Ben Eltham is an arts lover, critic and thinker; a freelance writer, researcher at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Cultural Research and fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. So what’s his cup of tea? In a new weekly column for Crikey, Eltham looks at the state of the arts in Australia ..

What is it about fringe festivals?

Like festivals in general, these madcap assortments of the funny, the strange and the seriously ill-advised are taking over the cultural landscape of Australia.

While Adelaide boasts Australia’s largest and oldest fringe festival, the fringe virus has been spreading around the country in recent years. Hobart and Darwin both sport fringe festivals (although Darwin appears to be taking a break this year), and Brisbane has a fringe-like independent theatre festival called Under the Radar as part of the Brisbane Festival. Sydney has a range of underground and independent arts festivals including Underbelly Arts and the Imperial Panda Festival; now a formally-named Sydney Fringe is starting for the first time this month.

And then there’s Melbourne Fringe, launched this Wednesday in Fitzroy. In terms of the sheer amount of work on display, it dwarfs most other cultural events in the country. There are nearly 300 shows featuring more than 4000 artists across just about every artform, from high-concept clowning and a complex cross-platform live arts program to low farces, black comedies and literally dozens of one-person shows. Melbourne Fringe also boasts one of the country’s longest-running furniture and design shows.

Emily Sexton is Melbourne Fringe’s Creative Producer. “Eighty-five percent of our artists are based in Melbourne so we have an ongoing relationship with them throughout the year that means we’re actively involved in their development and the evolution of their ideas,” she told Crikey.

Like all true fringe festivals, Melbourne Fringe is what’s known as ‘open access’ — anyone can put on a show for a small fee. “We believe very strongly in an open access structure where artists determine what’s vital and what’s interesting and can put that before an audience on their own terms,” Sexton explains. “What you’re getting in an open-access festival is people who are really doing it because they love it and because they believe it’s worth an audience seeing it. That means it’s a very passionate festival.”

The cliched view of fringe festivals is often of a stand-up comedian struggling in front of a tiny house — and you can certainly see shows like that in Melbourne Fringe. But some of the shows on offer in this year’s Melbourne Fringe are every bit as big and ambitious as some of the big-budget touring productions we take for granted in the capital-A arts festivals like the Sydney or Adelaide festivals.

For example, Mutation Theatre’s The Arrival is a big-canvas theatrical adaptation of Shaun Tan’s acclaimed graphic novel in Shed 4 of Melbourne’s Docklands. With four projection screens and a cast of 21, the entire cast and crew are working for free and proceeds are being donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

As dramaturg and Mutation principle Patrick McCarthy told me: “One of the main reasons we wanted to put it on in the fringe festival is that fringe is such a supportive environment … because of how open-minded and supportive audiences are in Melbourne Fringe.”

Like most of the companies showing at Melbourne Fringe, Mutation does not receive ongoing grant funding and runs on the proverbial smell of an oily rag. “Its’ definitely not a financial endeavour for us,” McCarthy confirmed. “But a main-stage theatre company couldn’t do this work because they couldn’t afford to employ a cast of 21 and work on the scale that we’re working on with this show.”

Sexton points out that the diversity of the festival is testimony to the cultural ferment bubbling away in Melbourne’s arts sector. “When you gather the many concepts that have emerged from the festival together you really start to think about the complexity of the modern mind,” she said. “We do see a lot of ambition in this festival.”

*The Melbourne Fringe Festival runs from September 22 to October 10 in venues all around Melbourne. The Arrival runs from September 22 to 26 in Docklands’ Shed 4.

Peter Fray

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