Combing the Adelaide festival Fringe | Alex Needham

It's the biggest Fringe in the southern hemisphere, and growing fast - but will success spoil the Adelaide's open-access arts festival, and are the performers actually making any money?

In Adelaide during March, there are so many events competing for punters' attention that it's no wonder some of them get confused. Adelaide Festival director David Sefton once tried to explain the difference between his event and the Fringe by saying that only one of them would stage Puppetry of the Penis, and received the reply "You have Puppetry of the Penis on at the festival?"

While nowhere near the size of Edinburgh's, the Adelaide fringe is has long been largest in the southern hemisphere and is growing faster than ever. Set up, like Edinburgh's, to allow emerging artists the chance to take advantage of the audiences the official festival brings into the city, it has several manifestations. The most visible is the Garden of Unearthly Delights, a bustling park full of venues packed out after dark, boasting gigs by big-name comedians from Aussies like Wil Anderson and Peter Helliar, to Brits like Frisky and Mannish. (Ross Noble, Sarah Millican and Stephen K Amos are also in town).

The Bally in Gluttony at the Fringe
The Bally in Gluttony at the Fringe. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Adjacent to the Garden is Gluttony, a lower key and more leftfield area decorated with sculptures of pigs - and a painting of Justin Bieber - in which all manner of artists sweat it out in tents.

But the fringe takes over the whole city – which is just as well, according to comedy awards judge Katie Powell, who says that the fees imposed by the Garden and main comedy venue the Rhino Room are too high for up-and-coming comedians. There are standups in the pubs, circus performers in back alleys and a one-man play based on the experiences of a Venezuelan immigrant in Australia at a back room of Tandanya, the Aboriginal art gallery.
Ground zero of this more experimental scene seems to be Tuxedo Cat, who take over buildings due for redevelopment in Adelaide and Melbourne and turn them into performance venues. The Adelaide branch is currently situated near the official festival site in an old shopping centre with a handsome stone facade. Inside it's all exposed pipes, bare concrete and an enjoyably bohemian ambience, boasting a bar, cafe and an astonishing six theatres ranging between 80 and 30 seats apiece. Tuxedo Cat has a non-stop schedule of eccentric shows – 500 over the course of the fringe – ranging from performance artist Le Foulard to a naked cabaret where both punters and performers are unclothed.

Bryan Lynagh at Tuxedo Cat on North Terrace
Bryan Lynagh at Tuxedo Cat on Adelaide's North Terrace. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

The venue prides itself on supporting new artists. American silent comedian Doctor Brown performed in their Melbourne branch for three years before eventually scoring awards and sell-out concerts. Tuxedo Cat also stages gigs from bigger names who want to try out more experimental material. Daniel Kitson, revered in standup circles, is set to perform the Melbourne space.

Tuxedo Cat was set up by two artists, Cassandra Tombs and comedian Bryan Lynagh. "I was doing festival shows up until that point," says Lynagh, "and we found that the venue hire to perform a festival show was just extraordinarily high and if you broke even you were a success story. So we thought 'let's start our own venue'. The ethical backbone would be to keep the venue hire as low as possible so the artist would have a chance of making some money and reinvesting in themselves."

Gravity and Other Myths perform A Simple Space
Gravity and Other Myths perform A Simple Space (from ground up) Martin Schreiber, Jacob Randell and Lachlan Binns. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Making money on the Adelaide Fringe seems to be a hit and miss affair, but according to circus troupe Gravity & Other Myths, it can be done. Their astonishing show A Simple Place, at converted cinema The Birdcage, delights a sizeable audience with physical feats including a woman doing gymnastics on a pole suspended by two men on one another's shoulders – and no-one's complaining about the flash of male nudity either. The company, who teach and train at Adelaide's circus school Cirkidz, are on their third year on the Fringe, and have been drawing 500-strong audiences. They get government funding too. "We've got it from the South Australian government a couple of times and we've been funded by the national government to go on tour which we're doing in a couple of weeks, so we're going round regional Australia," says a delighted Jascha Boyce, the company's female member.

However, a more typical picture emerges among the artists taking the late-night air at the Fringe Club, an outdoor space with a dancefloor where fringe artists and workers can hang out after their shows. Brisbane-based writer and actor Belinda Locke says that her one-woman show The Tiger's Bride, based on the book by Angela Carter, is unlikely to break even, though the costs of signing up to the fringe are relatively modest. It costs around $400 (£276) to be included in the fringe publicity, she says, then the organisers help the artists find a venue. The venue's fee is then negotiated between venue and artist.

Actor Tom Dent, in 22 Short Plays by David Finnigan, which he describes as "Monty Python with a lot of dick jokes" says that he has occasionally been the beneficiary of grants, but in this case will settle for covering his costs. Besides the buzz of performing – which goes without saying – if their shows don't earn money these performers hope that the fringe will bring them reviews, exposure and networking opportunities. Locke is part of the government-supported Honey Pot programme, which gives producers in Australia and around the world free tickets to see shows, which they will then hopefully programme in their festivals and theatres.

Two Brits, Dan Steele and Ben Mellor, seem rather out of pocket from bringing their brilliant show Anthropoetry to Perth and Adelaide (though Arts Council England paid for their flights), but say they have met several people involved in the Edinburgh festival through the Honey Pot scheme. They'll return there with their show this August.

Amidst all this hustling, just as in Edinburgh there are performers who believe that the fringe has lost its soul. Glen R Johns - who has just staged a circus show called Dead End and a one-woman show called The Mother Woman in the same Adelaide back alley – says that more experimental artists are struggling to get bums on seats, though his own shows were at least 80% full. Locke and Dent both profess themselves happy with their audience figures. "It's not been lower than 10 people," says Dent, a born trouper who says he would happily play to an audience of three. "If people have paid for the show, they get the show."

The Garden of Unearthly Delights at the Fringe
The Garden of Unearthly Delights at the Fringe. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

"This is my 13th fringe and it's a corporate business now," complains Johns. "In the old days, even at management level it was much quirkier and smaller and more charming - it didn't have the branding. Essentially what's happened in the fringe is that comedy has taken over. People go and see big-name comedian in the Garden and think they're having a fringe experience, and there's so much more to it than that.

"At fringe time you should be trying to see small people doing strange things, things that maybe fail and you think 'Oh my God, I can't believe they did that', but at least you've had that experience."

Yet Dent says that Aussie audiences are still up for something which may be the opposite of slick, as long as it has conviction. "You need actors, a director, a light, maybe a couple of props and you can just slap it together and people are happy to watch it. It's not about how nice the costume is or how amazing the lights are. When you see that sort of thing it's awesome, but people are there to see a show and you make that show with whatever you've got."


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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