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Richard Jordan: The biggest arts events often start with one person with an idea, persistence and skill

Frank Ford. Photo: Dean Martin/NewsCorp
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With the long list of names backing a successful festival, venue or production – whether on the creative teams or providing funding – it’s easy to forget that most began with one person who had an idea. And to succeed in creating something new requires fearlessness, vision, belief, persistence, passion and skill.

Frank Ford may not be an instantly recognisable name to many, but he is one such person. We met some years ago when he was in his late 70s and we were both serving on the Adelaide Fringe Awards judging panel.

He was a charming and knowledgeable man who chipped into the award conversations with a lively insight but a humbleness that belied the contribution he made to his home city’s cultural growth. The city of Adelaide owes him a terrific debt.

I would go on to discover he had been a recipient of the Richard Rodgers Scholarship that had taken him to New York but he had eventually returned home to Adelaide where, in 1975, he would become the founding chair of the annual Adelaide Fringe and, in 2001, the founder of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Ford also ensured cabaret was taken seriously as an art form in Adelaide, creating what has become the world’s biggest international cabaret festival in a city that was not known for it before.

This year, I am again serving as an Adelaide Fringe Awards judge but Ford is a notable absentee. Sadly, he died suddenly last September, but his inspirational legacy – showing how one person can change a local theatre landscape – remains.

Often when large organisations and funders see the valuable opportunities such events have given a city and its communities – including a significant economic boost – they want to get involved. Such support can ensure a festival or theatre has a future. But as its profile grows, this can mean those original efforts are at risk of being forgotten.

As an industry, we need to get better at acknowledging the individuals who had the idea for successful festivals and other events in the first place

The Adelaide Fringe has ensured Ford’s presence will not be forgotten. It put on the Frank Ford Appreciation Night last week to stage work by exciting new and established artists on the fringe this year in a fitting tribute to this innovative creative pioneer.

There are people like Ford at work across the arts, but we rarely hear much about them. Many are local enthusiasts with a deep belief in the benefit that the arts brings the area and its communities.

As an industry, we need to get better at acknowledging these individuals. This is particularly true at fringe festivals whose growth contributes to creative development and professional training in local communities. The continued growth of fringes around the world can, in fact, make their success deceptive: many lack government funding to match their speed of growth, leaving them with a considerable reliance on individual support to survive.

Since 2010, I have been the patron of the Brighton Fringe – the third largest in the world. Last year, it was faced with closure when it suddenly lost a core sponsor. There was a fair amount of shock at this news, because the perception was of Brighton being both thriving and affluent.

As a fringe, it had long been punching above its weight and was living a hand-to-mouth existence in order to survive. The sudden crisis reiterated the fragility of this industry. Ultimately, a crowd-funding campaign, supported by many generous individual donors, helped save the annual event that has consistently been a vital platform for nurturing new talent and professional training.

Attending this year’s Adelaide Fringe, I have once again been inspired by it. In these globally challenging times for arts funding, it shows the importance of fringes to the arts industry and their city’s cultural economies. Crucially, this is also not simply found in the work itself but through the attitude and ethos that the fringe conveys to participants and audiences alike.

Cazeleon: The Movies in My Mind, Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh
Creatives at Adelaide rallied around cabaret performer Cazeleon after his costumes were stolen

In the past few weeks, I have been impressed by the attitude and ethos that the fringe creates. An example was the many creatives who rallied around cabaret performer Cazeleon to ensure his show went on despite all his costumes being stolen a week before the festival.

It is not just the fringe that has put Adelaide on the cultural map. Holden Street Theatre’s long-serving artistic director Martha Lott has devoted a huge amount of time building local audiences’ interest in new writing – so much so that her venue has become the new-writing powerhouse of the Adelaide Fringe.

There are also similar venue success stories elsewhere with venues such as Gluttony, the Bakehouse and the Garden of Unearthly Delights all experiencing steady audience growth through strong programming. In 2019, they are also joined by bespoke new venue RCC which will, in coming years, undoubtedly become a major player at the festival.

Like anything in the arts, success does not happen overnight. It is through a combination of skills and collaborations that make a work or performer successful – but don’t forget that it probably all started with one person who had the idea, the passion and the drive to start something amazing.

Richard Jordan: Adelaide offers cities a thrilling model for cultural regeneration

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