Theatre Editor, Ali Arief, reflects on venue building and their love of Fringe Theatre
Sometimes in life you find yourself at the top of a ladder, sweating and swearing with a pocket full of bungee cords and losing any will to live as you wrestle the cords around your hand to effectively pull up a stage curtain. Sometimes in life you also find yourself unwrapping each of the stage curtains with vigour, trying to find a perfect match for the rail and stage dimensions, only to find that the four feet curtain drape you require is a six feet curtain drape, and that you’re going to have to unfold each one to find the right one. It is a lengthy process.
I first started getting into venue work when I was eighteen. With no prior knowledge of theatre other than a love for it, I took a thirteen-hour long coach to Edinburgh to work my first ever Edinburgh Fringe. I sat on that couch wondering what my first day would be like and daydreamed about what I would experience with my headphones on, naturally asserting main character status as I travelled up the country for hours and hours on end.
After arriving and taking my first breath of Scottish air, I immediately realised that I was going to be put to work. Luckily, I was wearing my comfiest clothes and had some sort of supernatural stamina that only an eighteen-year-old desperate to impress and gain some friends could possibly have. Quickly, I realised I wasn’t the only other newcomer to the venue and made good friends with my fellow colleagues.
I felt a beautiful sense of unity and contentment as we all collectively struggled to carry an immensely heavy stage rostra up a narrow flight of stairs, and although I was exhausted, I went to bed happy that night knowing my first day of venue building had been especially rewarding.
That’s the thing about working in Fringe Theatre. As I’ve taken up Front of House roles, I’ve been able to see first-hand the collective effort that everyone puts in to make sure that shows are put on and that the audience leaves the venue emotionally satisfied with the performance that’s been put on.
As I’ve never performed or teched a show (yet), my role as a member of the front of house team is to ensure that the venue is up to standard and that my audience can relax, have a drink, and spend time in my venue safe in the knowledge that they are my welcome guests. If I’ve helped put the stage up, and physically helped build the venue myself, it becomes just that even more special knowing how much love and dedication goes into making that space as welcoming as possible.
It can be physically taxing at times. Working long hours on your feet, along with the venue built in the beginning of the month can quickly exhaust you, however, your body can surprise you with how much further it can take you, especially if you’re determined to put the venue up in a few days.
And then after the hard work is over, you are greeted with a stage, curtains and lighting rig that is ready to put on its first show of the season. The fresh magic that exists in that space is truly tangible and absolutely exhilarating.
Fringe Theatre has suffered immensely over the past few years due to the pandemic.
With cuts from government sectors and shows having to go online, many performers, venue owners and technicians have had their budgets stripped, and have suffered financially. Not to mention that audiences haven’t felt comfortable sitting in tightly packed venues, which has resulted in a loss of ticket sales. Despite the struggles that have been present, those within the Fringe Theatre sector have worked extremely hard to pull together despite the challenging odds, with many performing for the absolute love of it, without knowing if or when they would ever see a full house ever again.
I’ve been grateful enough to see all three stages of the Fringe Theatre before and after the pandemic. When I had first started working at both Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes respectively, I was in awe at just how full of life and how overwhelmingly busy the festivals were.
People from all around the world were putting on shows at our venue, with big-name acts performing and celebrating the biggest arts festival in the world with us. I had worked two years enjoying this revelry, until the pandemic hit and everyone in the industry was extremely nervous for the future of the arts sector. I still worked in Brighton Fringe throughout this tumultuous period, and saw my colleagues pour their heart and soul into making sure that the festivals could continue, it was an extremely emotional time.
Now we are working our way out of the lockdown measures and though audiences are hesitant to fill seats like they used to, numbers are increasing, and many performers seem keen to be showcasing new work. The recovery is slow but mighty.
The spark is going again, and the momentum is increasing, anticipation is building at a heavy rate for Brighton Fringe 2022.
Now that my venue has found its forever home, I have spent my March building the stage and venue space inside a cosy, homely and welcoming pub along with my colleagues whom I truly see as family.
After a couple of years of great anxiety about the future of our industry, it is with great pleasure that I helped be a part of building that venue space, as I’ve done so many times before.
So next time you find yourself at a pop-up theatre venue, watching Fringe Theatre perhaps during this coming May, think of me up that ladder, swearing and sweating as I wrestle with bungee cords trying to hang a curtain to a scaffold. Try and show some love and appreciation to the venue that you’re in, I can guarantee you that a lot of love went into making that space.