While the Adelaide Fringe brings about a glut of theatre shows in February and March, there is locally made work to be found the whole year round. We spoke to three theatre organisations about maintaining an audience outside of Fringetime.
Theatre beyond the fringes
At the end of every festival season, as the dust settles over Kadlitpina Rundle Park, we notice the onset of ‘cultural crunch’ – a term we just coined for the notion Adelaide goes a little too quiet beyond the sound and fury of February and March.
But in truth there’s always something on, even in the ‘off’ season.
CityMag checked in on some of the local theatre spaces that operate all year round, and the true believers who run them.
100 Sixth Street, Bowden 5007
The collective of actors, directors and writers that run Bowden’s Rumpus Theatre have a complicated relationship with festival season — it’s part of the reason they banded together in the first place.
“A really big part of the drive to form something like Rumpus was the feeling that there weren’t many opportunities for independent theatre outside of festival season,” actor and Rumpus co-founder Rebecca Mayo explains.
For young and emerging artists, the commotion of festival time creates pressure to put all their eggs in a Fringe-shaped basket, leaving many fried and broke.
“Everything was being funnelled into this crazy period of the year, but it was actually really difficult for local artists to find a footing because there was so much happening,” Rebecca says.
“It’s this weird double-edged sword where you feel like you have to put something on during Fringe because it seems like that’s when it’s easier to get audiences… but then you’re competing against big international and interstate names.”
Since holding people’s attention outside Fringe proved difficult, the Rumpus community decided to seek strength in numbers — and hope audiences would have an easier time finding them.
“If Fringe shows us anything it’s that there is an appetite for that stuff, it’s just that people are trained to go ‘Ooh it’s Fringe time, I’ll take a punt’, or ‘I’ll take a risk and see a show I don’t know much about,’” Rebecca says.
“For some reason we only do that for one month of the year. Whereas there’s always art to take punts on — we just need to make that more accessible for people and make it easier to find.”
While Rebecca says the pandemic “threw everything up in the air”, she’s reassured by the success of shows that have gone ahead since Rumpus began in 2019, and hopeful for its future.
“I know for a fact some of those shows just wouldn’t have gone on otherwise. It presents an opportunity and gets artists thinking, ‘Well, if that opportunity exists what kind of show do I want to put on?’”
Holden Street Theatres
34 Holden Street, Hindmarsh 5007
Martha Lott has spent 18 years making Holden Street Theatres a key player in the local scene.
With the audience magnet of Fringetime accounting for up to half of Holden Street’s annual turnover, festival season is essential.
“We’ve got a really loyal audience base, which is great — we rely on them a lot to keep us going through the year,” Martha explains.
But it was the reputation and rapport built through the venue’s Fringe programming, often featuring emerging international talent, that were instrumental in building a base beyond it.
“Once people started to get to know us, and to trust our programming, they started to come back year after year and spread the word about Holden Street,” Martha says.
“It’s only in the last few years, really, that that audience has started to take the risk on shows throughout the year.”
How to sustain that audience beyond March has led to Martha’s latest endeavour: making Holden Street the base for a new “in-house, not-for-profit company” that will foster new, local work that can in turn be toured to regional centres and other festival towns.
“I think the key is constantly creating good work,” she says.
“As a venue-for-hire we don’t have a lot of control of the content throughout the year — and there are people who prefer only coming during Fringe because they know what they sign up for.
“[In 2020] we had to focus on what sort of business do we want moving forward, and what do our audiences want? And they want that same high-calibre level we present during Fringe, and they want it all year. In order for that to be available, we kind of have to create it.”
11 Nile Street, Port Adelaide 5015
Vitalstatistix has been an all-seasons haven for ambitious, multidisciplinary and inclusive artists and audiences since 1984.
“We see that time of year as a really exciting time for audiences, and I think it’s a great, exciting time for artists as well,” Emma Webb, Director of Vitalstatistix, says of festival time.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to partner with organisations such as the Adelaide Festival to present the artists that we’re working with in a really high-profile, supported context.”
Although COVID-19 border closures forced the cancellation of this year’s Adelaide Festival co-production, Set Piece, other recent performances like Howl (2020) and The Second Woman (2019) saw Vitals bring experimental, iconoclastic and boundary-blurring work into the heart of the city.
“In a standard year, during that period of time in February and March I think audiences can be really willing to just give shows and artists a try,” Emma says.
“I think people are more open to the more experimental, participatory or other wildness that you might see in a show.”
According to Emma, stretching that appetite for adventure beyond March is an ongoing conversation.
“It’s always been the challenge for the Adelaide arts sector, to find ways to expand that into the rest of the year,” she says.
“We’re super lucky because we have our big, beautiful, physical venue, which is a real honour,” she says of the 94-year-old Waterside Workers Hall.
“As an organisation that’s constantly working with artists, it actually gives us space to work and an anchor for what we do.”
Although only 20 minutes outside the CBD, Vitals’ port-side location allows its artists and audiences to experience, and contribute to, a sense of place and community.
“I do think that when you’re presenting performances and arts events outside that period — across the year, in other seasons and locations, and with more time — an audience has an opportunity to experience those works in a much more spacious way,” Emma says.
“There’s a chance to really immerse yourself in an art experience.”