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James Baker - Musicals, Fringe thoughts and plans for the future

Craig Hepworth and James Baker discuss Fringe - the benefits of good practice and beyond.

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Little Shop of Horrors
© Assembled Junk

For years I have been standing up for fringe, good fringe, my company Vertigo was labeled ‘Manchester's Premiere Fringe Company' (an honor that we do not take lightly) and we always aim to put on a tight production, well worked and reworked scripts and a West End worthy cast, after all, that is the aim of the game right, to keep raising the bar on yourself and on fringe in general?

Over the past year or so, I've noticed that the quality in fringe shows from some new and occasionally established companies is starting to drop. Scripts thrown on last minute with no time to correct the mistakes, wobbly direction, no production values, under rehearsed cast etc.

So why are so many recently falling in to this category? The problem is that each time an audience member experiences these 'not quite ready' fringe shows, it sends them running a mile from fringe altogether and that has a knock on effect on sales for the small companies that are putting on incredible things.

Over the next 6 weeks I will be profiling people on the fringe scene who are here to raise the bar, push it forward and make sure that audiences get the best possible show for their money, after all some of the best stuff is happening on the fringe circuit and should be seen.

Don't get me wrong Manchester still has many wonderful things going on from great teams of people (look at shows like Away From Home, New Dawn Fades etc), but hopefully new companies can come out fighting strong with excellent productions and maybe learn a little something from the people who I profile over the next six weeks, after all we are all here to entertain and we all want to get it right.

James Baker

This week I met up with James Baker at Taurus Bar on Canal Street, you may not know the name yet as James is new to the fringe scene with his company Assembled Junk that specialise in fringe musical productions and he is also the newly appointed programmer of the Kings Arms. Baker made an impact recently with his first production of the musical Spring Awakening featuring a live band, set, huge marketing campaign and a sell out run, I was impressed by his companies drive and effort and thrilled that someone else looked like they were here to make a difference on the scene.

Still feeling a little like the new kid on the block, James told me he could see from the off that things on the scene needed to change, it needed to come together more.

Like myself James has noticed the shift towards rushed and cheap or simply people struggling, "I will spend 6 months with a text before I even get to the rehearsal room" he says, which is just the way it should be "I think the problem comes down to craft, not enough people are learning their craft" talking about why so many of these below par fringe shows are popping up, and he is absolutely right.

You see James might be new to the Manchester Fringe scene but he is far from new to the world of directing, a craft he takes very seriously. James has enjoyed a career in academia where he directed students in some fantastic shows (some of which I saw) as well as working on National Tours, this is a man who knows what he is talking about. As a venue programmer he is also well aware that he has an added responsibility to make sure only the good stuff goes on, "I will offer advice to the visiting companies if they are struggling with anything, we have to support each other" a great idea.

People like James adore the theatre scene and he seems to love the fringe scene, after all when I asked him if his goal was West End he smiled and said "not really", he is interested in developing and producing his works in "interesting spaces", he said he will always be a part of the fringe scene in Manchester, and that is important. Since arriving on the scene he is taking in meeting after meeting, getting to know all involved in this crazy industry and as he goes along he is seeing the areas that need some work.

I bring up marketing shows and how many fringe shows fail on that count, James rolls his eyes "I can't stand clip art posters, it's the public's first impression of your show" something else we agree on. To run a fringe company is to know that 50 percent of it will come down to marketing, we at Vertigo have been praised by major venues/shows on our marketing and James is exactly the same, his campaign for Spring Awakening was well thought out as is the recent campaign for his upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors.

James has given the Kings Arms space a much needed face lift to ensure that people get the best from the venue, that is why it's so important that the quality of the work stays high, something I know he is committed to doing, "maybe we should start meeting up with other fringe company's regularly to discuss the scene and move it in the right direction?" it was like he was reading my mind "I saw some problems but I never wanted to be the lone voice, I didn't want people thinking... who is he to say all this?", but it's voices like James that are vitally important, we adore this scene and we want to see it flourish like it was only a few years ago, and if James keeps the quality of his shows high, hopefully more who might be struggling (have the ideas but are unsure and how to implement them) can be inspired and follow.

Don't get me wrong, the money James puts in to his shows are unusually high for a fringe production in the city, many won't be able to do that, but it's about how tightly put together the shows are, that's what's impressive, the rest is just flash.

This Christmas, James opens his fringe production of the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors at the Kings Arms for a 3 week run "I took a gamble doing a 3 week run", indeed he did, but the show is selling well and without giving too much away I can tell you that the production sounds fresh and exciting.

His show actually goes up directly against my show Christmas Sorority Massacre at the 3MT, but no competition exists between us, I want him to do well and he wants ours to do well (we will be attending each other's shows) and that's exactly what the fringe scene needs to get back to, being supportive of each other, helping each other out and applauding each other's success.

We should always of course keep raising that bar as well, Manchester is a fantastic theatre city and fringe is a huge part of that. His dedication to musical theatre on the fringe scene is a breath of fresh air, after all musical theatre actors have very little to cut their teeth on in the region and instead have to head down to London.

James describes Assembled Junk as a stop gap for musical theatre actors coming out of training and getting ready to enter the world of Mainstream musicals.He also does not seem like he's wanting to play it safe, yes Little Shop may be quite a conventional choice to put on (especially after making such an impact with the edgy musical Spring Awakening) but as he says "it's a fun show for Christmas" and he loves the show. He is also willing to go all out to make it an immersive experience so again is challenging the conventions of the show (taking it back to its Off Broadway days), but plans for other shows he has in mind are off the wall, fun and fresh, just like his approach to his work.

The things James would like to see change are quite simple, more tightly rehearsed shows, people learning their craft before throwing a show on, some great direction, interesting productions and stronger marketing campaigns... and he is right about every one of them.

I am excited to see what James does now he is so involved in the scene, but I know for sure that he is here to shake things up, and that is exciting. With fantastic fringe spaces like The Kings Arms, 3MT, Lass O'Gowrie etc. taking over from places like the Studio Lowry, it is my hope that all these fringe venues come together to make the scene in Manchester stronger and more exciting and we can all rely on each other for any help or guidance, after all we are all wanting to achieve the same thing and I have the utmost respect for anyone who is willing to put a fringe show on. I get the feeling that James will be a loud voice leading the way along with myself.

Let's have a look at some recommendations of a couple of shows to see this week in Manchester

Loving Dick – Lass O'Gowrie Oct 25th

LOVING DICK is a serious comedy that asks the often forgotten question: What actually is sex? The Coital Imperative requires us to penetrate but that alienates certain strata of society. Can we, universally, define sex or is it too blurred in its boundaries that we're forever to disagree? LOVING DICK forces those disagreements out in to the open and considers the effect they have on our friendships, relationships and even careers.

Desperate Measures – 3MT, Afflecks, Mamchester 23rd- 26th Oct

For their debut production the Manchester Shakespeare Company present a full length adaptation of 'Measure For Measure'. Formed by the Company behind the successful 3MT Venue, TMSC is dedicated to producing modern, relevant adaptations of Shakespeare's works set in the cultural landscape of the North West of England, embracing the talents of local writers, actors and directors.

Until next time.

- Craig Hepworth


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