Richard Hull | Artshub | Tuesday 19 August, 2014

With arts festival programs becoming monstrously large, perhaps it’s time to step back and consider the beauty of a smaller scale.

Is it already too late for the Godzilla festivals?

Sometimes in a Japanese monster movie there will be a scene where the immense but misunderstood dragon-lizard is seen pre-puberty and pre-carnage, as just a beak cracking through its birth egg; little and loveable.

Not until the monster is fully grown and breathing fire on the good citizens of downtown Tokyo does anyone finally stop to say, ‘Er, what should we do now?’

Things can get out of hand real quick.

This year, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe boasts 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues across Scotland’s capital city, an 11% increase on last year.

Now the biggest performing arts festival in the world, this particular dragon-lizard grew from a modest beginning when eight enterprising theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. They performed in unofficial makeshift venues hoping to take advantage of the gathering theatre crowds and as you already know dear reader, the idea caught on. Big time.

Back home, attendances at the 2014 Adelaide Fringe passed 1.9 million people and 447,000 tickets were sold – a 10% rise on 2013. The mega-popular Garden Of Unearthly Delights has blossomed into the destination of choice and its scale, both in size and ambition, makes it a significant festival in its own right. Over four weeks you need never step outside its boundaries to see a show (which is probably another whole discussion).

But scale is my point.

The 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Guide runs to a near biblical 413 pages. Who has the time to diligently read such a tome, beyond skimming through the eye-catching ads? And how do you make an informed decision about what to see when every show is ‘unmissable’ and every comic a ‘genius’?

Sure, you can simply bet your money on a well-known name or a high profile company, but the real thrill of a festival is risk and the chance to experience something out of the ordinary.

One of the few things that hasn’t got bigger in Edinburgh is the size of an average audience. Nine. Such is the clamour for those elusive bums-on-seats that even the most junior theatre critic can achieve a near god-like status. A five-star review boosts your box office, instantly plastered on every spare wall, tree or passing punter, while a three-star or less (don’t even mention one) will crush your hopes and dreams in a single, often poorly written, paragraph.

It is the harshest of environments for artists and audiences alike, surely being made ever harsher by the determination to grow these events year on year. Why is bigger such a key measure of success? What’s so clever or noble about being bigger?

‘Bigger than last year!’ they trumpet, ‘more shows, more venues, more attendances, more tickets sold, more drinks sold, more economic impact.’ Pause. For a moment. We should be mindful of the Godzilla Principle; by the time anyone notices how improbably big something has become, it’s already stomping all over your city.

By most measures, it’s now more expensive to perform as part of a fringe festival than at any other time of year, which is a long way from those eight pioneering companies in Edinburgh.

Festivals must primarily be artist driven, creating the best possible environment in which to develop and perform. They are crucial platforms for innovative art and emerging artists. They also need to be user-friendly, allowing audiences to make informed choices, then to enjoy those choices in venues that respect the art and the artist. Unusual spaces, site-specific events, pop-up venues and tents can be an inspired part of the voyage of discovery, as long as you don’t erect your Spiegeltent next to the bass-pumping DJ stage.

My niggling feeling at a festival these days is a sense of dissatisfaction at what I have missed. So, ‘er, what should we do now?’

I can only speak of Albury-Wodonga, where we are celebrating 35 years of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus in October with a boutique festival, Borderville. A bijou weekend of circus, performance and art, where we have programmed everything to be complementary rather than competing. The canny adventurer can chart a short course from Friday through Sunday and see every performance and event, taking in a little international cabaret, Chinese acrobatics, slapstick, vaudeville, circus and visual art.

Albury-Wodonga is a great place to locate a new cultural event; HotHouse Theatre is our neighbour and the region boasts a community rich with artists and creative ideas. There are terrific galleries and venues. The food flows like wine. It’s ready made for the job, as I keep telling our two city councils knowing that one day they will agree.

Here at the Fruities, we understand that extraordinary things come in surprisingly small packages, so we don’t much worry about size. If all goes to plan, Borderville should return in 2016, but the Godzilla Principle makes one thing very clear; we will leave the dragon-lizard taming to someone else’s circus.

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus presents Borderville
Albury-Wodonga, 3-5 October 2014

IMAGE: Godzilla destroying Tokyo in the original 1954 film.