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Richard Jordan: Adelaide’s cultural blueprint thrives on marriage of something old and something new

Cam Venn's Peep Shog
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On a street in Adelaide, two solo shows are currently running in neighbouring theatres. Both take their audiences on a journey into space and both use plenty of imagination, but they could not be more different.

In the comfortable, air-conditioned Her Majesty’s Theatre, Robert Lepage’s big-budget The Far Side of the Moon is playing as one of the opening headline productions of this year’s Adelaide Festival.

It’s a work I first saw 20 years ago performed by Lepage himself. With Lepage directing, and with the production featuring a virtuoso performance from Yves Jacques, it is now thrillingly revived for a whole new generation to discover.

Right next door is the fringe venue Tuxedo Cat. These venues are poles apart: entry to the latter is via a rickety staircase up to a temporary performance space where even the walls feel sticky.

But this is where intrepid audience members will find emerging fringe artist Cam Venn with his show Peep Shog – described as 50 minutes of “extreme intergalactic clowning”.

These two shows both explore space but are themselves galaxies apart, at the furthest ends of festival and fringe spectrum.

What they do share, however, is that they are both laced with invention and underpinned by deeply committed performances.

It’s the juxtaposition of shows such as these that exemplify the remark made by Rachel Healy, co-director of the Adelaide Festival, during her speech at last Friday’s gala opening that “Adelaide’s a great party city and a great ideas city”.

Venn’s show is most definitely the former and Lepage’s the latter – the Canadian opens our eyes to big ideas and big questions – but they both take us on their own voyages of discovery into festival and fringe.

It’s the second Adelaide Festival under the leadership of Healy and her co-artistic director Neil Armfield. After their terrific first festival season, all eyes were inevitably on year two. This year’s programme is arguably even stronger, with a theatre line-up that includes productions from leading theatre directors such as Ivo van Hove and Simon Stone, alongside Lepage and Armfield himself.

Richard Jordan: What keeps producers heading back to the fringe?

A great festival can only help enhance a vibrant, open-access fringe around it. Both festivals afford an opportunity for artists and audiences to come together to learn, share and celebrate.

The next big idea may well come through the discovery of an emerging artist cutting their teeth on the fringe with something urgent to say. Meanwhile, knowledge and wisdom that backs this all up comes from the opportunity provided to watch great artists and creators at work playing the festival.

Venn is that raw but consummate fringe performer. I will watch with interest how his career develops. As one of many emerging artists at the fringe – which has been a valuable platform for him – Venn’s presence alongside the international festival big-hitter Lepage serves to illustrate that a successful cultural economy relies on the value and fusion of both.

The Adelaide locals’ awareness and appreciation of their festivals makes them feel that, first and foremost, these are artistic celebrations bringing their communities together to which the rest of us are invited.

This is evident in works presented at the festival this year such as the powerful Memorial from acclaimed local Adelaide theatre company Brink, and the joyous Adelaide Festival commission, The Lost and Found Orchestra from the creators of Stomp.

Emerging artist Venn’s presence alongside international festival big-hitter Lepage illustrates that a successful cultural economy relies on the value and fusion of both

Both use large-scale local community choirs and performers in their ensembles, which immediately create a palpable creative synergy of pride and connection with their local audiences.

While its communities recognise the value of what culture provides them, so too does the South Australian government, whose belief in both the value of its festivals and artists alongside the economic boost it brings is demonstrated by the ongoing funding levels.

South Australia’s government has also looked beyond its own state, recognising the value of cultural development for their own local artists.

At a time when Creative Scotland has cut funding for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world’s most significant open-access arts platform and training ground – South Australia’s government has chosen to continue its own supported programme at the Edinburgh Fringe called Made in Adelaide.

The results of such initiatives have proved tangible, with local artists such as the talented young circus troupe Gravity and Other Myths getting discovered and touring the world before returning to a proud homecoming in Adelaide.

Visiting the latter, there is a sense it is invested culturally in seeing its city and state do well. It is born from the collaborative cultural blueprint of emerging local talent alongside established performers that this city has successfully created for itself.


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