Amsterdam Fringe at Brighton: ‘We started out doing shows in toilets’
Outside of its annual May madness, Brighton Fringe is busy on the road throughout the rest of the year building links with other fringes and festivals to forge an international fringe hub on the south coast. “What we’re doing is setting out our stall as a place where people from not only the UK but all over the world can come and put on exciting and mainly new work. And as it is an open access festival, it’s showing new pathways,” says the fringe’s director Julian Caddy.
This year, the international side gets a massive boost through a groundbreaking season of shows from the Netherlands in the shape of 14 UK premieres and four workshops, representing a retrospective of award-winning productions from the past few years at Amsterdam Fringe.
Amsterdam’s director Aukje Verhoog is proud to emphasise the Dutch identity of the season: “What makes -Amsterdam Fringe different from many of the other -international fringes is that the works tend to be more experimental. Amsterdam is also different from Brighton and Edinburgh in the way it’s organised, in that both in Brighton and Edinburgh the venues have a much bigger part in creating the programme. At Amsterdam, which is a much smaller-scale festival, the -artists apply to the festival and then we match with our partners in other venues.”
One of the challenges in taking work to another country is language. Since the Dutch are a nation of English-speakers, converting a text to English is no barrier and there’s also the factor that non-verbal works abound in this area of fringe.
In fact, Amsterdam has an active ‘language no problem’ programme, attaching an LNP tag to shows that are in English or non-verbal. It tends to balance out at a remarkable 50% of shows accessible to non-Dutch speakers, which makes -exporting a season a significantly attractive proposition.
“Of course, other fringes like Brighton Fringe also have a focus on performances without words,” says Verhoog. “But the Netherlands has a very strong tradition in physical theatre, it’s always reflected in our programme – and this is also what you can see in the Brighton Dutch season.”
Typical of the crossover/genre-bending at any Amsterdam Fringe is experimental performance group 7090, on at the Spiegeltent. The company, which came into theatre through music, is bringing over no fewer than five shows, including Daddy Day: Bret Hana, billed as “a family slideshow with a bloodcurdling ending”.
Then, characteristic of the physical side of Amsterdam’s tastes are Macho Macho, by Bosnian-Dutch artist Igor Vrebac, a physical take on male objectification inspired by Instagram workout selfies, Turkish wrestling and bromance, and EFES, a dance duet by Nicole Geertruida and Cherish Menzo in which they, and the audience, “experience the infinity and emptiness of the ‘Zero Mark’ ”.
Bringing a lighter touch are shows such as Wacht! by Hiske Eriks, themed around a bored security guard in a museum, and Watching: Ceci N’Est Pas de Deux, by Ester Natzijl Productions, a dark blend of puppetry, theatre and dance about relationships.
5 things you need to know about world fringe
1. Focusing on Amsterdam’s avant-garde drama productions, Amsterdam Fringe Festival takes place at the same time as the Dutch Theatre Festival – Nederlands Theater Festival, tf.nl. Both are produced by Stichting de Theaterdagen. Productions take place in 40-plus venues throughout the city. As the first formal fringe in the Netherlands, it has pioneered the growth of other festivals in the country.
2. Already one of the world’s largest arts festivals, Brighton Fringe is still growing. The 2017 edition has hit 1,000 events for the first time in the open access festival’s history and includes more than 300 world premieres and over 100 international shows.
3. The Best of Fringe Tour took four award winners from the Amsterdam Fringe 2016 on the road in March and April 2017. Supported by a successful campaign on Dutch arts crowdfunding site Voordekunst.nl, the shows Macho Macho, Collaps, EFES and Kluster played Rotterdam’s Theater Walhalla, Arnhem’s Theater aan de Rijn, the Hague’s Theater aan het Spui, Utrecht’s Theater Kikker and Amsterdam’s Theater Bellevue.
4. Best of Fringe is also the title of the exchange programme run between the nine members of the World Fringe Alliance. Amsterdam Fringe is one of the initiators of the project, and since 2009 has exchanged shows with New York, Prague, Dublin, Edinburgh and Grahamstown fringes. The Brighton season is its biggest yet.
5. The World Fringe Festival Alliance is an informal gathering of international fringe festivals to broaden the platform for artistic exchange, share knowledge and have more leverage in closing large sponsor deals. Members are the fringes for Grahamstown, Hollywood, New York, Adelaide, Perth, Prague, Brighton, Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Together they reach an audience of more than one million (and counting). worldfringeallianc
The pick is made up of performances that have won awards at Amsterdam Fringe or are by award-winning theatremakers. Macho Macho, for example, is the 2016 winner of the Dioraphte Best of Amsterdam Fringe award, which offers money to travel abroad, while all the fringe winners go on tour within the Netherlands itself – “because we really want the gems of the festival and the people that have shown progress to have this opportunity to play their work more and to develop further,” says Verhoog.
The Dutch season came about as a result of Brighton’s long relationship with Amsterdam Fringe through the World Fringe Alliance, explains Caddy: “We’ve been going there as delegates and jury members for the past six years. Over that time, the Amsterdam Fringe delegates and directors have also come to Brighton, looking for shows to take back to Amsterdam. Each year there’s also been support for shows from Amsterdam to Brighton but it’s just been the tip of the iceberg and we’ve long been looking for ways to bring over more in a full season.”
The Dutch presence at this year’s 11th edition is not only an artistic coup but also a financial one. Many fringes across the UK have attracted significant international components but they have little strength in numbers and are hard to sustain. Having the funds to grow this area inevitably slips down the to-do list as funding finds other priorities closer to home. Edinburgh is a leader but its model is venue-led and noticeably hit and miss. “Previously we’ve talked about doing lots of things, but now when we actually start to find money from funding bodies and trusts and so on, we are starting to actually practise what we preach,” says Caddy.
“And it’s not just us raising money, it’s other fringe festivals and other festivals and arts organisations raising money of their own, because they can see that it makes sense. Also, from a cost perspective, it is a good deal cheaper to perform in Brighton than in Edinburgh because the runs tend to be shorter.”
Last year, with the encouragement of the Dutch embassy in the UK, the two fringes put together a list of shows for Brighton. They were successful in receiving funding from both the Dutch Embassy and the Dutch Performing Arts Fund, and so the Dutch season was born.
The nature of the partnership is more a case of peer sharing rather than being driven by the more expected venue or -promoter model, and so looks more sustainable. Certainly Caddy sees the Dutch season as the start of more -collaborations in the future with other countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and France.
But there was serious doubt whether Amsterdam Fringe itself would exist after it failed to get its own funding last year – part of the ongoing wave of shock cuts in the country’s arts scene. Even though funds did turn up, after the end of the edition last September the organisers said it might still be the last. Then the festival was retrospectively granted funding and it seems the future is secure for a few more years.
Verhoog is bullish over how things have worked out -financially and that the fringe now has the chance to show its stuff: “The season is mostly works that have played the Amsterdam Fringe. Many of these works are by groups not just from the city but from the whole of the Netherlands. In that sense, it’s of course very Dutch. We have had performances that won awards that have travelled to festivals abroad, including Brighton and Grahamstown fringes. But this is the first season like this.”
Launched 12 years ago, Amsterdam Fringe was the first fringe festival in the Netherlands and, although not on the same scale, it has in many ways paralleled Brighton in growth.
“In a sense Amsterdam has been influential to many by being the first,” says Verhoog. “The fringe has grown quite a bit, from being only a handful of shows in the toilets of the City Theater to now an 11-day festival with over 70 groups that perform there.”
Verhoog agrees the appearance of fringe has been a gamechanger for the Netherlands, but with reservations. The field in the country has been and still is very differently organised to the UK system. Until arts cuts started eight years ago, there were far more opportunities for practitioners working in niche genres or independently to find funding and their audiences – represented in microcosm by the Dutch season.
What the fringe especially adds is exposure for emerging talent and a leg-up to showcasing works, since this is precisely where much of the budget axe has fallen. Amsterdam Fringe is a place where, says Verhoog, “people can try and fail, try again and fail better. That’s the sort of experience that we want to embrace. It’s one you need in the arts in general and definitely in the Dutch field”.
Presumably there’s more in the pipeline for the Amsterdam-Brighton cultural axis? “We are working on a longer-term plan,” says Verhoog. “This is definitely the next step in the exchange of artists. Work has already been going on for the last five years so in that sense it’s continuing on that.
“The productions in the Dutch season are things that -normally just wouldn’t be in Brighton – or Edinburgh for that matter,” adds Caddy. “You’re seeing a little snapshot of the cultural consciousness of a nation in these shows.”
Profile: Amsterdam Fringe
Artistic director: Aukje Verhoog (below)
Founded: 2005, annual
Dates: September 7-17, 2017 (12th edition)
Employees: Seasonal – 12 freelance, 100 volunteers
Spaces/venues (2016): 40 indoor, five open-air
Participating companies (2016): 80 groups
Shows (2016): 350
Audience figures (2016): 20,000
Countries represented (2016): 10
Profile: Brighton Fringe Festival
Managing director: Julian Caddy
Dates: May 5-June 4, 2017 (11th edition)
Employees: full time eight, seasonal 15, volunteers 160
Venues (2017): 120 indoor, 35 open-air
Participating companies: 820
Shows (2017): 1,000
Audience (2016): 535,000
Countries represented (2017): 28
Total turnover/budget (2016): income: £463,000, expenditure: £457,000
Ticket sales (2016): £1.7 million
Funders/sponsors: The Pebble Trust, Citroen, Arts Council England, Brighton and Hove City Council, Dutch Performing Arts Fund, Embassy of the Netherlands