Fringe theatre is theatre that is experimental in style or subject matter. The term comes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In London, the fringe are small-scale theatres, many of them located above pubs, and the equivalent to New York's Off-Off-Broadway theatres and Europe's "free theatre" groups.
In unjuried theatre festivals, all submissions are accepted, and sometimes the participating acts may be chosen by lottery, in contrast to juried festivals in which acts are selected based on their artistic qualities. Unjuried festivals (e.g., Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, and Fringe World) permit artists to perform a wide variety of works.
In 1947, eight theatre companies showed up at the Edinburgh International Festival, hoping to gain recognition from the mass gathering at the festival. In 1948, Robert Kemp, a Scottish journalist and playwright, described the situation, "Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before ... I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!".Edinburgh Festival Fringe was founded under the name "Festival Adjuncts", in 1947.
The fringe movement in Britain has been said to start in the 1960s, similar to the United States' Off-Off-Broadway theatres and Europe's "free theatre" groups. The term came into use in the late 1950s, and the show Beyond the Fringe premiered in Edinburgh in 1960, before transferring to Broadway and is the West End. One of the early innovators in fringe theatre was an American bookseller, James Haynes, who in 1963 created the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Also noted in this period is the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Jerzy Grotowski's Theatre of 13 Rows, and Józef Szajna's Studio Theatre in Warsaw.
The Adelaide Fringe in Adelaide, South Australia, now second-largest annual arts festival in the world (after Edinburgh Fringe), started in 1960 as an adjunct to the main Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Haynes, while at the helm of the Traverse, was receiving state support and even got a new theatre in 1969. In 1969, Haynes created the Arts Lab in London, but it only lasted for two years. Peter Brook along with another American Charles Marowitz opened the Open Space Theatre on Tottenham Court Road in London in 1968. Young British writers, after the May 1968 events in France, wrote agitprop plays, including David Hare, Howard Brenton, David Edgar.
Meanwhile, in the United States, experimental theatre was growing due to the political protest of the Vietnam War. The Living Theatre, founded by Julian Beck, is considered the leader of the "flower power" and "hippie" movement.
By the early 1970s, many fringe theatres began to receive small subsidies. After the 1973-74 stock market crash, many fringe companies were forced to close. New playwrights were established at the Bush Theatre and King's Head Theatre, both of whom survived the crash. 7:84 and Red Ladder Theatre Company were some of the surviving touring fringe groups.
Fringe theatres were attractive to people in the 1960s due to their adventurousness but became less wild in the 1970s while the standards of production rose.
In 1982, the first fringe festival in North America was started in Edmonton, Alberta. It was then a theatre component of the larger Summerfest but evolved to become a stand-alone event, the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, one of the largest annual arts events in Canada and still the largest fringe in North America by attendance. The oldest fringe festival in the United States is Orlando, FL, founded in 1992. There are more fringe festivals in North America than any other continent.
One distinction between fringe festivals and conventional arts festivals is the method used to choose participants. Typically, conventional festivals use a jury selection process, whereas many fringe festivals do not use a jury process in their selection criteria. There are exceptions to this; some fringe festivals (e.g., New York International Fringe Festival) do employ a jury-based selection process.
All performers are welcome to apply, regardless of their professional or amateur status. No restrictions are made as to the nature, style or theme of the performance, though some festivals have children's areas with appropriate content limitations. Festivals may have too many applicants for the number of available spaces; in this case, applicants are chosen based on an unrelated criterion, such as order of application or a random draw.
The number of performances varies among different fringe festivals. Larger festivals may have thousands of performances (e.g., Edinburgh's 2013 festival had 45,464 performances).
Fringe festivals typically have a common organising group that handles ticketing, scheduling, and some overall promotion (such as a program including all performers). Each production pays a set fee to this group, which usually includes their stage time as well as the organizational elements. The organising group and/or the venues often rely on a large pool of volunteers.
Although it is unusual for the organising group to choose any winners of the festival, other organisations often make their own judgements of festival entries . Productions can be reviewed by newspapers or publications specific to the festival, and awards may be given by certain organisations. Awards or favourable reviews can increase the tickets sales of productions or lead to extra dates being added[original research?].
The limitations and opportunities that the fringe festival format presents lead to some common features.
Shows are not judged or juried. Depending on the popularity, some fringe festivals may use a lottery system to determine which shows are selected.
Shows are typically technically sparse. They are commonly presented in shared venues, often with shared technicians and limited technical time, so sets and other technical theatre elements are kept simple. Venues may be adapted from other uses.
Casts tend to be smaller than mainstream theatre; since many of the performing groups are traveling, and venues (and thus potential income) tend to be fairly small, expenses must usually be kept to a minimum. One-person shows are therefore quite common at fringe festivals.
Fringe festival productions often showcase new scripts, especially ones on more obscure, edgy, or unusual material. The lack of artistic vetting combined with relatively easy entry make risk-taking more feasible.
While most mainstream theatre shows are two or three acts long, taking two to three hours with intermissions, fringe shows tend to be closer to one-hour, single-act productions. The typically lowered ticket prices of a fringe theatre show permit audiences to attend multiple shows in a single evening.