The Nordic Fringe Season brought innovative, often dark, work and artist speed dating to the Sussex arts jamboree this month. Nick Awde looks beneath the surface to find a Scandinavian fringe uprising in the offing
There’s a growing wave of innovative European theatre out there that we really need to be seeing, but from a UK perspective it can be challenging to catch even a fraction of it in situ. So, any programme that makes its way over the Channel is to be welcomed, such as the inaugural Nordic Fringe Season at the Brighton Fringe Festival – a week-long showcase model that ran earlier this month and deserves to be picked up by other foreign programmes, fringe or otherwise.
“The Nordic Fringe Season follows in the footsteps of the Finnish Season last year here at Brighton that originally started with the Dutch Season the year before,” says Adam Potrykus, who shares artistic director duties for the season with Jaakko Nousiainen, head of programme, arts and culture at the Finnish Institute in London. The Finnish Season itself built on the successful From Start to Finnish programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
‘The idea is to join forces and to showcase what matters here and now, on and off stage, in the Nordics’ – Adam Potrykus, Nordic Fringe Network
This year’s Nordic initiative took over the Old Market Theatre for a week, taking its inspiration from the Swedish saying, Mange baekke små gør en stor å (‘Many small streams make a big river’). Potrykus says: “The idea is to join forces with all the Nordic fringes to make an impact and try to showcase what matters here and now, on and off stage in the Nordics,” says Potryus, who doubles as co-director of Stockholm Fringe Festival (Stoff).
“Ten years ago we started Stoff. From the very first festival it was apparent that one of the first things that international artists were asking is how can they get more opportunities to perform in other towns or even countries nearby. And then we got to thinking why weren’t there more Nordic artists visible and present at overseas festivals. So, with the support of the Finnish Institute in London and all the Nordic embassies in London, we applied for money from the Nordics, the Nordic ministries fund, which helped bring over the companies to the Old Market Theatre.”
It seems that touring is often vital to making a company viable, and Potrykus points to established UK organisations such as the Wooster Group, who talk about how in their early years they needed to tour to survive; they didn’t have the local funding to stay put. Money, of course, remains the perennial issue, but so is finding the right touring platform.
“In Sweden, for example,” says Potrykus, “there has always been a comfortable environment [for the performing arts] although it’s not ideal because there’s less funding, and fewer opportunities available for propagating. Therefore I don’t think many people tour and the fringe circuit kind of went under the radar in Sweden until Stoff started.”
1. In 2016, Sweden’s Stockholm Fringe Festival created the Nordic Fringe Network together with its younger sister festivals Gothenburg Fringe Festival and Norway’s Bergen
Fringe Festival. The launch generated 721 artistic proposals created by 2,200 artists in 82 countries.
2. As festivals grow in the Nordics, the network has expanded with the addition of Finland’s Lahti Fringe Festival and Fin Fringe (based in Turku/Åbo), Iceland’s Reykjavik Fringe Festival, Lithuania’s Zagare Fringe Festival (biennial) and Denmark’s CPH Stage (Copenhagen).
3. The NFN year is divided into clusters across the year. Last year, there was a satellite event in July (Reykjavik) and the NFN month from August-September (Bergen, Gothenburg, Lahti and Stockholm). The NFN focus for 2019 is on Turku/Åbo
4. There’s a one-stop application for all eight festivals, although each has its own management and programme brochure.
5. Thanks to funding from Nordic Culture Point, NFN is receiving extra development via its Mobile Nordic Fringe Incubator project to help member festivals develop and expand their existing fringe partnerships.
Fringe was the key to unlock this and from the outset Stoff found itself as a festival that offered a launchpad for Nordic and Swedish artists going overseas and also as a gateway into the region for international artists. This coincided with the burst of festivals popping up across the Nordic nations.
Cannily sensing a critical mass, Stoff created the Nordic Fringe Network in 2017 – an evolving project that has allowed the member festivals to put out a single application form on which artists tick how many festivals they want to register for. There are now eight festivals in the network: Stoff, Gothenburg Fringe Festival (Sweden), Bergen Fringe Festival (Norway), Lahti Fringe Festival (Finland), Fin Fringe (Turku/Åbo, Finland), Reykjavik Fringe Festival (Iceland), Zagare Fringe Festival (Lithuania) and CPH Stage (Denmark). They are held in May, midsummer and August/September, which gives the scope for consecutive touring to grow.
Extra funding has spurred a series of meetings under the umbrella of the new Mobile Nordic Fringe Incubator, which will culminate this spring/summer with proposals for a joint database and box office system to create a “back-of-house backbone” for the network.
Brighton’s pilot Nordic Fringe Season earlier this month was dark in tone. “We like to see the season a little bit like Nordic noir,” says Potrykus. “It’s a bit darker, hopefully the memories and impressions of the shows that we have will last longer than the hangover people have from the festival bar. It makes people think, even if you leave with more questions than answers.”
A dark example was the season opener Cock Cock… Who’s There? – Samira Elagoz’s provocative, left-field look at gender relationships that had successful runs last year at Edinburgh (as part of From Start to Finnish) and Dublin Fringe Festival.
Darker still was another show from Finland, Sleeping Beauty by Reality Research Center. It’s a one-on-one concept where a single audience member is invited to explore their fantasies with a ‘sleeping’ person, carried out within boundaries and rules agreed beforehand. Also one-on-one was Iceland/UK Huldufugl’s Box in the Desert, a virtual reality experience in which you interact with an actor in a digital world. Lighter in style was Boaz Barkan’s refreshing May I Speak About Dance.
The international side to the network’s two-way flow was 2100: A Space Novelty which won Pick of the Fringe at Bergen 2018. This comic homage to epic space adventures is a multilingual Lecoq-inspired physical piece, created by Cut the Mustard Theatre, whose members come from Bristol, France, Norway, Australia and South Korea. “It’s been interesting to see what the audience picks up on. Nobody knows these artists,” says Potrykus. “[With the single week,] they don’t have that traditional fringe possibility to have word-of-mouth to get a momentum, so it’s been a huge risk but one that has paid off.”
The 12 shows that made up the season in Brighton have proved themselves to be more than a mere ‘best of’ showcase, and Potrykus is eager to keep the momentum going. “This is the first of the Nordic Fringe Seasons and we’ll see how that goes with funding. Next year, we want to repeat this in Adelaide for the Fringe World Congress and the fringe festival there. And there’s also a dialogue to see if we can do this in Turkey in the autumn – Istanbul Fringe launches this year in September.”
‘Edinburgh is too expensive. You get drowned out there – it’s not a user-friendly experience. But I do love it’
When asked why the network chose Brighton rather than the time-honoured setting of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Potrykus turns thoughtful. “I think Edinburgh is too expensive, you get drowned out there – it’s not a user-friendly experience unless you have a lot of money. Brighton is logistically easier than Edinburgh.
“I do love Edinburgh, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t be taking 12 acts with 50 events there like we have to Brighton. An important factor was that Brighton has worked closely before to bring in international seasons like this – and so it is a natural development from the Dutch and Finnish ones. There’s also the proximity of Gatwick airport – you can go there directly from almost every town in the Nordics and that’s not the case with Edinburgh.”
Despite the ease with English in the Nordic countries, is language a barrier? “Yes and no. People from 60 countries applied for Stoff this year and though some of those are places where English is not that great, they still reached maximum impact, so I don’t think language is much of a barrier.
“Of course, it can be hard for the stand-up comedians who have super-routines or back home they’re famous and on TV. They might come here and be nobodies, because stand-up comedy is so language and location-based, but it still works. Human emotions are basically the same everywhere, and they can be expressed well, regardless of the language barrier.
“I’m not a huge fan of surtitles, but at the same time I’m aware that sometimes the soul of a performance or its delivery does need that. But, overall, language is not an issue.”
Another attraction of Brighton was the artist speed-dating sessions, carried out with an appropriately Nordic feel for directness. “It’s been hugely successful in Stockholm, and we do this everywhere we go. We gather people together with a bit of pastry and coffee and we ask artists to talk,” says Potrykus.
“You talk about where are you right now, where you want to be in five years, can you work together and maybe reach goals, talk about your problems. It’s a connection – we’re all in the same boat, we’re underpaid, not paid, overworked, in a bubble. And we should see if we can get out of that bubble, not only in your own country but overseas too, and then see what happens.”
Artistic directors: Adam Potrykus and Jaakko Nousiainen
Organisers: Nordic Fringe Network and the Finnish Institute in London
Location: Brighton Fringe Festival
Venues: The Old Market / Brighton Beach
Number of productions: 12
Countries represented: 7
Funders: Finnish Institute London with the support from the Nordics and all the Nordic embassies in London
Key contacts: Adam Potrykus – firstname.lastname@example.org
Nordic Fringe Network: stockholmfringe.com/nfn
Nordic Fringe Season ran from May 13 to 18 at Brighton Fringe