Friday, 25 March 2016

Is bigger better?: reflections on Adelaide Fringe 2016

It seems that every year since going annual in 2007, the Adelaide Fringe Festival has been convulsed by a fresh bout of severe self-reflection. Normally, the Festival’s artists and commentators have the good sense to wait until the last bleary-eyed comedian has left the city, or returned to her day job, before reporting on the Festival’s vital signs. This year the examination began prematurely, initiated by a Facebook broadside from British comic Alexis Dubus on 5 March, over a week out from Festival’s end. Dubus’ post, much quoted by approving artists and local media sensing a useful ruckus, read in part:

Well it saddens me to say this, but farewell Adelaide Fringe. This is going to be my last time playing you.

9 shows in and my total sales across my entire run are still 50% of my OPENING NIGHT sales in Perth.

Something’s not right here any more.

When I first came here in 2009 it felt like a genuinely experimental and exciting creative hub, with audiences seeking out tucked-away venues and subversive shows.

Having visited Adelaide before, I was blown away by how much this sleepy town got behind the weird and the wonderful offerings that Fringe threw at them.

Seven years on and those people seem to have vanished.

I wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest a marketing ploy lay behind Dubus’ clearly heartfelt missive, but a part of him must have been satisfied to see his words embraced by local, national and, eventually, international media in a way he felt his show, Alexis Dubus Verses the World, had not been by Adelaide audiences. The city’s daily tabloid the Advertiser ran Dubus’ post in full as an op ed, and both the ABC and the Guardian picked up on the story as it made ripples as far afield as the UK. Unsurprisingly, however, the debate played out with the most intensity within the small circle of artists for whom the Adelaide Fringe has traditionally been a key stop on the global circuit that underwrites their professional existence.

The Garden of Unearthly Delights

This year marked my Adelaide Fringe debut as an artist (I’ve covered the Festival as a critic since 2009) and, like many artists, I had my own set of experiences against which to hold up Dubus’ comments. As a maker of (relatively) serious-minded theatre, I sympathised with Dubus’ bemoaning of the seeming preference of Adelaide audiences for ‘soulless, mass-produced bollocks over thoughtful, innovative works in quirky spaces’. But is this true?

The raw facts tell us only that ticket sales have been going up every year, as have the number of events (up to around 1,200 in 2016) in what remains, true to the Fringe’s original vision, an open-access festival. At such a size – second only to Edinburgh – there are no guarantees of quality for audiences, and no guarantees of full houses for artists. My own show, This Storm, ran for five performances at Tuxedo Cat, the same venue where Alexis Dubus Verses the World struggled. Conversely, we enjoyed audience numbers well above our expectations with an average house across the season of over 90 per cent (current Fringe director Heather Croall reckons 40 per cent is ‘a pretty good night’ – we did too, as reflected in our budget).

Alan Grace, whose company Duende produced two plays at the same venue by acclaimed Adelaide playwright Duncan Graham, told me his experience was similar:

For the most part, audience numbers exceeded our expectations, or were about where I had hoped they might be. We did really well for the last week, and sold out two of the nights of the season. With a 70-seater venue, we were extremely pleased with that.

Local comedian and fringe circuit veteran Fabien Clark, whose show The Walking Dreads played for two weeks at CBD venue The Producer’s Bar, was similarly positive when I asked him how it went, describing this year’s Adelaide Fringe as his ‘best to date’ in terms of ticket sales. Dubus also had a successful show, albeit not the one at Tuxedo Cat: his Marcel Lucont Is proved a considerable commercial and critical success at parklands hub Gluttony.

I’m not suggesting that this small sample of experiences is broadly representative – I also know of artists who struggled, like Dubus, to fill even small venues, and those who ended up having to cancel underselling shows, even taking into account Adelaide audiences’ notoriety for booking late/not at all. A Melbourne-based playwright I know has stated publicly that, after bringing shows here for six consecutive years, she won’t come again after her last play in 2014 got houses of three to eight people a night as against between 30 and 60 in Melbourne and Perth (Dubus has made contradictory statements about whether or not he’ll return to Adelaide).

But the historical reality is that for every show that undeservedly bombs, one deserving of good houses gets them. No doubt this equation has been skewed in the wrong direction by the heightened competitiveness brought on by the increasing domination of cashed-up venues The Royal Croquet Club and The Garden of Unearthly Delights – not to mention the Festival’s sheer size in the face of a small, economically disadvantaged and geographically isolated population – but artists like Dubus have no more right to feel entitled to large audiences than audiences do to, as Dubus rightly lamented in his post, access shows for free.

Like a lot of artists, I’m not immune to wishing that more people would seek out provocative, non-mainstream (i.e. actual fringe) fare rather than queuing up for the latest, reassuringly familiar appearances by the same marquee comedians who were here last year (and the year before that). As someone deeply invested in both seeing and making this kind of work, and who believes in its unquantifiable benefit to society, I understand the urge to implore audiences to challenge themselves and, in doing so, support local and emerging artists. But how quickly this desire turns into contempt for audiences, and the most repellent appeal imaginable that says you must do something because it is worthy. Maybe Dubus’ Tuxedo Cat show deserved to fail – more likely, if the reviews are anything to go by, it didn’t. Either way, pointing the finger at ‘the attitude of Fringe-goers’ is to disappear up a rhetorical cul-de-sac. It ignores the inconvenient but nonetheless decisive reality that audiences for live art are shaped by many factors, not the least of which – especially in Adelaide during the city’s famously event-saturated ‘Mad March’ – are limitations of time and money. 

Michael Allen (l) and Tamara Lee (r) in This Storm. Photo: Lauren Playfair

Why shows succeed or fail commercially sits on a complicated axis of geography, timing, reviews, publicity, word of mouth, luck, and the vagaries of public opinion. The mix is even more convoluted during festivals where competition for the attention (and cash) of audiences is fierce. It’s no wonder that, as it grows seemingly exponentially in size, increasing numbers of artists are feeling like committing to the Adelaide Fringe is to dive into the deep end, left to sink or swim alongside commercial leviathans like The Garden by a management primarily concerned with profit. But smaller venues – none of which are run by Fringe – must step up too. Holden Street Theatres, in inner suburban Adelaide, recorded its highest ever Fringe ticket sales this year, the result, largely, of slick advertising and the canny crafting out of a niche in a certain kind of show – well-made, minimalist, lightly political – imported from Edinburgh.

Anyone watching these events from that city will no doubt be doing so with a feeling of déjà vu. Edinburgh Fringe, too, has gone through its share of growing pains. One result was Forest Fringe, a free, not-for-profit ‘Fringe of the Fringe’ launched in 2007 as ‘a community of artists making space for risk and experimentation’ – in other words, the fostering of exactly the kind of work fringe festivals were established to showcase. It remains to be seen whether such an enterprise could work in Adelaide, but Edinburgh – with its three and a half thousand shows – is nevertheless seen as the model: in August, members of Festivals Adelaide, the umbrella organisation that represents ten of South Australia’s major arts festivals, will travel to Edinburgh on (depending on your point of view) an intelligence-gathering mission or a junket.

What they won’t need to be told is what everybody already knows: that Adelaide simply doesn’t have the population, or proximity to a large centre such as London, to sustain a fringe festival of anything like Edinburgh’s size. The irony is that it is precisely what has traditionally made Adelaide Fringe special – the city’s small size and compact CBD, which allow for the electric, all-encompassing atmosphere of a bustling village – is the very thing that is now perceived to be threatening its sustainability. Whatever the Festivals Adelaide committee discover in Edinburgh, the same debates will rumble on about the dominance of big venues and big comedians, and about what Writers’ Week director Laura Kroetsch and others regard as Adelaide’s festivalisation problem – too many cultural events taking place over too short a space of time, resulting in an overcrowded calendar in February and March, and little going on for the rest of the year.

But the reality is that a culture of festivalisation suits the economic interests of all the big players, right up to the state itself. As Croall recently told the Advertiser:

There is this growing idea that you should shut down big shows in order to make people go to the little shows – that is totally never going to work.

On the table at the moment instead, according to Croall, are subsidies for artist accommodation and venue hire. These will help. Talk of an imagined lost golden age won’t, and neither will excoriating audiences for going to the ‘wrong’ shows. We can expect more hissy fits while the Adelaide Fringe goes through its difficult adolescence. But we have no choice but to work together if we are to maintain and strengthen its viability as a platform for independent artists to try out new work, to experiment with form and theme, and to engage with audiences in ways that won’t happen anywhere else.           

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