Ask someone to describe the quintessential Fringe moment and they might summon up chainsaw-wielding buskers spruiking to passing crowds, potty-mouthed contortionists soaring high above their audience or glitterbombed drag queens dancing long into the night. Adelaide’s biggest festival contains multitudes, but these scenes have one thing in common: they’re most likely to take place in the city’s East End.
It wasn’t always so. Damien Storer fondly recalls the days when the festival’s centre of gravity lay far to the west.
“My first experience of the Fringe was when I was a uni student in 1986 and the Fringe hub was next door to the Lion Arts Centre,” says the Nexus Arts venue manager.
The festival, which was biennial back then, also included well-attended street parties and parades on Hindley Street for much of the ’80s and ’90s.
Storer admits that it’s an “uphill battle” to draw audiences beyond King William Street these days – 2022’s West Village hub was an attempt to change that – but he is looking forward to celebrating Nexus Arts’ 40th anniversary with a Fringe line-up featuring 16 shows “of predominantly local talent from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds”.
Despite the apparently inexorable march eastwards since the Garden of Unearthly Delights first launched in 2000, the Fringe has always been a festival that pops up all over Adelaide. And this year will see a range of attractions to bring crowds to the West End.
One of the most eye-catching new spaces is The Inflatable Church. The pop-up venue, which is a regular at several major UK festivals, will bring its celebration of unconditional (and uninhibited) love to Light Square for the entirety of the Fringe.
“We will marry anyone to anything,” says director Tristram Shackerley-Bennett, who has overseen more than 4500 weddings over the last 20 years.
“We have over 300 wedding dresses and bridesmaids’ dresses, and we cover people in make-up, do their hair and host a really irreverent wedding ceremony with our deranged vicars and our beautiful bridesmaids.”
Despite the temptation to choose somewhere nearer Rundle Street, several key partners encouraged Shackerley-Bennett to consider other options when he attended last year’s Fringe to scout out potential locations.
“The main question was whether we could draw people in if we were located somewhere else,” he says.
“And we’re lucky that because it’s such a crazy and fun thing to be a part of, people will travel to come and see us. So we had support from the [Adelaide City] Council and the Fringe to try and create a hub in the West End, which is exactly what we’re going to do.”
The City of Adelaide is co-presenting The Inflatable Church and providing additional traffic management, festoon lighting and security, with a spokesperson saying it provided “an opportunity for council to invest in a large-scale, highly visible installation in Light Square as a centrepiece for the expansive West End Fringe programming in 2024”.
Although attendees can hire out the 80-person venue for both legal and unofficial wedding ceremonies, Shackerley-Bennett strongly encourages leaving at least a few tickets free.
“We much prefer it if you allow randoms to come in and enjoy your wedding because there’s nothing more fun than gatecrashing someone’s wedding and by the time we’ve finished with you, everybody will know everybody.”
That philosophy of inclusivity extends to the church’s relationship with surrounding venues, including the recently rebranded ILA (formerly Light ADL). In addition to providing catering for The Inflatable Church, the bricks and mortar venue will also offer a convenient location for wedding parties who want to kick on after the ceremony.
As a member of the West End Association, ILA CEO Nic Mercer is a strong advocate of collaboration between venues and he is keen to see Light Square develop into a full-blown hub this year. ILA will host the FringeWORKS artists centre along with a dozen Fringe shows, but it’s not merely a question of volume. Mercer is especially excited about the late-night programming that includes DM For Address, a rave at The Lab that will run until 3am every Saturday “with the hope of being an unofficial artists’ party”.
As well as a broad geographical spread, choreographer and director Lewis Major notes that local performers and audiences benefit from a thematically-diverse Fringe.
“It’s great for artists when you have a lot of venues collaborating and cross-pollinating, but it also allows those venues to develop their own niche,” says the artistic director of Adelaide College of the Arts (who is also producing a visual arts installation at ILA).
“We’ve worked really hard over the last five to 10 years to get more high-quality dance into the Fringe, and this year we’re proud to have shows from Europe and Asia alongside interstate and local works. It’s very satisfying to see that diversity of festival-level dance at the Fringe.”
Closer to the centre of the city, Fool’s Paradise will be returning to Victoria Square after a successful launch in 2023. Director Thomas Gorham is overseeing a program that will almost double the number of shows to 35, while the site is expanding to incorporate more natural and artificial shaded spaces. That will come in especially handy with an increased focus on family-friendly shows during daytime hours, but Gorham is also keen to build relationships with late-night venues nearby.
“Because our liquor licence ends earlier than other places, I would really like to work in partnership with one of the nearby bars,” he says. “It would be nice for the patrons to have somewhere to go and it’d be a fantastic opportunity for bars or restaurants that are operating late.
“If we can grow Fool’s Paradise into another hub, it would be a win for Adelaide. The Fringe is already the world’s second-largest arts festival, but if it manages to engulf the centre of the city and reach the West, just imagine!”
This strategy of collaboration rather than competition echoes Mercer’s mantra that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. And rather than merely replicating the atmosphere of Rundle Street, he wants to create an entirely new template for the West End.
“There is a big, very audacious goal that doesn’t compare us to any other part of the city,” Mercer says.
“We want to lift our gaze a little bit higher and really stretch what we’re capable of here in the West End; we think that we can add a creative quarter and a cultural quarter that’s more akin to the West End in London or certain parts of New York.”
This story is part of a series of articles being produced by InReview with the support of Adelaide Fringe.
Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe stories here.
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