It was fourteen years ago that Michelle Flower and Zena Barrie launched the Camden Fringe festival as a summer filler at the Etcetera Theatre in London NW1. Fourteen years later, London’s annual alternative to the Edinburgh Fringe spans 300+ shows across 30 venues. We caught up with Flower to hear more. How many shows can you pack in? Time to get booking!
The 14th annual Camden Fringe festival runs in and around the London borough of Camden from 29 July to 25 August 2019 at venues including the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Tristan Bates Theatre, Camden People’s Theatre, Theatro Technis and Canal Cafe, as well as the Etcetera, with tickets for most shows costing less than a tenner. The season is preceded by a celebratory launch party – where MyTheatreMates will be in live-tweeting attendance – on Wednesday 17 July at the London Irish Centre.
How did the first Camden Fringe come about?
The Camden Fringe took place in 2006. It was very much an experiment that took place at the Etcetera Theatre, which we were managing at the time. It was Zena’s idea to see if we could get a few more bookings and punters through the door if we framed our August programming as a festival. So many London fringe venues would just close for the month whilst the Edinburgh Fringe was on. That first year there were 22 acts on and it all seemed to go very well.
So the timing with Edinburgh was intentional?
Entirely intentional. We’ve never considered ourselves a rival to the mighty Edinburgh Fringe, but there has always been room for an alternative. There are still millions of people in London every summer who might want to see a show, even if the population of performers dwindles.
In terms of acts, many of them can’t afford the time or money to take a show to Edinburgh, so we try and keep runs of shows short and prices down. What we really enjoy seeing is productions that try stuff out at Camden one year, and then refine the show and go to Edinburgh the following summer.
Of course, we are much, much smaller than EdFringe as an organisation, so everyone who contacts us gets a reply from Zena or me, which I think makes it quite a friendly environment to be part of.
Did you anticipate then that Camden Fringe would still be going strong in 2019?
We had no idea Camden Fringe would still be going 14 years later, long after we left the Etcetera. We’ve never had a long-term business plan for the festival, but it’s been by far the most successful and enduring project Zena and I have worked on together.
What are some of your personal highlights over the past 14 years?
Sadly, because Zena and I are doing all the donkey work, we don’t get to see that many shows, so performance highlights don’t spring as readily to mind as I’d like. It’s nice seeing companies and performers who come back year after year, which we have a few of. Something lovely this year is welcoming the Chapel Playhouse into the fold as a venue. Although it’s brand spanking new, we have a long connection with one of the co-founders and co-directors, Velenzia Spearpoint, who first took part in the Camden Fringe in 2007 aged 17 and has done every year since as part of Get Over It Productions. It’s wonderful to see her success in the theatre world.
What’s the connection between Camden Fringe & Manchester Fringe?
I don’t have any involvement in the Greater Manchester Fringe myself. Zena co-runs both Manchester and Camden, but with completely separate teams. Manchester takes place for the entirety of July and overlaps slightly with the start of the Camden, so I think it would be difficult for more than one person to do both. I’m not sure how Zena copes with eight weeks of solid fringe festivaling. She usually escapes for a small break within a few hours of Camden Fringe finishing!
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Camden Fringe?
Eastendless has the ring of quality. It’s written by Tim Fountain, directed by former Bush Theatre artistic director Mike Bradwell and stars James Holmes. As a lifelong EastEnders viewer myself, this will be a real treat. I’m also drawn to Red Peter, Valhalla and The Ideal Woman, and Form has, appropriately enough, very good form from performances at other festivals.
Why should theatremakers take part in Camden Fringe?
For experienced theatremakers, it’s a great opportunity to try out something new and to experiment with just a short run of shows in a supportive environment. For less experienced theatremakers, we try to make the process relatively simple and provide useful information about putting on and marketing a show.
Why should theatregoers support Camden Fringe?
You’ll see more challenging ideas explored in fringe theatre than in the West End. It’s important to support the Fringe as it’s where people learn their craft and try out new work. You may be seeing the stars of the future. You also might end up seeing a load of old cobblers, but that’s all part of the fun of the Fringe. It’s a gamble!
Full festival programme
For details on all 300+ shows in the 2019 Camden Fringe programme, visit the festival websiteClick here