Has the Adelaide fringe festival become too big for its boots?

Adelaide fringe brings more and more artists to the city each year – but as British comedian Alexis Dubus highlighted in a forceful Facebook post this week, how many are walking away happy?

Another year, another Adelaide fringe festival – and another controversy.

With a festival this big (the fringe prides itself on being the second-largest arts festival in the world, and the 2016 program boasts more than 1,200 shows), consternation is bound to bubble up, and over the weekend Facebook exploded with a rant from British comedian Alexis Dubus, saying the 2016 festival is the worst he’s experienced – and he won’t be back.

“I’m not sure what can actually be changed at an open access festival that’s now seemingly allowed greed and complacency to dictate its direction, but part of the change has to be the attitude of Fringe-goers, who need to re-evaluate the meaning of ‘fringe’,” he wrote.

“Audiences choosing soulless, mass-produced bollocks over thoughtful, innovative works in quirky spaces is what has now turned the Fringe into what it was initially rallying against.”

An open-access festival, Adelaide fringe has space for any show that wants to take a risk and put up the registration fee. Since moving from a biannual to annual festival in 2007, the number of shows in the program has more than doubled, leaving many to ask: how big is too big?

British comedian Alexis Dubus
British comedian Alexis Dubus says the Adelaide fringe festival has ‘allowed greed and complacency to dictate its direction’. Photograph: Frank Baron/The Guardian

Open-access festivals are mutable and responsive to changing cultural landscapes, and the Adelaide fringe has gone through many guises. At times in its history it has been dominated by strong theatre programs; in recent years it has been primarily home of the standup comedian. These days, the focus has shifted again, and it seems to be contemporary circus and burlesque that dominates the cultural conversation – driven largely by the commercial mega-venues of the Garden of Unearthly Delights and the Royal Croquet Club.

These two venues find themselves the target of much of the criticism towards the current model, which has been perceived as shifting the focus away from the artists and on to brands, bars and booze. But this ignores the incredible work that is programmed into these spaces, and the fact it is exactly the elements that make Adelaide such a great festival city – abundant parks, long, warm evenings – that are also to blame for the city’s summer drinking culture.

This drink culture does, unfortunately, lead to some terrible audiences, who Dubus points his finger at. We’ve all sat through drunken crowds and heard horrible stories of artists being mistreated while performing. But I am also consistently struck by the incredible generosity of fringe audiences: not simply for so often taking a punt on unknown performers, but in the way they give their hearts over to the artists.

This year, there was the woman who felt so sorry for Sam Halmarack when his band didn’t show up (the whole conceit of the performance) that she spent the hour trying to reassure him he was doing a good job. There was the woman who interrupted the applause at Telia Nevile’s Poet vs Pageant to tell her how much she loved the show. And every year, there are the countless people who grin and bare it through excruciating attempts at audience participation.

One of the arguments oft-cited by the fringe’s organisation is that they don’t promote or produce work, and so venues and artists will stand and fall by their own merits.

Yet when small shows are falling harder and faster, it might be time for them to re-evaluate.

Up until 2008, the Adelaide fringe ran and programmed its own venues: nonprofit-driven spaces known to support art and artists first. Still running at other Australian open-access festivals like Perth’s Fringe World, the Melbourne international comedy festival and Melbourne fringe, this “promoter-hub” approach has its detractors, with criticisms it can lead to a two-tiered model, where shows within the hubs are supported above their external peers.

But in Adelaide, without the promoter offering support, it is the big venues that have an incalculable advantage. Untapped audiences won’t be found getting drunk at festival bars: they’re reading the daily paper or watching morning television and the nightly news. And in a competitive market, it’s the best publicists – which only the mega-venues can afford – that will get coverage across these outlets.

Even then, being in these venues is no guarantee of ticket sales. Daniel Clarke has been producing work at Adelaide fringe for over 10 years, and last year, while working on the critically acclaimed Fake It ‘Til You Make It and Sex Idiot, he told me a five-star review in the Adelaide Advertiser was once a guarantee for a sold-out run. These days, he says, ticket sales are a hustle no matter how well received a show finds itself or where it’s located.

Circus and burlesque dominate at this year’s Adelaide Fringe
Circus and burlesque dominate this year’s Adelaide fringe festival. Photograph: Andre Castellucci/The Garden of Unearthly Delights

While this controversy has erupted in Adelaide, I suspect it will strike up again as the Melbourne international comedy festival opens at the end of March. Similarly in Perth, Fringe World has been experiencing several golden years, with whole weekends of shows selling out and the festival achieving enormous growth since it was launched in 2011. But with growth comes competition, including large-scale commercial productions. In all these cases, it is the small and new artists most likely to find themselves struggling.

In Adelaide, there have been calls for the state government to separate out the clustering of events in February and March – but their modelling has found it’s precisely this cluster which makes it so successful: the sum is greater than its parts. What is missing, though, is a conversation on how much artists themselves are subsidising the economic impact on the state. Discussion about South Australia’s economy becoming increasingly arts-driven is, I think, an important one. But it cannot come at the expense of independent artists and arts workers, holding down second and third jobs to produce work with little financial return; if it does, they will decide it’s simply not worth it and walk away.

There will always be a tension between small independent artists and the major organisations that comprise Adelaide fringe. For some, like Dubus, that will manifest as screeds against this city. For artists like Brendan Maclean, it will be about the festival taking money from sponsors that contradict the fringe’s core values as a space for queer artists.

Increasingly, though, I hear calls from artists for the fringe to become more transparent.

If, as fringe director Heather Croall says, 40% is a good house, what is an average house? How many seats are on sale across the festival, and how many of these are sold? How many comps are given away? How many shows put their tickets on sale at half-price, and how many tickets are sold this way? How many shows are cancelled each year? And how have these figures been changing?

As Adelaide fringe wraps up at the end of this week, I suspect we will be told raw ticket sales are up again on last year, as they have been consistently. But while the number of shows grows each year, the audience is becoming increasingly segmented. More artists are coming, but how many are walking away happy?

In the end, Adelaide fringe is an open-access uncurated festival, so its shape will always be crafted by the artists who choose to populate it. Perhaps Dubus is right, and the fringe has permanently shifted to a commercial hub-based model – perhaps that’s what audiences want. Or perhaps it will self-correct, and we’ll again have golden years of theatre and quirky venues.

For now, all we can do is start envisioning the best possible future and figure out what needs to change – or stay the same – to let that happen.


Jane Howard

The GuardianTramp

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