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February 22, 2024

Aaarrr you entertained? Pirates of Penzance producer Emma Knights on the business of the Fringe

Pirates of Penzance is one of the Adelaide Fringe's longest running shows. CityMag sat down with producer Emma Knights to talk about its success, and all the moving parts that go into putting it on.

  • Words: Helen Karakulak
  • Pictures: supplied

In 2013 on the Popeye cruise, a cast of eight put on an hour-long production of Pirates of Penzance. Now, 11 years on, it’s one of the longest-running Fringe shows, with their opening night singalong already sold out. 


Pirates of Penzance
Multiple venues
February 20 ’til March 17


Artist and producer Emma Knights, a CityMag 40 under 40 alumnus, says they’ve taken the production everywhere; aboard ships, at the Adina Apartments Basement Pool, and even a shearing shed in Keith. 

“There was such a charm about it,” Emma says of the venues they’ve performed at

This year the production will play multiple venues, opening in the Botanic Gardens, then playing the Mockingbird Lounge, Maritime Museum, the Jade and even the Barossa Valley Chocolate Company. 

Pirates of Penzance cast

Emma says almost half of the cast that was in that first show on The Popeye will perform in this year’s productions, with their camaraderie giving her an extra sense of security.

“They’ve all got my back and we’ve been through a lot of stuff together,” she says. 

“There’s been times when I’ve been booked for other shows and… they’ll just make sure the show runs without me, I don’t have to be there, which is amazing, that eliminates a lot of stress.”

Emma has produced musical theatre for 24 years and is producing 13 shows this year, and performing in another. 

As a small business owner producing theatre through Emma Knights Productions, she schedules her work around festivals, with Adelaide Fringe being the busiest time of the year. 

“I used to be like, ‘yeah, we’re doing all the things!’ and I just wrecked myself and sometimes that was okay, but I’m getting a bit older now,” she says.

“I have a lot of spreadsheets… this year I’ve also scheduled some more breaks so that I’ve got, you know, one or two days in between… but the first two and a half weeks is pretty chockers.”

As soon as one Fringe season ends, she’s thinking about the next, making calls for the following year as early as March. 

“Sometimes the venues are like, ‘Emma, it’s too soon, we’re not ready!’” 

Securing venues is one of Emma’s favourite parts of planning a Fringe show. First, though, she has to choose a set of dates and organise casting, rehearsals and registrations. 

“After 11 years we do have a reasonable pool of people that we can call on,” she says of casting Pirates of Penzance.

Emma says she has had people congratulate her on getting her shows in the Fringe, as they often don’t realise that as an open-access festival, anyone can have a Fringe show. 

For the 2024 season, the registration deadline for artists was in October 2023. To register a show in any genre category, the starting price is $210 for three sessions. For a performing arts event with four sessions or more, it’ll cost you $395 per show – and Emma is producing 13.  

“We’re risking from the get-go,” Emma says. 

As an artist and producer, her early Fringe experience was exciting and it eventually became a serious opportunity to make money. 

“Usually I can get up to around 60 per cent, even 80 per cent of tickets sold for my seasons, which is awesome and it’s one of the reasons why I keep doing Fringe because it is reasonably successful for me most of the time,” she says. 

 “I’m fairly confident that [Pirates of Penzance] will sell well, although it surprises me every year that it still will.

“It’s nice to just have that one thing that I know I don’t have to have to worry too much about.”

Arrrrgh you entertained?

Emma is also a recipient of a $3000 artist grant from the Fringe for her new work, Beauty and the Bachie, a parody musical she co-wrote with Samara Gill. 

When CityMag asks Emma if the grant covers most of her expenses, she shakes her head and stifles a laugh. 

“It’s helping out with a lot of things to do with the show,” she says. 

“One of my goals is I always want to pay my performers and to pay them, yeah that’s expensive.” 

Emma says with her productions she tries to balance making a living and creating something for people to access and enjoy. She recognises the cost of living pressures putting a strain on audiences as well as performers this year. 

“I grew up down south in a low socioeconomic area and so I’ve always wanted to keep my shows affordable, so at a price that I could afford whilst also trying to pay everyone a decent amount,” she says. 

One of the shows in her program is Garden Melodies where kids under 16 years old are free, with $15 tickets for adults. 

“A family of four can come along for 30 bucks and just sit in the garden and enjoy the music.” 

Emma also enjoys putting on A Brunch of Songs, which started as a Covid-endeavor and was originally a pay-what-you-can. For Fringe you need to set a ticket price, so she keeps it at $10 –$15. 

“It’s been a beautiful little community event and lots of different people come along and they can pay nothing or sometimes they pay more than they probably should. 

“That’s been really nice, a nice little reconnection with the community.”

Emma says ticket sales are important as it’s the only way Fringe shows make money, but another great way to support artists is to tick the box that signs you up to their mailing lists at the Fringe Tix checkout. 

When you purchase Fringe tickets online, you’ll see this at the checkout.

She also suggests chatting to an artist at the end of the show is a great way to show your appreciation. 

“We need to be connecting more as a community and I know it doesn’t help people eat but that’s so important and it helps people mentally as well,” she says. 

“I think the arts give you a chance as well just to escape what’s happening in the real world, either by making you cry or making you laugh or taking you outside of what’s going on in the world.”

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