Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bingo beyond the Fringe, by Ashleigh Wilson - The Australian - 2nd March 2009

There was a bingo theme at the launch of the Adelaide Fringe program in January. The singer Kamahl was there, pulling out numbers that referred to a particular page of the program. They were calling it Fringe Bingo, and earlier that day, an oversized bingo ball, with an artist inside, was rolled down Rundle Mall.

The ever-smiling Fringe director, Christie Anthoney, thinks the lottery metaphor is appropriate, saying "everyone's a winner". But it can just as easily describe the lucky-dip nature of the festival, a melange of performing and visual arts where you never really know what you're going to get. More than any other arts festival in Australia, there are no guarantees about what will happen.

The formula is risky. But it's also part of the appeal of the Adelaide Fringe, which opened in an array of colour on Friday night, when thousands of people ignored soaring heat to pack the streets of the city, trying to grab a glimpse of the parade or of artists performing extracts from their work. The event runs for 23 days and is set to take over every corner of the city. Everyone involved, from artists to administrators to promoters, has a stake in itssuccess.

"It's the festival of the new," Anthoney says. "I like to say it's the freshest festival in Australia. The largest, and the freshest."

Anthoney lists some of the "crazy statistics" of the festival, which is modelled on the Edinburgh Fringe. Indeed, it prides itself on being the second-biggest arts festival in the world behind Edinburgh. Those involved in Adelaide are quick to rattle off the numbers: 517 shows, 4977 performances, 259 venues, 293 premieres. The challenge is how to bring all those different elements together into some kind of coherent whole and then to determine what acts to see, and what to miss.

Size alone is not what makes the Adelaide Fringe unique among the nation's summer arts festivals.

Having only two years ago become annual, it no longer finds itself tied to the biennial Adelaide Festival of the Arts. That separation underlines how the fringe has forged its own identity in the crowded festival circuit, where its irreverent, all-inclusive spirit has been embraced by the city and artists alike. And it comes at a busy time for Adelaide, which is also making room for the city's film festival and WOMADelaide this month.

This year is Anthoney's third as Fringe director. She has travelled to Edinburgh annually for the past 17 years, working at the festival and looking for ideas. One of the differences between the Adelaide and Edinburgh fringe festivals, she says, is that only Adelaide includes curated events, such as the opening night show on Friday. Otherwise, the controlled chaos of the formula is the same: artists of varying backgrounds and abilities register with the festival to perform. It's usually their responsibility to find a venue, and they also take all the risks. No one is excluded, as long as they pay their own way and get their applications in on time.

"There is no selection process for the Adelaide Fringe," Anthoney says. "It is an absolutely open festival. The only way in which somebody would be rejected as such is if they missed the deadline."

This, of course, brings the real possibility of a festival of duds, although the opposite is also true. By all accounts, the quality remains high,with little-known acts attracting exposure and giving audiences an insight into some of the work being developed beyond thenation's mainstream arts companies.

The festival stage, Anthoney says, is also a testing ground for new shows: she mentions how the Adelaide Fringe was the first in Australia to experience La Clique, the burlesque show that has built an enthusiastic following at other arts festivals.

"It's a democratic festival really," Anthoney says. "Once you analyse the results you see what artists believe people want, and then you analyse the ticket sales and it tells you again what people want."

While it doesn't help with travel costs, the Fringe gives advice to artists about how to best present, market and publicise their event, and it takes only a small administration fee from the box office. It also runs a program called Honeypot, where promoters and venue directors from across the country and the region are invited to travel to Adelaide.

Funding is modest: $1.1 million from the South Australian Government, plus sponsorships and other income sources. As a result, there are none of the big-ticket blockbuster shows you would expect at big arts festivals; their absence, however, seems appropriate. One of the artists this year says audiences need to work a little harder to find the gems in the program, without relying on organisers to point them in the right direction. Word of mouth is crucial, and it's often not clear what the highlights are until the final week. For the artists involved, the risks - and the rewards - are clear.

"It's one of those festivals where you've got to find out for yourself what's on," says Adelaide choreographer Aidan Munn, whose two-person dance show Virus, at the Fringe later this month, is inspired by Japanese anime and set in a post-apocalyptic city.

Nine years ago, Munn, a former dancer with Australian Dance Theatre, took part in another Adelaide Fringe project, a street theatre piece called Buzz. On the back of the support it received in Adelaide, he took the show to several festivals in Europe, including Edinburgh.

"There's a circuit out there with festivals similar to the Adelaide Fringe, so once you're on that as an artist, it's a good way to get your work seen."

Another artist to take advantage of the circuit is Matthew Zajac, a Scottish actor whose first attempt at playwriting, The Tailor of Inverness, has its Australian premiere at the Fringe. The story centres on Zajac's father, a tailor from Poland who settled in Scotland after World War II before changing his identity and life story. It was first presented by Scotland's Dogstar Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and one of the prizes it won paid for it to travel to Adelaide. Zajac still finds it hard to believe the reception his work has received. "It's been quite overwhelming," he says.

The Fringe takes place in a range of venues, from formal theatre spaces to makeshift performance areas, including a disused prison and abandoned shopfronts.

One of the most popular is the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Set in Adelaide's East End, the garden is a collection of stages and performance spaces that attracts huge crowds every night. Performers range from Tim Freedman, David Bridie and Frente to one of this year's must-see acts, the musical cabaret show A Company of Strangers in the Spiegeltent. Fringe staff forbid themselves from endorsing any one act, but there have been some excited whispers about this performance in the past few weeks.

Perhaps the most popular part of the Fringe, though, is the comedy program. With the Melbourne International Comedy Festival starting next month, the Fringe, once again, serves as a warm-up gig. Many well-known comedians are making an appearance, including Tom Gleeson, Wil Anderson and Dave Hughes.

It's not exclusively top-heavy, with several lesser-known comedians using the Fringe to perfect their craft. Among them is 26-year-old comic Mujahid Ahmed, who describes himself as the nation's only Sudanese-Australian comedian. "I've got total control of the market," he says.

Ahmed is based in Adelaide, where he arrived in 2001 after leaving his home in the United Arab Emirates (he says he chose Adelaide after seeing figures showing it had Australia's lowest cost of living). Before the UAE, his family lived in Sudan, but left when he was a small child after his father's job as a journalist made life in the troubled African country difficult. He last visited Sudan in 2002, when he says he was forcibly conscripted into the army at the airport.

"I think (comedy) comes across as a natural gift of people from Africa," he says. "As a defence mechanism they can make humour out of something that is quite bleak." Ahmed, who commutes to other Australian cities for work in comedy, has performed with others at previous fringe festivals. This year is his first as a solo act on the program. He has been doing comedy for less than four years and he uses his act to make fun of stereotypes about Africa, and Sudan in particular. "Most (Australians') interactions with anything from Africa are a combination of Tarzan and (1980 film) The Gods Must Be Crazy," he says. "So it gives you a bit of an angle to play on."

Since there is no curator at the Fringe, any themes that may appear in the program emerge organically, with no single guiding influence. This year, there's a lightness in tone among many of the acts and a reluctance to take themselves too seriously.

But there's still a long way to go. Yesterday, among the half-filled bars and cafes, and performers handing out flyers for their shows, was a sign reminding passers-by that three weeks remain: "Pace yourself," itsays.

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