The Twilight Zone: Off West-End plays are seen by few people . . . so what are the fringe benefits?

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The Independent Online
It is 10am on August Bank Holiday Sunday, and I am standing in a pub backyard painting a large fridge green. To my left is Patrick, in real life a City whizz kid, painting a table green. To my right is Henry, the teenage nephew of a friend, painting a gas oven green. In fact, everywhere I look in this tiny yard people are painting kitchen objects green. It is a gorgeous morning and I should be out enjoying the end of summer weather but, instead, I'm going to spend my next three days and nights in a small dark room in Chelsea, getting progressively more tired, more nervous and more irritable. I am directing a production of Beth Henley's Pulitzer prize-winning Crimes of the Heart at the Man in the Moon Theatre in Chelsea and wondering for the nth time why the hell we ever bother with the Fringe.

Why do we? Why do so many hundreds of actors, directors and designers pour so much time, energy and love into a product that will be seen by so few people for such a short time with no hope of financial reward apart from the Shangri-la of profit share? We know the chances of recognition are slight. With the demise of City Limits, the destiny of any Fringe show rests almost entirely with the reviewer from Time Out. The national newspapers and the Evening Standard only rarely venture past the off-West End venues to the Gate and the Bush, and none of the other listings magazines can deliver an audience like Time Out.

Nigel Planer in his alter ego, Nicholas Craig, described the Fringe as, 'The Twilight Zone: a sort of half-way house between unemployment and employment'. Yet more and more venues are opening in London, and more and more professional theatre people are eager to work in them.

The attraction for actors is easiest to pinpoint: the Fringe is a great place to be discovered. Most casting directors and agents in London tend to go and see shows on the Fringe to find new talent, and the Fringe gives actors the chance to play, and be seen in, roles they might not get in larger theatres, especially as our repertory theatres are forced to cut back more and more. There are fewer large-cast plays and more reliance on television 'name' actors.

Crimes of the Heart offers three barn-storming lead parts for women; another rarity. I cast from an incredibly talented pool and although they won't be seen by as many people as they would at the Barbican, the likelihood is that they will be seen in an excellent role, and by the people who could matter to their professional future.

For the production team the advantages are rather different. My designer, Annie Gosney, and my lighting designer, Paul McLeish, both work full-time for the National Theatre. For them the show meant sacrificing the very little spare time they have, and yet neither needed to do the show. I believe for them, as for me, the reason for working on the Fringe is that you are wanted for yourself, for your imagination. All the brief I gave Annie was that I wanted something 'non-naturalistic, deft and witty'. She has designed, on a tiny budget, a set that is all those things and more. It is, I believe, the most exciting (and greenest) set I've seen on the Fringe and Paul is using the basic lighting the theatre provides to incredible effect. The artistic satisfaction of working with the team and cast that you want, as opposed to those you can afford, or who are available, or who work in the building, is, I think, the great lure of the Fringe.

The Fringe is also the antithesis of 'luvviedom': you all muck in together. It's hard to be grand when the dressing-room is part of a tiny office, and you share it with the 11 actors from the show before you. You can't get too precious about special effects when your stage manager has to run the show and operate a less than state-of-the-art lighting board on her own. I doubt if Richard Eyre or Adrian Noble spend their last few minutes before a press night sandpapering a sticking drawer on the set.

In spite of the drawbacks there really is nothing like the sense of communal achievement when a Fringe show goes well, is appreciated, and gets an audience, and can I now please have a proper job that earns me thousands?

'Crimes of the Heart' at the Man in the Moon theatre, 392 King's Road, SW3 runs until 24 September (071-351 2876)

(Photograph omitted)