Australian cabaret at the Fringe: ‘If you can make it in Edinburgh, you can make it anywhere’
This Aussie invasion is armed with glitter and feather boas. Paul Vale meets three Australian cabaret acts preparing for the Edinburgh Fringe, and discovers why they find the audiences so receptive
You can’t step into any self-respecting venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe without finding an Australian cabaret performer on the bill. The biggest festival of its kind in the world, Edinburgh attracts an international cabaret crowd, dominated by a diverse array of top performers from down under.
Undoubtedly, this comes about from the special relationship between Edinburgh and the Adelaide and Melbourne festivals, Australia’s own mega fringes that take place in February/March and September respectively.
Yet, despite Adelaide and Melbourne being such major players in the global market, Edinburgh is still a Mecca for Australian artists. As three of their number prepare to cross the globe, they explain what the attraction is and how they prepare for the event.
Michael Griffiths first came to Edinburgh in 2014 with his award-winning cabaret exploring the songs of Madonna with In Vogue. Since then, he has returned with the back catalogues of Annie Lennox and Cole Porter. This year, Kylie Minogue gets the Griffiths treatment with his new show Songs by Kylie.
“If you can make it in Edinburgh, you can make it anywhere,” says Griffiths. “Nothing can prepare you for the size of the fringe, and if you can find a way to stand out and draw an audience, that’s a huge part of the challenge of performing there. You want to perform your best work, but on the other hand it’s an opportunity to break a show in and to refine it in front of an audience, because the Edinburgh audience is very authentic and genuine in its response.”
Anya Anastasia is this year’s South Australia and Adelaide cultural ambassador in Edinburgh, an accolade that comes with her awards and support from the South Australia government through Arts South Australia. This year, Anastasia appears in her socio-satirical song-cycle The Executioners.
“There’s a stronger heritage of cabaret and satire in the UK and Europe,” she says. “In Australia, we have extremely strong comedy and theatre but cabaret is still an emerging form. And it’s really exciting to perform to audiences who have a bit more background knowledge, and appreciation for the genre.”
Matt Gilbertson, whose alter-ego Hans first popped up in Edinburgh as a fringe ambassador in 2016, also cites the diversity of the audience as one of the main attractions. “Australian audiences and British audiences are actually quite similar. They have similar tastes comedy-wise. They love good, self-deprecating humour – the humour where we take the mickey out of ourselves. It’s a humour that translates.”
Aside from the challenge and the opportunity, Edinburgh still comes as a big surprise to most new performers, no matter how seasoned they may be on the world fringe stage. It may be shorter than the month-long Adelaide, but as Anastasia points out: “The highs are higher, and the lows are lower.”
“Nothing can prepare you for the size of Edinburgh,” says Griffiths. “In my first year, I saw 30 shows in two weeks. I didn’t even discover the Pleasance until the final day. I thought I’d discovered everything and then on the last day I stumbled down a backstreet and then this whole other venue unfolded.”
Fringe festivals in Australia
Adelaide Fringe Established in 1960, this festival is the second biggest in the world, running from mid-February to mid-March.
Sydney Fringe An alternative arts and culture festival, established in 2010, that runs every year throughout September.
Melbourne Fringe Established in 1982, the festival follows on from Edinburgh for two-and-a-half weeks in September with more than 170 venues.
Fringe World Not an arts theme park, but Perth’s annual multi-arts fringe festival, established in 1983 and held during the city’s summer festival season of January/February.
Anywhere Festival The smallest of Australia’s fringe festivals, established in 2011 throughout most of May in Brisbane and now also on the Sunshine Coast.
As daunting as Edinburgh can be, there are also the practical logistics to consider, such as accompanists and associate artists. This year, Anastasia is bringing her accompanist Gareth Chin with her.
“In fact, Gareth was already going to be here, because he was touring with a circus company. So he’ll now be doing two shows a day. And that’s fantastic because he’s irreplaceable. How else am I going to find an accompanist who can do kung-fu and play sitar, accordion, classical piano and banjo?
“It was going to be hard to find one local person to fill that role. It’s always helpful if there is someone else from my team coming over, because that means you have luggage into which we can put things for the show.
“In my first year, I was on the plane wearing a Marie Antoinette wig because there was no more room in our luggage. It set off all of the alarms in the security department because of the thousands of bobby pins that were keeping it upright.”
So is the Edinburgh Fringe a rite of passage for every burgeoning cabaret artist in Australia? It has proved a particularly successful platform for the likes of Meow Meow, Tim Minchin and Courtney Act, so is it ingrained in Australian cabaret performers that Edinburgh is the ultimate gig?
They warn you that ‘you’ll lose a fortune and you’ll end up in tears’, but the terror is part of the thrill
“I grew up in Adelaide,” says Griffiths, “and when I was a kid, I’d see quotes on Adelaide Fringe posters from Edinburgh. As soon as I started creating my own work I knew it was the place you had to go to. They warn you that ‘you’ll lose a fortune and you’ll end up in tears and no one will come to see you’, but the terror is part of the thrill. It has made me a better performer, and it introduced me to the international cabaret train.”
Five Australian acts who made the UK their home
Dusty Limits Britain’s compere without compare. An accomplished songwriter and vocalist who excels as the frontman in everything from songbook cabaret to burlesque.
Peter and Bambi Heaven Comedy magic doesn’t get more sequinned or tongue-in-cheek than this outrageous creation from Asher Treleaven and Gypsy Wood.
Reuben Kaye An outrageous showman, Kaye blends lavish storytelling into gilded song cycles while punctuating his monologue with rich cultural critique.
Empress Stah Internationally renowned aerial artist and cabaret performer, famed for her highly stylised, often provocative, utterly unique performances.
Josephine Shaker Part hoofer, part burlesque artist, part clown, Shaker has tap-danced her way from Australia to become a regular fixture on London’s thriving cabaret circuit.
Of course, getting to Edinburgh is only a minor part of the story. If you are performing there for the first time, the all-encompassing advice is about pacing yourself and preparing to work hard. For an emerging artist keen to broaden their fan base, it can also be about seeking out places, other than at your own show, where you can perform.
“One of cabaret’s strengths is that it can often slot into other shows – you can be part of a line-up,” says Anastasia. “For me, finding a show outside of my own is an excellent way to stretch myself as a performer, discover new audiences and see bits of other artists work that you might not necessarily. We all tend to be in that same cabaret time slot after all.”
It was a strategy also followed last year by Gilbertson. “You hear about the success and the horror stories from Edinburgh. I did as many spots as I could in variety shows, I was out there every day pounding the pavements and now I’m coming back, so it was a good year last year. The festivals, such as Edinburgh, are where word of mouth really is key.”
Aside from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the artists are supplementing their visits with performances before and afterwards at venues such as Soho Theatre and Brasserie Zedel in London, which will further broaden their fan bases.
“Something that happens more from the Edinburgh Fringe than from any other festival is the opportunity for further touring and performing,” says Anastasia, who arrived in the UK in early July for a gig at Watermans Arts Centre in west London. “We can build a local fan base, but Edinburgh allows us to tap into a global market, which is very important.”
Griffiths adds: “Edinburgh audiences are loyal and if they like you, they come back. But I find each year that people come back because after the show I make myself available. It validates me. You realise: ‘I’m doing something right if people keep coming back’ because that’s the nicest compliment. The most genuine compliment is an audience returning.”
Michael Griffiths: Songs by Kylie is at the Assembly Rooms George Square, August 3-26; Anya Anastasia: The Executioners is at the Gilded Balloon, August 4-26; Hans: Like a German is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, August 4-19