It took an abject personal failure for me to realise that all fringe festivals aren’t just pale, pint-sized imitations of the Edinburgh blueprint. ‘Surely it’s guaranteed that an Edinburgh smash-hit will sweep all arts festivals overseas with similar success,’ I laughed hubristically from a rooftop. Well, having been both the toast of Edinburgh 2009 and the flop of Melbourne 2010 with the exact same show, Frisky & Mannish’s School of Pop, I’m now a jaded authority on the matter. Edinburgh’s the biggest fringe by a country mile, and undoubtedly the most iconic, but harsh retribution (in the form of disappointing sales and critical maulings) will rain down upon anyone who neglects to respect the distinctive atmospheres of the smaller fringes.
“Smaller than Edinburgh” is like “poorer than the Queen” or “nicer than Voldemort” – not necessarily a worthwhile indicative statement. The second-biggest fringe festival in the world takes place in the South Australian state capital of Adelaide, but it’s still “small” in comparison to Edinburgh. It’s unique and distinctive, too. In the Scottish capital, four highly-competitive supervenues dominate a sprawling landscape from city centre to outer suburbs in which every ruined castle and room above a pub is also a performance space. In Adelaide, there really is only one place to be. For eleven months of the year, it goes by the name of Rundle Park; during the Fringe, it becomes the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Other satellite venues exist, among them Tuxedo Cat and Rhino Rooms, but it’s just common knowledge that everyone heads for the Garden.
The positive effect of this is that you don’t get as much overlap. Picture the fallen crests of aspiring producers when they scan the index of their crisp new Edinburgh guide for the title of their show – “Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Underbelly, page 220; Gilded Balloon, page 221; Zoo Southside, page 222… [four minutes later…] St. Augustine’s Church, page 267.” You won’t get that kind of saturated programming in the Garden. It’s not so much quality control as variety control, and the programming is all the better for it.
On the negative side, with one venue reigning supreme and uncontested, trying to walk through it at 8:30pm on a Saturday night can be an experience akin to being forced through a potato-masher while a heavy metal soundtrack blares. I have never seen more harrassment in my life than on the Garden’s opening night. Inebriated Aussies everywhere, blotto since 5 o’clock and showing no signs of slowing down. Boys in Bermuda shorts hurling offensive remarks in our faces, clingfilmed girls shoulder-barging us on their way to the toilets. They didn’t seem to know or care that the Garden was hosting some of the best performances the fringe world has to offer; all they knew was that someone had put five alcohol-serving bars in the middle of a park.
“Adelaide’s a very bizarre town because, obviously, everything happens in a month, and everyone comes out for it, and by ‘everyone’, that’s a real clash of cultures… A bizarre mix of hippies, petrol-heads and festival-goers, and how is that ever going to work?” So says Alexis Dubus, the English character comedian and stalwart of the fringe scene, currently performing two shows – Gallic Symbol and Cabaret Fantastique – in the guise of his deliciously dry French alter-ego, Marcel Lucont. He’s been doing the Adelaide Fringe long enough to know, so perhaps our first-timer naïveté can be forgiven. Frisky and Mannish have appeared in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Wellington, even Adelaide itself once, at the Cabaret Festival in June 2010. We thought we had this Antipodean festival thing down. But nothing could have prepared us for the singular experience of the Garden during Fringe.
“You get it in Edinburgh, the weekend crowds… You do get the townies coming out, and it gets a bit mental, but you sort of know where to avoid. But with Adelaide, it’s a bit more small town, and they come to you… My worst ever gig was at the Tuxedo Cat where one guy booked thirty tickets to see the show, and it turned out to be a whole stag do. There were people running out of the show, vomiting over the rooftop bar. It was horrendous.” Dubus laughs as he relates this, but the impression I’m getting of the Adelaide Fringe is that it’s a beautiful offering being trampled upon by binge-drinkers. Do the inhabitants of this small city want performances at all? Are we an inconvenience to them? Are they an inconvenience to us?
All of these questions circle around one crux – the responsibility of a performer to their audience, and vice versa. From broadly entertaining to unsettlingly subversive, the performer is entitled to decide what the show is, while the audience is equally entitled to decide whether they want to pay to see it. An uneasy tension between artistic expression and commercial enterprise is inescapable in the business of show, but the public holds an upper hand stuffed with banknotes. Adelaide audiences seem to be a particularly unpredictable mixed-bag, and performers are at their mercy. Dubus suffered a particularly hellish one this year. “I had 78 bankers booked in – I didn’t want to have my cynical British head on, but I knew it was going to be bollocks, and it was. It was awful, they didn’t get it at all, and they seemed to be offended by the whole thing. And it’s just those people who can’t detach their brain from it, and go, ‘This is a show, this is someone putting on a persona…’ I like to think there’s enough love behind it. I love stand-up, and I love cabaret, and I love performing. It should come through to anyone that’s got a single fucking clue, that I am entertaining you in my own way by being a prick.”
At this point, having so far depicted Adelaidians as a crew of idiotic meatheads and dumb broads – “bogans,” to use the Aussie vernacular – I might be persona non grata in South Australia as of tomorrow morning. This is by no means a characterisation of the entire population of Adelaide. Since that unbearable opening night, Frisky and Mannish have enjoyed a succession of lovely audiences, a few of whom have even bought us a post-show drink to express gratitude, and a five-star review from the Adelaide Advertiser. Marcel Lucont, too, had crowd-surfed through a blinder of a late show at the Rhino Rooms just before I spoke to him about his Adelaide experiences. Even if the bad shows count as some of the worst you’ll ever endure, the good ones conversely number among your best. A Fringe of extremes, that’s what it is. And there’s nothing like being kept on your toes.
Surrealist comedian Sam Simmons won’t let his audience unbalance him like this. He simply doesn’t allow it to happen, with the onslaught of unanswerable questions and non-sequituurs that form his current show, Shitty Trivia. One male audience member is treated to a whole hour of humiliation. There’s absolutely no question that the show will be delivered on Simmons’s nonsensical terms, regardless of the audience’s feelings. I wish I could have found a particular girl in the Garden afterwards and interviewed her about what she’d just seen. This young lady sat five seats to my left, and I spent as much time, if not more, watching her (expressionless) face as I did watching Simmons onstage. Perhaps she didn’t know what the show was about, perhaps her male companion had bought the tickets, perhaps she’d just found out that she was being made redundant… I don’t know. But this woman’s non-enjoyment of the show was fixating. She didn’t laugh once. Approximately halfway through, Simmons’s relentlessness almost broke her, and I thought I saw the half-crack of a tight-lipped smirk. It vanished before it could follow through into an actual indication of amusement. I might have imagined it, but it was as if she was suppressing it, having already pre-decided from the ludicrous opening – Simmons ripping off a Roman toga, putting on McEnroe-esque athletics gear, and marching to a MIDI-synth soundtrack while repeatedly singing “shitty trivia” – that she hated it all.
“You feel sorry for the people that just don’t get it,” Dubus says. “What’s not to like? It’s so silly, it’s so stupid, it’s so playful. I followed Doctor Brown this year in Edinburgh, in the same venue. And time after time, I would come in and there’d be a couple walking out, usually a middle-aged Scottish couple, ‘That was fucking shite! What the fuck was that? A fucking 6 year old kid could do better than that!’ So detached from playfulness.” Phil Burgers, the man behind Doctor Brown, capped an incredible 2012 by winning the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award (formerly known as the Perrier.) Simmons was nominated for the same award. Imagine if the expletive-loving couple from Edinburgh and the sour-faced girl from Adelaide were on the voting panel. Imagine them staring down the intellectuals nominating Burgers and Simmons for their genius anti-comic subversions and protesting, “But they’re not even funny! A comedy show should be funny!”
I loved elements of Simmons’s show, because I’m a professional performer and the casual abandonment of conventions to which most comedians adhere is extremely interesting to me. I envied him for getting away with things, and the sheer chutzpah of the whole endeavour. This also explains why I admire the character of Marcel Lucont so much. “It’s a bit cliquey. I do shows for people that have seen a bit of stand-up and have seen a bit of comedy and want something a little bit different – I don’t think I’m massively subversive. I’m not completely anti-comedy…. But I want to give someone something that’s a bit different to what they’ll normally see. Essentially it’s me doing jokes, just in a stupid accent, but it’s also the attitude, it’s more about the attitude of not giving a fuck about the crowd, and you’d like to think that someone who’d seen enough shows goes, ‘Oh, nice! I like what you’re doing!’” According to all reports, the 78 bankers didn’t like what he was doing. Through the haze of wine and beer, over the incessant murmuring of colleagues chatting and texting, they heard an arrogant Frenchman being rude to them. They were incensed. They heckled. They left prematurely. They’re probably still chatting over water-coolers about how awful that French guy was, and how he wasn’t even funny. I mean, did he even have any jokes?
It’s enough to make you want to quit performing, the idea that these theatrically-illiterate morons might suddenly take it upon themselves to come into your show – completely disregarding clues in the title, genre, description and print design – and subsequently ruin it for everyone else. At least the girl in Sam Simmons’s audience was silent in her disgust! Probably because her boyfriend was absolutely loving it. If they’d been in Frisky and Mannish’s audience, responding similarly, I would have spent an hour disregarding the man’s laughter and concentrating on winning over the woman. Comedians, especially, thrive on nothing so much as a hard-won triumph – surviving against the gong, putting down the heckles, winning over the room. Time and again, Adelaide throws up that inhospitable environment out of which a resounding success is that much sweeter for having been such a struggle. You just have to be prepared to face a lot of resistance.
“I find it a lot of fun to push the boundaries of an Adelaide crowd,” Dubus explains. “Should you pander to the audience? Sometimes they don’t deserve to be pandered to. We do owe it to the crowd to entertain them. We should entertain the right people, and we shouldn’t pander to the closed-minded few that won’t get it. If a crowd doesn’t like what I do, I’m devastated inside, I’m broken… unless they’re 78 bankers.”