Adelaide has the largest fringe festival outside Edinburgh, and its increasing dominance by big-name acts means it caters less and less to emerging artists. By Ben Brooker.

Adelaide Fringe Festival

Performer Britt Plummer is in make-up and holds an empty banana peel to the side of her face as she gazes into the camera.
Britt Plummer, who is performing Fool’s Paradise at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Credit: Paul Westbrook

Beginning in 1960 as a handful of “unofficial activities” in response to the first Adelaide Festival of Arts, the Adelaide Fringe is now the largest open-access festival in the southern hemisphere. Globally it is second only to Edinburgh, with this year’s event featuring more than 1200 shows across 31 days and hundreds of venues. The Fringe was biennial up until 2006, but now belies its name by effectively taking over the city centre every February and March, casting a carnival atmosphere over the CBD’s compact grid of streets and parks.     

If you had gone to a Fringe in the 1960s you might have caught a display of highland dancing or a carpet design expo, or else an obscure comic opera by what would become State Opera South Australia. That spirit – of eclecticism, adventure and a certain amateurishness – still, in theory, animates the Fringe six decades later. Yet while it remains an important platform for the testing of new and edgy work, there is disquiet among the independent and emerging artists who have historically constituted the “heart and soul” of the festival.

In 2016, a Facebook post and subsequent op-ed by British comedian Alexis Dubus initiated a heated conversation about the increasing dominance of larger venues and big-name comedians, and the struggle of independent artists to sell tickets. (Further disadvantaging emerging artists, daily tabloid The Advertiser, which published Dubus’s op-ed, announced this year it would no longer be reviewing Adelaide Fringe shows at all.) At the time of his op-ed, Dubus vowed never to perform at Adelaide Fringe again, a sentiment that struck a chord with many other independent and emerging artists.

The questions that the Dubus fracas raised have, if anything, become even more pointed since 2016. In 2020, the last pre-Covid festival, 66 per cent of tickets were sold in the main hubs of the Garden of Unearthly Delights, Gluttony and the (now defunct) Royal Croquet Club – venues dominated by big-name acts. In some years, according to current Fringe chief executive and artistic director Heather Croall, that figure has been closer to 80 per cent. Statistics also bear out the prevalence of comedy over other genres: last year, 24.9 per cent of tickets sold were for shows by comedians, with theatre accounting for just 7.5 per cent.

What is most loudly trumpeted in the Fringe’s yearly impact reports, though, is overall growth. The 2022 report tells us that year’s event generated $74.9 million in expenditure and brought $50.1 million of “new money” into South Australia. This represents, the report proclaims, “an increase of 58 per cent on 2021”, conveniently eliding the pandemic’s impact on ticket sales and the number of touring acts in the previous year. In any case, “record” ticket sales are a feature of every report: 2020 a 3 per cent increase on 2019, and that year a 17 per cent increase on 2018, and so on.

This kind of reporting reflects the neoliberal requirement for all forms of activity, including – and perhaps especially – in the areas of arts and culture, to demonstrate an ever-increasing flow of economic benefits to society and the state. The SA government will, no doubt, also be seeking a handsome return on its investment of $2 million in the Fringe, which was a 2022 election commitment.

What the yearly impact reports leave out, however, is the precarious and underpaid (or unpaid) labour of the artists who underwrite these benefits. As the British theatre critic Lyn Gardner observed in a 2015 Guardian article on the cost of staging a show in Edinburgh, “the economics simply don’t stack up without the willingness of thousands of performers and theatre-makers to self-exploit”.

Britt Plummer is an Adelaide-based performer who trained with clown master Philippe Gaulier at École Philippe Gaulier in France. Her breakout solo show Chameleon premiered at the 2019 Adelaide Fringe and netted Plummer a Fringe World weekly award for best emerging artist. This year she is debuting a new theatrical comedy titled Fool’s Paradise (unfortunately sharing a name with the Fringe’s newest hub) at the Yurt, an intimate 60-seater in the grounds of the Migration Museum that Plummer is also co-managing with another artist.

Plummer tells The Saturday Paper that in order to make a profit in Fringe you need to have funding “so that you’re not paying off the show with your box office, which I feel like is going to be my experience this year”. Plummer made the decision to pay her creatives – director, costume designer and choreographer – out of her own pocket, and hopes to recoup the money in future seasons of the show. “Unless I sell incredibly well,” she says, “which is possible – maybe I’ll be surprised by that.”

She adds that it is “absolutely impossible” to make money in Edinburgh, which had more than 3000 shows last year.

Plummer embodies both the trope of the bohemian artist and its riposte, her creative aspirations tempered by what theatre academic Sarah Thomasson describes as the expectation “to produce a saleable artistic product but to also cannily market and promote [an] event”. Under a neoliberal paradigm, the excitement of an open-access festival which, theoretically, can springboard anyone to international fame, starts to resemble a viciously competitive marketplace in which, financially speaking, there will be many more losers than winners.

Sam Dugmore is performing his award-winning solo show MANBO at the Yurt. When we speak, he’s about to leave for a short season at Fringe World Festival in Perth before returning to Adelaide for a two-week run. Ticket sales have been unusually slow. “It’s been difficult across the board since Covid,” Dugmore says.

“I performed in a group show, Scotland!, at Adelaide Fringe in 2020 and it sold really well in a small tent. But since the pandemic, many smaller venues have been gotten rid of. A minimum capacity of 300 immediately eliminates all mid-level independent acts like ourselves.

“For me, Fringe is about variety and it’s about new work and giving artists a chance who wouldn’t have a chance otherwise,” says the actor, who has a bachelor of creative arts in performance from the University of Wollongong. “If you look through the program of the Garden, which for many people is synonymous with Adelaide Fringe, it’s mostly people of high profile, massive shows with big money behind them. I think they’ve got to be careful they don’t forget what Fringe is about and why it started in the first place,” Dugmore says.

Both he and Plummer are quick to acknowledge they have benefited from the Fringe’s Artist Fund, which distributes donations to artists, venues and producers, and initiatives such as the Honey Pot program, which connects artists with industry delegates. At the same time, Dugmore tells me, this could be his last Adelaide Fringe. “I do it because I love performing,” he says, “but I just don’t think it’s viable unless you decide to produce work that’s going to compete with the big-name acts.”

One estimate I’ve heard is that by 2024 there will be more than 2000 shows in the Adelaide Fringe program. At that size it’s hard to imagine how Adelaide, a small city lacking proximity to a large centre such as London, can continue to sustain an “Edinburgh in the Antipodes”. Even if it could, we would do well to question the wisdom of attempting to emulate the world’s largest fringe which, more than ever, represents a sink-or-swim proposition for artists without access to significant capital.

As Sarah Thomasson observes, “where open access once evoked myths of artistic freedom and local participation, it is now aligned with the neoliberal agendas of free market competition and entrepreneurship”. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that, as the manager of one South Australian youth arts organisation put it to me, more and more young and emerging artists are deciding the Fringe is not for them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2023 as "Fringe benefits".

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