Features Guest Column Published 4 February 2013

Australian Fringe Journal: Fringe World, Perth

The rapid rise of the world’s youngest major fringe festival.

M. F. Jones

Check out that name. FRINGE WORLD. So cocky, so self-assured! A more modest, accurate, boring title would be Perth Fringe, or Fringe of Western Australia. But no. Ever since the first of these festivals a mere three years ago, it’s always been a WHOLE WORLD OF FRINGE, apparently. Credit where credit’s due, that’s the secret to the rapid rise of the world’s youngest major fringe festival. The organisers certainly had their sights set on joining the illustrious pantheon headed by the iconic Edinburgh, to which end the Fringe World directors set about programming an inaugural festival of Australian and international acts, solely by searching YouTube. Against all the odds, it worked.

I know about this because I was there, in 2011, performing in the De Parel spiegeltent as half of double act Frisky and Mannish, one of the handful of YouTube account holders invited to participate. Having already toured the Australian festival circuit (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide) in 2010, our initial responses to the offer were: 1) “Perth has a Fringe?” and 2) “What’s the fee?” Since the unknown quantity of the festival necessitated the first question, our primary concern was question 2. If we could make a tidy packet of Aussie dollars, and escape frosty February in Britain, we would treat it as a working holiday, a bit like a stint on a cruise ship.

Three years on, and we just keep coming back, even when we stand to lose money. (The first Fringe World was a curated festival, meaning we received a guaranteed fee; since 2012 it has operated like a typical fringe, with predominantly self-produced shows.) Here’s why. Western Australia is stunning. The beaches are heavenly, the wildlife is quirky, food and drink just taste better in the sun, and people are up for a laugh. Most importantly, Fringe World got one vital thing right the first time round, knowing that the secret to a great fringe is an open-air, lantern-festooned, bean-bag-strewn central hub into which eager festival-goers can pour after work to meet friends. Thus, every February, Perth’s cultural centre becomes the Urban Orchard, a boozy paradise where artists and audiences mingle in true communal Fringe style.

For its third year, cocky self-assured Fringe World has gone and “done an Incredible Hulk.” There are now three spiegeltents. That’s three. Even the great Edinburgh doesn’t usually have three! Our former stomping ground, the De Parel, has been demoted from the Urban Orchard over to a different part of town, and in its place is an even more opulent one that goes by the name of the Idolise. A third, less ornate in design but still atmospheric, the Circustheater, completes the trinity. Frisky and Mannish are playing the Circustheater this year, and having a whale of a time.

This spiegeltent surplus is key to Fringe World’s attractiveness. A spiegeltent provides a stunning landmark – or three – with an intoxicating blend of glamour and secrecy to tempt curious passers-by. It looks luxurious from the outside, and you can hear something exciting happening inside, but you have to enter to find out more. Performers thrive on the ready-made atmosphere, too. Award-winning gin-swigging double act Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria of EastEnd Cabaret, who made a highly-acclaimed début this year in the Idolise, consider “spiegs” (Victy’s abbreviation) to be ideal venues. “I think we look good in one… We try and make it really intimate. We always try and get out to the people, and a Spiegeltent just gives you access. You can get at them from all sides.”

It’s a neat summary of the reasons why a spiegeltent show is exciting – everything looks good and you’re literally inside it. Not every show suits the particulars of spiegeltent staging, though. With Frisky and Mannish, it can be extremely difficult to negotiate, since we’re a keyboard-based act. Finding a spot for the keys in a circular tent with booths on all sides that doesn’t give a sizeable section of the audience a restricted view of your face? Well, it’s a challenge. And we’re yet to realise our 360-degree swivelling piano concept, although if the cast of Les Misérables can sing on a turntable… Yet even with this major technical issue, we would completely agree with Bernie and Victy. We look good in them. And, if anything, audiences seem to go for it even more than in a plush raked-seat theatre. Why, though? It’s less comfortable, there are people everywhere, noise from the bar and the garden outside, you have to crane your necks or peer round columns to see the show, it’s smoky and loud, almost like a nightclub except with live performances… OK, I think I’ve figured out why. It’s like a club. A vintage, otherworldly, special club. A refurbished air-conditioned studio seems somewhat boring in comparison.

It’s often noted wryly that Edinburgh Fringe crowds will be made up of Australians, Americans, Europeans, Londoners, even Glaswegians, but very few people actually from Edinburgh itself. Bearing in mind Edinburgh has had a few more years to work on its act, it’s unsurprising that Fringe World relies mainly upon the population of Perth for an audience. Yes, Perth, once described as “the most remote city on earth” by Bill Bryson. That would explain why audience members have said “We’re so glad you’re here!” to EastEnd Cabaret at their post-show signings. “They’re just glad to have something. It sounds really awful and patronising, but… they do say that! ‘This is awesome, this is here, this is amazing!’” It seems it’ll take a few more decades of Fringe World before they become as complacent about international visitors as those old grumps in Adelaide and Melbourne…

In general, though, an audience is an audience, right? Or do our shows have to be adapted to suit an Australian sensibility, more specifically a Perth one? EastEnd Cabaret admit to having changed a reference to “Tesco” but not much else. Since Frisky and Mannish, parodists of pop songs, have had to excise whole songs upon discovering that Kate Nash never really made it Down Under, I’m pretty envious of them. They assert that “some things are just universal.” Their publicist Lauren Elliott of Muse Bureau, also representing many other Fringe World acts including Frisky and Mannish, thinks it might have gone too far in certain instances. “Alan Partridge did a tour and got an Australian comedian to help him replace all the UK references with Australian references.” She then laughs, “It was spoon-feeding us as if we had no idea. They just replaced every single thing.” Even in remote Perth, they still have the internet and American sitcoms and British period dramas and Madonna. Fringe performers simply need to honour the integrity of their original creations, and trust their audiences more.

Frisky and Mannish.

Frisky and Mannish.

Audiences maybe need to trust the performers too. EastEnd Cabaret have some entertaining anecdotes about spectators getting more than they bargained for. “There was a woman who came in and was clearly with a twelve-year-old child. ‘I know it’s meant to be adult and stuff, but there’s no nudity, is there?’ And it was like, ‘There’s no nudity in the show but it’s quite explicit. There’s necrophilia…’ ‘That’s fine, but no nudity?’ ‘No.’ We let them in. Twenty minutes later, they’re out…” Then, Bernadette says, “I sat on an underage boy. Actually, I then got him onstage. ‘What’s your favourite sexual position…? Oh, you’re 14. Ah.’ I’m actually blind. I can’t see the audience. It’s often ‘Sir, could you – ? Oh, sorry madam.’” Hilarious, and probably no more potentially damaging than simply letting a child browse the internet unmonitored, but also a bit of a minefield to navigate as a performer. Especially in the fringe world, where proximity and approachability can make explicit, confronting material too much for some to handle, without the safety measures of dark auditorium and fourth wall.

With respect to both these issues of accessibility, it’s interesting that the major theatrical event of Fringe World 2013 is a Black Swan State Theatre Company production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, an explicit, confronting piece with nudity in it, set in a Hispanic neighbourhood of New York. Jackie (Austin Castiglione) is a recovering addict, recently released from prison, living with his drug-addled girlfriend Veronica (Rhoda Lopez) and mentored by his AA sponsor Ralph (Kenneth Ransom). The discovery of another man’s hat in the flat he shares with Veronica is the trigger to a foul-mouthed caper in which everyone curses, brawls and sleeps with each other. The audience of middle-aged Perth suburbanites seemed to love it wholeheartedly, and safely. I felt that Jackie and Veronica’s bedsit was too airy and colourful to be squalid, and Ralph’s momentary flash of nudity as he removed a towel was too concealed and dimly-lit to be even mildly titillating. Even the violence felt too safely choreographed to be really exciting. The performances were uniformly strong – especially brilliant Fayssal Bazzi as cousin Julio – the direction was tight, but what if it had taken place in a “spieg” with the audience close enough to be able to smell the drugs as they’re snorted off a bedside table? That’s the trouble with good fringe festivals – they can make legitimate theatrical productions seem depressingly clinical.

Fringe World runs from 23rd January – 24th February; Eastend Cabaret’s Notoriously Kinky is at The West Australian Idolize Spiegeltent from 25th – 31st January,  and Frisky and Mannish’s Extra Curricular Activities is on at Circus Theatre from 1st-3rd, 5th-8th, and 10th February 2013.

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M. F. Jones

Matthew trained with the National Youth Music Theatre (2002-3), and graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a joint honours degree in Classics and English. He is best known as one half of Frisky and Mannish, cabaret double-act and "global phenomenon" (The Times). The duo have performed at Sydney Opera House and Shepherd's Bush Empire, appeared on BBC2 and Radio 1, and enjoyed four sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. As an actor, he played the lead role in Steven Bloomer's Punch at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Other credits include: Oklahoma! (Sadler's Wells), The Threepenny Opera (Oxford Playhouse) and The Secret Garden (King's Head). He also works as a writer and composer

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