Simone Fox Koob | The Australian | Friday 4th September 2015


It’s 2002, and while the world-­famous Adelaide Fringe Festival celebrates its 42nd anniversary and Melbourne Fringe its 20th, the Sydney Fringe is forced to close its doors after just six years in operation. Its successor, the Live Bait Festival, runs for an even shorter two years. It seems that Australia’s biggest city isn’t destined for an alternative arts festival to rival other state capitals.

Cut to September 2010, and Sydney’s inner west is bustling with underground activity. From comedy to burlesque, experimental theatre to public art projects in unexpected spaces, more than 100 acts are participating in the rejuvenated event. The Sydney Fringe Festival was back, and with it a slew of fringes pops up across the country; Brisbane, Perth and Darwin were quick to follow suit.

These diverse celebrations of independent art — characteristically low-cost, acces­sible, experimental and small-scale — continue to gain momentum.

Now in its sixth year, the revitalised Sydney Fringe — which officially opens tomorrow with live music and performance event Fringe Ignite  boasts more than 300 events in 50 venues.

For festival director Kerry Glasscock, the first step on the road to success was to adapt. “In my experience, I think (fringe festivals) have to be true to the city that hosts them,” says Glasscock, who is in her second year at the helm. “It just wouldn’t work in Sydney to try and transplant Adelaide Fringe and put it here. It’s about understanding your city.”

The experienced arts administrator has seen the projects from all angles: as a performer, producer, venue host, board member and now artistic director. These insights have informed her underlying ethos for the project: “I’ve wanted to break down the barrier that independent or fringe is of less quality,” she says. “For me I feel like that is a very big stigma in our city in particular that doesn’t exist necessarily in Melbourne or Adelaide. There is a very strong focus in Sydney on main stage, on harbourside, on funded companies, on glossy work.”

While these misconceptions may have contributed to the festival’s rocky history, the Sydney Fringe has quickly become the largest independent arts festival in NSW. It is still an infant in relation to its state siblings, the biggest of which are the 51-year-old Adelaide Fringe — the world’s second oldest — and 33-year-old Melbourne Fringe, which also opens this month. And just like a rebellious younger sibling, the Sydney Fringe is defying some conventions associated with the format.

While the festival is technically open-access — anyone can register as long as they pay the entry fee — the Sydney Fringe counters feedback that the city is too geographically dispersed by curating the location of the registered acts, placing them close to each other to create an intimate festival buzz.

“The nature of how Sydneysiders get around the city, how they use their city, is very different,” says Glasscock. “It’s not like being in Adelaide where all roads down Rundle Mall lead to the garden and you can walk from one to the other in 40 minutes. So we have to be different in our approach.”

It also has no formal relationship with the Sydney Festival, unlike other Australian fringes, which precede their larger counterparts. Talent scouts and producers looking for main-stage festival productions are “more frequent in other cities”, says Glasscock, and she is more focused on highlighting existing venues, artists and companies to help sustain the sector and create a long-term presence.

“Because we represent so many local artists and local venues, the focus is always about building audiences for the year to come,” Glasscock says.

The Brisbane Fringe Festival, which ended yesterday, is more of a warm-up for the Brisbane Festival each September, and the Melbourne Fringe Festival maintains a strong relationship with its larger arts festival.

The benefit of this is the ability to take smaller productions through the ranks and on to the main stage through initiatives such as the Discovery Award.

Cross-collaboration between the fringes is also commonplace, as is reflected by the history of many of this year’s highlights from Melbourne and Sydney.

Melita Rowston’s stage production 6 Degrees of Ned Kelly will travel straight from Sydney Fringe to Melbourne Fringe; Helpmann-award winner Yana Alana, who was on the bill at this year’s Sydney Festival, will perform at this year’s Melbourne Fringe; Berlin performance artist Peter Baecker last visited Australia for the Adelaide Fringe and will return for the Sydney Fringe; and Left, a showcase of circus acts and last year’s Melbourne Fringe people’s choice winner, will feature at this year’s Sydney Fringe.

Furthermore, the five Sydney Fringe ambassadors — Helpmann-award winning actress Ursula Yovich (recently starring in a co-­production by the Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information), actress Kate Mulvany, comedian Jon Bennett and musicians Paul Capsis and Wes Carr — are all successful mainstream artists with roots in the independent arts. Fringe festivals are living proof that individuals and small, medium and large art companies are all inextricably ­intertwined.

Melbourne Fringe festival director Simon Abrahams says these examples of interconnectedness prove the importance of building large-scale celebrations of the independent arts, as they play “an incredibly vital role in the arts ecology”, especially as the sector experiences a dramatic shake-up in federal funding.

The proposed changes to be implemented by the National Program for Excellence in the Arts have been met with some loud objections, including the concern about its effect on smaller organisations and independent artists.

“What we’re seeing is that org­anisations like Melbourne Fringe can champion the role of the independent sector in what are going to be tricky times. The roles of organisations like ours become more important,” Abrahams says.

“There is genuine and heartfelt fear for the future of the Australian arts across every level. The changes that we are seeing at a federal government level are going to have a profound impact on the long-term sustainability of contemporary arts in Australia.”

Just as the Australia Council has reacted to the federal arts funding changes by adjusting the size and frequency of its grants round, fringe festivals will have to adapt by finding alternative routes to support, fund and promote upcoming talent.

While Glasscock agrees that certain parts of the NPEA, such as the exclusion of individual applicants, could be “very dangerous in a broader picture”, she is focused on practical solutions because “relying on funding isn’t a practical solution anyway”.

“In an ideal world for me (artists) should be commercially viable in a way that isn’t reliant on government funding,” she says. “We’re full of independent artists and run by independent artists, so we are all about just trying to solve the problem, not trying to complain about what’s going on.

“The great thing about the Fringe project is that you are able once a year to pile on new ideas. We are able to talk to our sector and say, ‘What’s a practical solution to this and let’s try it out.’ It’s certainly time to unite as a sector — all levels of the sector.”

The Sydney Fringe Festival ends September 30. The Melbourne Fringe runs from September 16 to October 4.

IMAGE CREDITCabaret star Yana Alana performing in Hobart. Picture: Kim Eiszele. Source: News Corp Australia