Brighton Festival and Fringe highlights – who to see, where and when
Every year the Brighton Festival has a different guest director. This year, it is performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson and in the past sculptor Anish Kapoor and novelist Ali Smith have taken on the role.
Every year it also has a particular theme. For 2016 it’s ‘home’, which to Brighton Festival chief executive Andrew Comben is about both “a sense of community, but also a place of safety and opportunity”.
The Brighton Festival encompasses theatre, dance, music and film, and has existed in some form since 1965. The work is not limited to traditional venues and spaces; it spills into Brighton’s streets and on to its beaches. It spills into its cellars. It fills the city.
“Brighton sits geographically on the edge of the country,” says Comben. “It has an edginess that manifests itself as an openness and a preparedness for innovation.”
“But no place is simple or straightforward and this is true too of Brighton,” he adds. “It is complex and also has real challenges such as deprivation and exclusion. In this festival we are reflecting on all of these aspects as well as engaging with all parts of the community more than ever before.”
Particularly this year, given the theme, it was, he says, important to celebrate the festival’s relationship with “the unique, energetic and creative city of Brighton, its artists, its characters, its sense of place and spirit, and we’re thrilled to be working with many of the artists who’ve established themselves in the Brighton community but also on the international stage”.
Theatremaker Marc Rees, who studied in Brighton, is creating a site-specific piece called Digging for Shakespeare, which tells the story of eccentric, reclusive 19th-century Shakespeare scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps and takes place on the Roedale allotments where he lived.
Dr Blighty is a large multi-arts project, which explores the history of one Brighton’s most iconic buildings, the Royal Pavilion. It was used as a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers during the First World War as it was thought they would feel more at home there. The event takes the form of both outdoor and indoor concerts, and a video projection on the Royal Pavilion, to commemorate the soldiers who died there. It is, says Comben, “a rich and quite untold story”.
Central to Brighton’s identity is the sea. It’s inescapable: sometimes turbulent, sometimes eerie, the sun reflecting off the water, gulls circling. Outdoor work has always been a fixture of the festival.
Artists Rachel Champion and Tristan Shorr will be creating The Last Resort, a binaural experience for two people at a time that takes the form of a museum of the future, a dystopia by the seashore. Maresa von Stockert will also be presenting her dance-theatre promenade piece, Belonging(s), a piece designed to reflect the space in which it’s being performed, to make an audience look at its surroundings afresh.
Brighton’s domestic spaces will also be explored. Home Live Art, a company that creates site-specific, immersive and participatory art experiences, will be presenting At Home at Angel House, a large period house on the Brighton seafront, on May 20 and 21. “We play with ideas around the familiar, the homely, the everyday,” explains HLA’s Mimi Banks, “and have a long history of exploring the domestic as an environment to make and experience art.”
Its intention with the piece is “that those attending will feel as though they are being invited into someone’s home. Before arrival they will have received a personal letter from artist Richard Layzell setting the tone. It will be relaxed and social. They will encounter a multidisciplinary programme of artists –including anarchist poet Jonny Fluffypunk – performances and interactions, including work by game-maker Seth Kriebel; they will have time to explore the rooms, to talk with the artists, to talk with each other. Phill Haisleden (Angel House’s owner) will be attending, very much in the role of host, and is a mine of information regarding the fascinating history of the house.” In this way the building becomes not just a venue, but a canvas and a source of inspiration.
Banks uses the term ‘salon’ to describe the project, which feels particularly apt given the Regency setting. As with so much of the city’s architecture, the rooms at Angel House were designed for and dedicated to receiving guests. “We have here a rich context for creating an environment that is social and yet intimate,” she says.
“It’s important for us that the festival is played out right across the city and takes people out of their regular experiences,” says Comben. “Art can help us look at the world in different ways – the festival’s interventions in a city that so many people know and love encourages people to look at the place and each other in a new light.”
Dates: May 7-29
Guest director: Laurie Anderson
Chief executive: Andrew Comben
Number of performances in 2016: 153 events at 42 venues
Audience figures (2015): 150,000
Turnover (2015): £2 million
Funding: Combined annual budget for Brighton Festival and Brighton Dome is £2.6 million, reaching a total year-round audience of 600,000
The Brighton Fringe gets bigger ever year. There has been a fringe in some form running alongside the Brighton Festival since 1967 but in recent years the open-access arts festival has had a growth spurt. In 2013 it extended its run to four weeks and, according to managing director Julian Caddy, this year’s line-up features more than 900 events in 165 venues around Brighton and Hove.
Though, as ever, there will be companies presenting work from countries all around the world, Caddy estimates at least a quarter of these events will be from the local area. There are many reasons why local artists and theatremakers are drawn to presenting work at the fringe, from practical and financial ones, to artistic and social ones – the wish to tell the city’s stories, to articulate something of its spirit. It does feel as if the Brighton Fringe, despite its increasing size, interacts with local audiences and occupies a different cultural space within the city than a festival on the scale of the Edinburgh Fringe. It feels more harmonious, more open – more Brighton.
“For me, as an artist, Brighton Fringe is a bit more of a gentle experience than Edinburgh Fringe,” explains Catherine Ireton, the Brighton-based musician and theatremaker who’s performing her 2014 show Leaving Home Party at the Brighton’s Latest Music Bar during the fringe. “I can see why people use it as a testing ground for new material – it’s smaller and there isn’t so much of the frenzy that goes along with Edinburgh.”
The atmosphere is different in Brighton and partly this is down to the way people present work, for shorter periods, in bursts of two or three days. “I think at some larger festivals, the fatigue sets in by about week two or three, but in Brighton the party keeps changing and evolving as new people, new acts are always arriving into the town. It’s refreshing.”
“Rather than taking over the city,” she says, “the Brighton Fringe sits alongside the other festivals that are happening – the Great Escape, House, Open Houses, and Brighton Festival itself.”
There are downsides to this. Because artists aren’t doing full three or four-week runs “it can be a bit harder to build up that momentum of your show being a ‘hot ticket’ or to get national press, but the pool of artists is smaller so it can be a good place to pick up an award nomination – a huge boost for an emerging theatre company,” says Ireton.
“In terms of costs, Brighton is probably less financially risky than some other events but it’s harder to earn money as ticket prices seem to generally be lower,” she adds.
Jolie Booth, who is presenting her first solo show Hip with Kriya Arts at this year’s fringe, has lived in Brighton for 15 years and produced several shows over the years that have been part of the Brighton Fringe programme.
Hip is a very Brighton show. It’s based on the story of a local woman, called Anne Clarke, in whose house Booth once squatted. Clarke had been a big part of the 1970s counterculture scene in Brighton. “She was a fascinating person and lots of local people still remember her fondly. She was a key figure in creating institutions in Brighton that still stand today, such as Infinity Foods.”
For Booth, the Brighton Fringe is an invaluable part of the theatre calendar, a testing ground, a springboard. “I’ll bring shows to Brighton in order to test them out, get reviews and creative feedback before heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe for a month-long run throughout August. It is less of a financial gamble than Edinburgh. Venues are definitely cheaper and I also save money on accommodation because it is on my doorstep. At the same time it is the largest arts festival in England and close enough to London to get theatre programmers and producers down to see work and hopefully some national press. Everyone loves a weekend by the sea and performers in the Brighton Fringe are able to cash in on this. With some feedback and hopefully great reviews under your belt you can then head to Edinburgh with more confidence.”
She does however lament the passing of the Streets of Brighton free street art festival, which she was also made work for, though says that Fringe City – the free outdoor event which takes place every weekend throughout the fringe – compensates somewhat for its loss. “For many people it was the only part of the festival they ever saw. I feel there could still be more buy-in from the local people. The presence of the Speigeltents and, in previous years, the Underbelly does encourage people to engage with the fringe much more. There will always be a part of the local community who are only interested in sitting outside and having a drink, but hopefully through the free outdoor work and by drinking in the venue’s bars they will be encouraged into the theatre to see a show or two.”
Spun Glass Theatre is bringing two shows to Brighton Fringe this year: Stamp, billed as an “interactive cabaret game show” and Operation Love Story, a solo storytelling show by Jennifer Williams – “an anti-romcom”.
“I’d say the role that the fringe plays in Brighton’s cultural life is really varied,” says Spun Glass’ Jessica Cheetham. “It’s a great celebration of all the community arts that goes on in the city. It’s a chance to see some high-quality independent work.”
Spun Glass Theatre performed its debut show at Brighton Fringe in 2010, and Cheetham has been involved in different aspects of the fringe every year since then – as a technician, an office intern, and a reviewer, as well as a theatremaker. This year the company performed Stamp at the Vault festival in London earlier in the year and it is taking work up to Edinburgh this August. The costs involved are similar,” Cheetham says. “We’ve paid a venue guarantee to the Warren here in Brighton and invested in marketing. The main difference for us is that as local artists we don’t have to pay the big relocation costs that we need to pay for Edinburgh, which means I can pay the performers for their work in Brighton.
“Also as a local artist, I find that Brighton Fringe is a great opportunity and platform for our work, as the established arts organisations here are very stretched and can’t offer much support for creating work. The spirit of the fringe means that you can build your event right from scratch – from the initial idea to finding the right venue and getting the word out there.”
The Brighton Fringe, she feels, has played a major role in her development as an artist. “Without it, Spun Glass Theatre would never have won an award or been able to experiment so completely with our style.”
The Brighton Fringe runs from May 6 to June 5. Operation Love Story is at the Warren from May 6-8, Hip is at the Malborough Theatre from May 9-11, Leaving Home Party is at Latest Music Bar from May 16-18
Dates: May 6-June 5
Managing director: Julian Caddy
Number of performances in 2016: 4,400 performances (a total of 932 events) across 165 venues
Audience figures (2015): 400,000
Turnover (2015): More than £1.4 million from ticket sales
Funding: Most income is from ticket sales, participant registrations, advertising and sponsorship. Only 3% of income comes from public subsidy
6 shows to see…
The Complete Deaths
Theatre Royal, May 11-15
Tim Crouch joins forces with Spymonkey to present all 74 onstage deaths in the works of William Shakespeare. A world premiere and a Brighton Festival commission.
Theatre Royal, May 27-28
Neil Bartlett returns to the Brighton Festival with the story of one half of the Victorian cross-dressing duo Fanny and Stella. A co-commission with LIFT and the Holland Festival.
Operation Black Antler
Secret location, May 7-28
Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s immersive show looks the most controversial of the festival. It explores surveillance and invites participants to go undercover.
Komedia, May 30-June 1
Typically intelligent and articulate political theatre from Daniel Bye in a smart solo show exploring contagion and communication.
What I Learned from Johnny Bevan
Old Market Theatre, May 16
Luke Wright’s storming Fringe First-winning solo show. A stirring piece of writing and performance.
Gods are Fallen and All Safety Gone
Spiegeltent, May 16-18
Greyscale’s pared down, intimate and quietly moving exploration of the parent-child relationship.
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.