The emotional investment in theatre can perhaps be seen at its most raw from those producing and performing at a fringe festival.
I am currently at the Adelaide Fringe, and this point was brought home to me last week when actor Tymisha Harris burst into tears at the curtain call of her play Josephine, a solo burlesque cabaret show about the life of Josephine Baker.
She was in Adelaide following a journey that started in the US and arrived via the Edinburgh Fringe. There is no shortage of risk of coming from another country to play a limited run at a fringe festival, especially where costs are concerned; a production must quickly establish itself against a slew of other shows all vying for attention.
Josephine succeeds because of Harris’ talent, but also because of the placement of the production. Over the years, I’ve seen shows at different fringes fail not because they were bad, but because they were wrongly placed.
The right environment and location are crucial, no matter the scale of the show. Particular care needs to be taken over the target audience a production is looking to attract.
An older audience, such as the one that would be drawn to Josephine, might look to avoid the bustle of a Spiegeltent garden, and head instead to a more conventional theatre environment. Just as the other way around: a loud show put into a contemplative theatre setting may lose its potential audience.
Getting the location right is crucial, and choosing that location is one of the biggest decisions to make when producing. This is especially true at the Adelaide Fringe, where the attraction of performing at a headline venue may not best serve the sensitivities of a particular production.
Harris’ show is at Adelaide’s Black Box Theatre, a pop-up venue that in recent years has built a reputation for good work. Alongside the city’s leading new-writing venue Holden Street Theatres, these two venues have established themselves as the Adelaide Fringe’s premier go-to presenters of drama.
The success of these venues, run by local artistic directors Joanne Hartstone and Martha Lott respectively, is that they know their city and audiences. They are also both visible presences at their own venues, whether that’s working at the box office, greeting audiences, or appearing in one of its productions. In many respects, they represent a fringe version of the old-school actor-manager.
Harris’ tears at the end of Josephine were those of relief. “Coming here has exceeded all my wildest expectations,” she said in her speech at the curtain call.
I attended one of two extra performances that had been added to her sold-out season. She will leave Adelaide a success, a gamble that paid off, and with some good reviews that will hopefully mean the production has a further life.
However, Harris is one of the few who will find their fringe experience pays back or even makes a small profit. At fringes around the world, stand-up comedy continues to represent the greatest chance of recoupment.
That’s less surprising when you consider that the overheads in contrast to producing a play are usually considerably lower. One microphone on stage is always going to be cheaper than a set, rehearsals, extended cast, stage management and creative wages to pay in addition to the venue rental and marketing.
There is an argument that fringe venues everywhere should consider restructuring deals based on the very different costs producers and artists face when producing drama. These costs often make drama challenging to stage in this environment, where losses can be significant. Deals to mitigate them are important, as the fringe is the grassroots of our industry and its future.
You sense a local pride in Adelaide, which is intrinsic to its success
I have been coming to Adelaide Fringe for the past 15 years and watched its continued evolution. It shares a connection to the Brighton Fringe, where I serve as patron. Both fringes focus on building something that first and foremost connects to their local community, ensuring that locals feel invested in it and recognise it as an asset to their city.
Adelaide is the second-largest fringe in the world, but like Brighton (which is the third), it also has a strong and visible local artist identity, with many appearing on its stages or working within the operation of its venues.
Unlike Edinburgh, where many venue operators come from elsewhere to set up shop in August, you sense a local pride in Adelaide where there’s an attitude of everyone being ‘in it together’, which is intrinsic to its success.
For a fringe first-timer, festivals such as Adelaide and Brighton may be a better jumping-off point than Edinburgh, which can frequently feel overwhelming, especially when starting out.
Being smaller in size can also mean a different dynamic between fringe society, venues, artists and city. There is a greater accessibility because the city itself is compact, which makes it feel altogether more supportive.
Hubs such as the Adelaide Fringe Club are as much drop-in centres where friends gather for a drink but, if needed, can also find a shoulder to cry on. This is testament to the Adelaide Fringe’s director Heather Croall, whose passionate leadership has made her event feel one of the most inclusive.
Not everyone is going to walk away from a fringe run with the success Harris has enjoyed, but you hope that producers and performers will still feel it is worthwhile to bring a show they believe in to a supportive environment, and find it an inspiring enough experience to make them want to come back and try again.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan