For the past 10 years, the Holden Street Theatres award has plucked the best shows from the Edinburgh Fringe and flown them across the globe. Nick Awde finds out what led the Australian theatre to transfer shows
Taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is not only for the exposure, networking and a five-star review, it can also be the chance to take home an award. Like all things fringe, there’s something of a growth area going on here, as long-standing honours such as The Stage Edinburgh Awards, Edinburgh Comedy Awards and the Amnesty Freedom of Expression award are joined by the Mental Health Fringe award and the Asian Arts award.
With the notable exception of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards’ cash prize, you’re unlikely to get more than a gong with the accolade, but there are awards specifically for theatre that offer something just as handy: the chance to put your show on after Edinburgh. The Holden Street Theatres award is particularly of note because the winning show gets to visit that other fringe heaven, Australia.
Named after the independent venue in Hindmarsh, the awards originate from the same city as the massive Adelaide Fringe – which is why the theatre boasts excellent fringe credentials and hosts its Edinburgh winners during the festival, running from February to March each year.
“We started to tour work across from Edinburgh,” says Holden Street artistic director and co-founder Martha Lott, “so the investment was there regardless, and I thought creating an award would boost the profile of what we were doing and, more importantly, boost the public’s interest in the shows. It gives a credibility to the choice and really helped us connect to producers when we were just starting the award.
“The original judges that helped me get started were producers Richard Jordan and Paul Lucas along with Eileen O’Reilly, then promoter liaison officer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. It was an exciting start and took a year to develop. This year is our 10th anniversary.”
With spaces across two listed church buildings, Holden Street has since taken 14 winning shows over to Australia – it often takes two shows per year. Winners in 2016 were Angel by Henry Naylor, produced by Red Beard Productions and Gilded Balloon, and Scorch, produced by Prime Cut Productions. An additional show from Edinburgh was also staged – Tangram Theatre’s The Element in the Room. The first two won Adelaide Fringe awards and all garnered a string of five-star reviews.
Conversely, the theatre also now offers the Adelaide Fringe award, which helps companies develop new work and prepare for Edinburgh or present new work the following fringe in Adelaide. This year’s winner is Joanne Hartstone’s The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign, and this August you’ll get the chance to see 2016 winner Gobsmacked Theatre’s Once Were Pirates at the Pleasance Dome.
5 other prizes that transfer shows
The Infallibles Awards
Puts a show on at Draper Hall, London.
Puts a show on at the Drayton Arms Theatre, London.
Carol Tambor award
Takes a show, sometimes two, to New York.
Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence
Invites one show to perform at Brighton Fringe.
The Stepladder award
Mentoring from Les Enfants Terribles and a slot at Wilton’s Music Hall.
All this has helped the import/export of work through Holden Street and also improved locally produced fringe offerings. “Although we aren’t developing the award,” says Lott, “the venue is ever-changing and growing and responding to audience needs and wants.”
The selection process for the Edinburgh award is similarly flexible. “We look though the programme and see what catches our eyes, read reviews and listen to word-of-mouth. There is an application process for shows to be seen in advance and I read every one that comes in.”
Suggestions are taken from venues and producers about what they think will suit the award from their programmes and liberal use is made of scouts – technicians, ushers, patrons and performers across Edinburgh.
“There is a panel of judges and we see as many shows as possible, then the three main judges will see the shortlist and I’ll make the final decision,” says Lott. “We often buy other works and tour them outside of the award and we license work to be restaged in Australia with local artists.”
‘Edinburgh is the best marketplace in the world for fringe theatre’
Holden Street Theatres artistic director Martha Lott
Following Holden Street’s vision for sharing the experience of fringe in Adelaide, many shows have gone on to do bigger tours and other venues, and also create new collaborations. But they’ll need to come firing on all cylinders, warns Lott. “It definitely sorts the wheat from the chaff, because in many ways it’s harder in Adelaide than Edinburgh. There’s no room for divas here, it’s hard work.”
Nearly every winning show has received an Adelaide Fringe award, five-star reviews and sell-out houses, she says, based on a desire to share international excellence that was there from the very beginning. “I wanted to present the best fringe programme possible and so went to the best marketplace in the world to do it. I’ve always had a love of Edinburgh and after I bought the first few shows, you could say I was bitten.
“The idea is to present work that Adelaide audiences won’t have the chance to see otherwise and to enhance our industry by bringing trends in theatre here. Edinburgh is the biggest marketplace in the world and so it offers a great selection and representation of what’s happening across the globe in theatre.”
Holden Street has not only introduced new shows, but also innovations based on how Edinburgh venues are run that have “changed the fringe landscape in Adelaide, and that’s set us apart and put us ahead of the game a bit, too”. This has also helped create a strong international network that is now resulting in work touring out of Adelaide with the help of Holden Street.
Although theatre plays a major role in Australia, as in the UK, finances seem to be similarly under siege, which can make forward-planning tricky. Lott’s response to the challenge is appropriately pragmatic: “The performing arts at the Holden Street level is a tough business, but we have an incredibly loyal audience and so we’re fairly safe in that regard. Not a lot of theatres do what we do as successfully.
“We also have a lot of goodwill and incredible volunteers. We have a well-regarded intern programme and English As a Second Language volunteer programme. We don’t receive any funding for touring international work, but it’s what brings audiences to the venue so everyone gets great exposure. Theatre in Australia is suffering financially, as it does everywhere, and so we support local artists as much as we can.”
4 awards for shows that care
1. Amnesty Freedom of Expression award
2. Mental Health Fringe award
3. Fringe Sustainable Practice award
4. Euan’s Guide Accessible Fringe award
Holden Street has a resident company that produces three shows a year and it is a venue for hire throughout the year. It operated a children’s theatre company, but this has been shelved for the past two years while the theatre focuses on development in other areas. Holden Street also runs the Thebarton Theatre, a listed, 2,000-seat venue known nationwide as the Thebbie, an iconic building that mostly programmes music and comedy.
Lott got into theatre from the beginning. She was born into the industry and was on stage from a very young age – her first acting gig was when she was about seven. She went on to work professionally as an actor and studied at Drama Centre London. “My first Edinburgh Fringe was while I was studying at Drama Centre and I worked in the box office, but soon found it wasn’t really my thing. But I had been bitten by the Edinburgh bug.”
Producing and directing was a logical next step and that led Lott to Holden Street. Fifteen years ago, she had built a pop-up venue for a fringe show, which got her thinking about how a venue all year round would be a better option. Her boss suggested the buildings in the inner-city suburb of Hindmarsh. She organised a team to refurbish the buildings and things have continued to grow to the present day.
Holden Street now has a reputation as the ‘home of theatre’ in the Adelaide Fringe, recognised by artists and buyers from across Australia as a platform for performers and companies. But this sort of fringe interface is a key industry component not just for Holden Street, but Australia nationwide – you only have to look at how the mighty Adelaide and Melbourne festivals contribute to the country’s cultural ecosphere.
“Fringes are a brilliant place for networking and launching companies,” says Lott, “and they can have a big impact on attendances throughout the year. Also, companies tend to wait until the fringe to present their works, so there’s a mad rush.”
She warns that although the introduction of new fringes creates a good circuit for international companies, it’s still theatre on a fringe budget, so that’s a big risk for companies and presenters.
Edinburgh continues to be incredibly important, says Lott. “It’s what sets us apart from the others and has been a wonderful journey. Edinburgh is a huge part of my life. I have learned a great deal from my experiences as a fringe worker, performer and producer in Edinburgh and created many strong and wonderful friendships as a result.
“Because it’s so big, it’s an even playing field where there are so many opportunities, and you never know who you’ll meet or what openings even the smallest of interactions can bring.
“Things like the EdFringe office and the venues have been an incredible support over the years and, with the support of our sponsors in Adelaide, we have been able to build something wonderful.”
Holden Street Theatres profile
Artistic director: Martha Lott
Founded: November 2002
Based in: Hindmarsh, South Australia
Shows: 36-plus productions a year featuring 880 performances
Audience figures: Approx 75,000 per year
Number of employees: One salaried, plus two part-time and up to 50 volunteers
Turnover/funding: As a small part of a large organisation that runs on a not-for-profit model, HST is not able to disclose the figures and they are not public record. Breakdown is approx 8% government funding, 43% ticket sales, 13% sponsorships, 36% other
Sponsors: Weslo Holdings Pty Ltd, Wines by Geoff Hardy, Coopers Brewery, Arts South Australia, Design Lab
Key contacts: Martha Lott, email@example.com, +61 8 82231450, holdenstreettheatres.com , thebartontheatre.com.au