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June 18, 2018

We’ll laugh about it later

The fairy lights are packed away and the Parklands are bandaged in fresh turf, disguising the scars of Mad March. Headlines herald another bumper festival season for South Australia. But from offstage, mutterings of discontent flitter between weary performers.

  • Words: Tim Watts
  • Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559,  Oil-on-panel (detail)

For many artists, Fringe season is less party time, more a gruelling slog. It’s super-competitive, at times hostile, and often a drain on their mental and financial faculties. Audiences struggle too – albeit more willingly – balancing full calendars and progressively emptier bank accounts.

The benefits of festival season for Adelaide are clear. For the state and many of its businesses, it’s an economic and cultural shot in the arm. But for performers it’s more complex.

This March, a friend from interstate caught Zs on my sofa between flyering for his one-man show all day and performing it at night. All that effort earned him sales of between four and 10 tickets each show. Once he’d paid venue hire, travel costs, and covered Fringe’s fees, what remained was hardly a strong return on investment.

And he wasn’t the only one having a hard time of it. In previous years, as I’ve waded into the East End heading to or from a show, I’ve batted away cheap and 2-for-1 ticket offers, but this year I found myself set upon by artists frantically dolling out freebies. One guy clutched a whole reel of them.

The Fringe bills its year-on-year growth as an unadulterated virtue. In a statement to CityMag, Adelaide Fringe director and CEO Heather Croall says, “We sold 705,761 tickets at the [2018] Fringe festival – that’s a 58 per cent increase on our ticket sales in the past five years.”

In recent times, though, high-end, returning, and big-ticket acts – especially well-known comedians – have risen to the top of a behemoth program containing about 1,200 events. New and experimental artists find it almost impossible to attract audiences amid all the competition, especially if they don’t have a budget for advertising.

This isn’t news to Heather, who says Fringe is continually finding ways to reduce pressure on performers.

“This year the Adelaide Fringe abolished inside charges for artists with tickets under $35 and halved inside charges for all others, thanks to funding from the State Government,” she says, adding that the move is a world first.

Changes like this are admirable, and should be at the core of any Fringe festivals’ business. Unlike curated arts festivals, these open-access events exist solely as platforms for emerging and mid-career artists to present new works that push boundaries.

Almost a decade ago, when I was presenting my own work at Fringe, the festival was selling about 140,000 tickets. It was a tough (and expensive) gig even then, but financial and creative “success” seemed a little more attainable when the festival’s scope was easier to navigate.

So – how do we – as a city – support emerging artists drowning in a deluge of festival choices? What about by adding another festival? Hear me out.

A dedicated comedy festival might be just what Adelaide needs. The 2018 Fringe Festival program featured 338 comedy shows – the most of any genre, by a long way. Many were established acts – the likes of Dave Hughes, Celia Pacquola, Wil Anderson, Kitty Flanagan, et al – disappeared momentarily from behind the desks of TV panel shows to run schtick, IRL, for the audiences of Adelaide.

These top-price shows invariably sell well, gobbling up audience time and dollars that might otherwise flow to ‘Fringe-ier’ acts. But comedians live for the spotlight, so let’s give them their own stage.

There are a lot of reasons this could work. Comedy is a crowd-pleaser. It’s accessible and it’s cheap to present. As a genre, it makes the most sense for a standalone festival.

Supplanting the comedy portion of the Fringe program to its own timeslot would prolong festival fever throughout the year. Continual activity could benefit the city’s other businesses, who would welcome more foot traffic in months where Adelaide is given to hibernation.

It would also dilute the troublesome “Mad March” audience mentality, where punters engage with the arts only during festival season – a culture that impedes artists’ ability to sustain a profitable practice year-round.

Timing would be key, as top comedians often stop in Adelaide as part of a national tour. An examination of interstate festivals reveals a couple of gaps in the calendar – in June-July or September-October – that would work.

Of course, comedy would still be offered during Fringe. Emerging performers must retain this important opportunity to hone their craft.

Heather says, “at the Adelaide Fringe, local and emerging comedians can perform alongside bigger name acts at the various comedy events held during the festival”. There’s no reason the same opportunity couldn’t exist at a comedy festival, which could potentially attract even bigger names.

Administering who should stay in the Fringe and who should transition to the comedy event is a problem. The Fringe is fundamentally an un-curated event. As soon as decisions are made at an organisational level about which acts can and cannot participate, its neutrality is compromised.

So, why not present the two events under one banner, as one organisation? If there’s one thing the Adelaide Fringe is bloody great at, it’s running knockout festivals. This way, the Fringe is not rejecting anyone – instead it is simply guiding them toward the event to which they are best-suited. Running two major events would also mean the Adelaide Fringe could extend employment for staff – many of whom have to find other work when April dawns.

Of course, the Adelaide Fringe remains very attached to its status as “the second biggest fringe event in the world”, after Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe. Dropping 300-ish shows from the March program would put a serious dent in this claim, but perhaps running the two festivals under the same Fringe banner is a way of maintaining the title.

In 2007 the Fringe became annual, and it has continued to swell each year. Adelaide is the perfect festival city – we have the landscape, the track record, and the numberplates to prove it – but the concentrated demand on audiences is becoming a serious issue. So, let’s play to our strengths, spread things out a little, and have a laugh along the way.

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