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Richard Jordan: The continued growth of open-access fringe festivals can only be good for the arts

Beleza Brighton performing at the festival's Fringe City. Photo: Paul Kondritz Beleza Brighton performing at the festival's Fringe City. Photo: Paul Kondritz
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The 49th Brighton Fringe ended last week. It’s England’s largest fringe festival, runs over four weeks and is the third largest open-access fringe in the world. Here I must also declare an interest: I have been its patron since 2010.

However, Brighton’s figures speak for themselves, with this year seeing a 30% increase at the box office, with 930 shows and events, in contrast to last year’s 780.

At the launch of the Edinburgh joint venue brochure a couple of weeks ago, Ed Bartlam (co-director of Underbelly) described Edinburgh as “the Olympics of the arts world”. He’s right, but if Edinburgh is the Olympics, then Brighton is surely the Commonwealth Games.

Brighton Fringe is actually far more akin to the Adelaide Fringe (the world’s second largest). Both host a large number of shows that do not play the full festival, but instead play shorter, intense runs across several nights. Both also boast strong cabaret programmes and established a designated section in their fringe programmes long before the Edinburgh programme first gave cabaret its own category.

Both Brighton and Adelaide fringes enjoy a high-profile international festival playing alongside them, and together these have helped make their city become a “festival destination” that provides a valuable cultural presence across its own cultural landscape.

Adelaide and Brighton also share an advantage: they aren’t Edinburgh – and nor do they want to be

Adelaide and Brighton also share an advantage: they aren’t Edinburgh – and nor do they want to be. Each has achieved a strong, independent fringe identity that successfully embraces the aesthetic of its respective city.

I believe the absolute and vital component to any fringe’s success rests in a city’s many different communities collectively feeling that it belongs to them. This is the critical nut to be built up from that foundation where the locals have a feeling of ownership, making them proud to have this cultural asset on their doorstep and thus celebrate the role it plays in enhancing and enriching the lives of those who live there.

If a fringe festival can get the hard part right – getting people to attend, take a chance on a show, and spend their hard-earned cash on a ticket – then there is a vital social purpose, too.

Because of the fringe’s own ecology, it can stage something of an artistic coup, where for several weeks each year it takes over its city. That’s particularly prevalent in affording access to culture for new, local audiences, when it may be their first direct experience to the arts.

Those of us working in the arts industries know and vehemently believe in the way the arts enrich lives. Fringe festivals can expand upon this, encouraging opportunities for experimentation, courage, danger, discovery, collaboration and ideas to collide.

Brighton’s continued growth may be attributed in part to its geographical location. Less than an hour by train from the capital, it means London-based performers can, if they wish, get home after a show. That, and the shorter season, presents budgetary savings that make it more viable than going further afield. Because of its transport links, there is also the ability for good exposure: London-based agents, casting directors, directors, producers, presenters and journalists have all woken up to the fact that getting to Brighton and back for the night is easy and cheap.

And in a culture of squeezed artistic economy, with funding being cut and traditional drama training becoming more expensive, open-access fringe productions offer the single most important breeding ground for the next generation of artists, creatives, backstage and administrative staff.

Fringes have long recognised the importance of these opportunities. Many have made a continued and significant ongoing commitment to operate and host many associated free events and professional training career programmes during their festivals.

In 2016, the fringe industry is one area of the arts that continues to grow. One might argue that open-access fringe festivals can become too big; however, many of today’s great artists who came through the fringe route would not have done so without that opportunity. The global fringe’s continued growth is good for participants, good for careers, good for production development and good for the arts.

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