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Behind the curtains with Guildford Fringe arts festival

PUBLISHED: 13:43 12 July 2015 | UPDATED: 11:46 17 July 2015

Nell Gwynn's History Laid Bare (Photo Michael Wharley)

Nell Gwynn's History Laid Bare (Photo Michael Wharley)

Michael Wharley

From naked comedians to adult pantos, Guildford Fringe has shocked and thrilled our county town in equal measure in recent years. Here, Matthew Williams meets the festival’s founder Nick Wyschna to discuss what decadent delights you can expect this year – and why the festival may even be coming to a town near you...

Nick has grand ambitions for the Fringe in SurreyNick has grand ambitions for the Fringe in Surrey

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2015

***

“All the world’s a stage” is a phrase taken seriously by those involved in Fringe theatre. You’ll generally find its players treading the boards in dimly-lit pub back rooms, rather than the majestic auditoriums of the West End, and it’s a genre that takes theatre back to its grass roots, celebrating quirkiness, creativity and provocation over glitz and glamour. Which is why it’s possibly a little surprising to find it thriving in the smart streets of Guildford.

That said, for a town with three major theatres (Yvonne Arnaud, Electric Theatre and G Live), two nationally renowned theatre schools (Performance Preparation Academy and Guildford School of Acting) and a host of vibrant amateur and professional drama collectives, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the underground was united under one banner.

“For me, the best thing about Fringe theatre is that it’s a really unintimidating atmosphere and it can take place anywhere,” says Guildford Fringe founder Nick Wyschna, a trained actor, who is also the co-owner of the Firefly @ The Keystone arts pub, where we meet today.

“You get people who approach you after a show and tell you they’d never normally have considered going to the theatre,” he adds. “That’s so exciting for an actor.”

Born and bred in Guildford, he started out initially by putting on productions in The Back Room at The Star – in part as an out-of-hours escape from his own work in the West End and, he admits, a way to play roles that he really wanted.

“It probably sounds a bit cringey, but it was a lot of fun,” laughs the 31-year-old. “My personal plan was always that if I wasn’t getting the main West End parts by 30 then I’d pack it in – fortunately, the local stuff became so fulfilling that it really wasn’t as difficult a decision as I’d imagined it would be when the right idea came along.”

Access all areas

Meeting Surrey-based actors during this period, it became increasingly obvious that small theatre companies, clubs and artists could do with a little help putting on shows in places that might have previously proved financially restrictive.

“The Guildford Fringe has been very much trial and error, like everything I’ve done,” he continues. “I started it with my own savings in 2012 and we had just one venue. There were 33 events and 900 people came. At first, there seemed to be a lot of barriers in place, but these quickly fell aside. I guess people were a little scared of the ‘new kid on the block’.

“Then, when arms start opening, ambition kicks in and you start thinking ‘what if we had 40 venues and 1,000s of events?’ But I did some research into Edinburgh, which is admittedly a very different beast, and the average audience numbers across their events are surprisingly small. So we had to be more realistic and I think we’ve found our size for the time being, with eight or so venues and up to 100 events that we can focus our efforts on. It means we can really open doors for drama groups and artists.”

And these events come in all forms. Their biggest success story to date was perhaps January’s Concrete Boots, which starred Coronation Street’s Steven Arnold (“…a friend of mine is going out with him, but he wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the reputation we do”), but the ‘adult’ panto and burlesque events have proved hot tickets too.

“I have to admit that not everything we do has been welcomed with open arms, but then I tend to think that if you’re not getting a few complaints with alternative entertainment then you’re probably doing something wrong,” says Nick.

“I’m pretty sure that one of this year’s shows, which features a naked comic, will cause a certain amount of uproar. But there’s a niche for these events even if they aren’t for everyone’s taste.”

Pushing boundaries

Guildford Fringe doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not: Nick and the festival’s board realise their market is alternative entertainment, burlesque, edgy theatre etc, with the other bases well covered already in town. Usually, that means their audiences are made up of open-minded young professionals (as well as the young at heart) looking for something different to do.

It’s a recipe that’s proving successful. This year’s festival will also be heading to the not-quite-so-Fringe-like ‘confines’ 
of G Live’s expansive main stage with a burlesque and cabaret show.

“It’s terrifying!” laughs Nick. “If that sells out, it will make more money than the whole of the Fringe last year. It explains why comedians and other entertainers are gravitating towards the larger arena tours. Fortunately, they are also absolutely amazing there at creating the right vibe, otherwise I’d be a little worried about us being swallowed up by the space.”

Generally, however, the venues are still more intimate with The Back Room at The Star Inn, Firefly @ The Keystone, The Keep, The Legion, Clandon Wood Natural Burial Reserve and Bar Des Arts all among those featured on this year’s bill.

“Obviously, if Guildford gets a reputation as an arts hub, everyone will benefit. Not just the artists, but the retailers, the restaurateurs. Everyone.

“These actors and audiences are now coming to town and realising that there’s actually this funky, colourful youth scene going on and it’s not just a stuffy, middle class commuter belt full of houses that most people can’t afford to buy. There’s definitely a quirkier side of Surrey life.

“We’re not the only ones fighting this corner, either. You only have to look at the success that Guildford Shakespeare Company has had, putting on these mixed-up versions of classics in unusual venues, to see that it’s a concept that excites new theatre audiences. And theatre needs that; new blood in the audiences.”

Countywide ambition

It’s not just a Guildford-centric phenomenon, however, and Nick sees this as the start of something very special for Surrey as a whole – with Woking next in line to launch its own Fringe festival.

“Ray Morgan, Woking’s chief executive, has been an unbelievable support – you don’t always get that from that sort of level with local government,” says Nick. “Guildford should be worried!

“Woking should start from October, but then we’re hoping to have five Fringes across Surrey within five years. It means that a play like Concrete Boots will be able to, say, start in Guildford and then go across to Woking and on to wherever else we end up. I have a good idea of the towns we’d like to hit, but we’re going to make sure we get Woking right first.”

Having for too long witnessed a major talent drain to the bright lights of the city, it’s refreshing to see Surrey’s counterculture fighting back in all its corset-clad eccentricity and splintered-floored glory.

***

• Guildford Fringe Festival runs from Wednesday July 1 to Sunday July 26. For the full line-up and ticket details, see GuildfordFringeFestival.com

***

Nick’s 2015 Guildford Fringe favourites...

Friday July 3

Nell Gwynn’s 
History Laid Bare

An award-winning burlesque tour through the life and times of the second most fabulous redhead in history and the most famous mistress of her time, Nell Gwynn. Tickets: £7.

• The Back Room 
of The Star Inn

Thursday July 9

The London 
Poetry Brothel: Guildford Edition

Join Madame Sierra Champagne and her poetry courtesans for a cabaret evening of readings and performances. Wear something decadent. Tickets: £5.

• The Legion

Wednesday July 15

Topsie Redfern 
Drag Act

Topsie has just turned 30 and is having a pre-midlife crisis. She is intensely career-minded; singing and strutting from designer shoe shops to rendezvous with wealthy oligarchs. Tickets: £10.

• Bar Des Arts

Friday July 17

Miss Glory Pearl: 
The Naked Stand-Up

Bridging the gaps between theatre, spoken word and stand-up, The Naked Stand-Up is a funny and heart-felt exploration of body issues and beauty in the 21st century. 
Tickets: £10.

• The Back Room 
of The Star Inn

Saturday July 25

Hundred Watt Club - Burlesque and Cabaret

A stunning line-up of burlesque and cabaret artists to titillate, tantalise and tease. Tickets: from £13.

• G Live

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