minds about what they want to see during the Camden Fringe. You’ll also be able to see our reviews of the shows we have seen, and compare our rating versus the average audience star rating. We’re aiming to publish people’s short reviews within 24hrs of receiving them, and will have a live league table to summarise all the information. We are very excited and can’t wait to see some great shows! Well, thanks Michelle and good luck with the start of the Camden Fringe, which runs from Monday 29th July to the 25th of August.