Arts Strategy in Action

Abby Howells as HarleQueen, produced by Arcade Theatre Company
Black Grace Dance Company: Björk - All is full of love. Promo Image
Dunedin Fringe Festival Director Gareth McMillan
Dunedin Fringe Festival 2018
Dunedin performers HarleQueen, Fringipani, and Fission
An essential part of the arts ecology: Gareth McMillan on the importance of accessibility and supporting local talent in our regions.


Ara Toi Ōtepoti

Dunedin is the perfect city for a fringe festival. We are geographically on the fringe and blessed with stunning natural and built environments; isolation, climate and heritage have all played a part in shaping local culture. It’s always been an arty place (think ‘Dunedin Sound’ and UNESCO City of Literature status) but there’s a lot of Goldilocks factor – not too big or too small, liberal or conservative, brave or timid – which has enabled our fringe to flourish. The first Dunedin Fringe was held back in 2000 as a biennial warm up to the more mainstream Festival of the Arts. As the city has evolved so too has the fringe, and it’s now part of the annual early year Australasian festival circuit. What hasn’t changed is the original founding principles of an open access programme, celebrating diversity, encouraging innovation and delighting in the wonderfully weird. These days we can also point to the city’s arts and culture strategy, Ara Toi Ōtepoti, as an expression of who we are and why we do what we do. The Dunedin Fringe is a palpable expression of the strategy in action.

Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust

The Trust was formed in 2004 to provide governance for the Dunedin Fringe Festival. While the Fringe is our cornerstone, we also produce the NZ Young Writers Festival, Amped (a music mentoring programme for high school students), and provide year-round support and services from our awesome office in central Dunedin. The occupation of the centre (of the city) can give rise to a metaphysical discussion about what is fringe in an artistic sense. I’d prefer to bypass value judgements about art altogether – for me it is about enabling arts practitioners to thrive, especially young people, or those who face higher barriers to participation. Fringe HQ is a community resource, we have an open-door policy and we support, and advocate for, the entire arts sector. As an organisation, we have a vision to further develop this aspect of our operations, so watch this space.

Fringe is about enabling arts practitioners to thrive, especially young people, or those who face higher barriers to participation.

Successes and challenges

I think much of the creative sector hasn’t caught up with societal and technological changes of the last 20 years. There’s a certain irony in promoting events on Facebook, when that particular medium is actually a competitor is terms of ways that people choose to spend their time and consume culture. It’s no secret that some of the old school cultural organisations are creaking. Fringe festivals in Aotearoa are bucking this trend however, partly because they are fresh, grassroots, and cutting edge. But we lack vital tools; it’s like bringing a knife to a cyborg laser fight when it comes to analytics of social media or understanding audience behaviour. And constantly justifying your existence and applying for funding (I have six applications due in March) is the bane of the fringe director’s job; it often feels like Groundhog Day. I like to imagine what we (the fringe whānau) will achieve when we are properly resourced – because any investment is hugely amplified by sharing it with arts practitioners of all stripes. Fringe festivals are an absolutely essential part of the arts ecology because we build capability within the sector.

The local skinny

It sounds like a cliché, but I’m genuinely excited by our 2019 programme. With 82 artist-produced events over 11 days, that’s a daily offering equivalent to our big city cousins despite our much smaller population. In addition to the festival itself, the Dunedin Fringe Office also produces an Opening Night Showcase, which gives 20 events the chance to promote themselves to a big audience. We also set up and operate the festival club, which is both a venue and the hub of the fringe. Additional performance opportunities are created through club nights (live music) and in our pop-up space, the Black Box.

Fringe festivals are an absolutely essential part of the arts ecology because we build capability within the sector.

Dunedin loves its fringe – audiences are buzzing about the amazing events being brought to the city and our local artists are undoubtedly up there with the best of the fest. Locally produced theatre is very strong in the programme and I have no doubt that this directly correlates to some additional contestable funding being available.  A great example of the positive effects of better resourcing!

On a personal note

My personal connection to fringe festivals goes back to the early 90’s when Bats Theatre appointed me FoH Manager - one week before the fringe started with a booking system that consisted of a folder and an answerphone. The least I can do is pay it forward and create opportunities for other people. Because a career in the arts may not be for everyone, but when the fringe party rolls into town it’s one carnival that everyone wants to be part of.

Gareth McMillan is the Director of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.
We've heard from the Auckland Fringe's Lydia Zanetti and NZ Fringe's Hannah Clarke already - next up in our mini-series is Nelson Fringe's Creative Director Laura Irish.

Pictured performers:
Dunedin local artists HarleQueen (Abby Howells), produced by Arcade Theatre Company; Fringipani (Hiliako Iaheto), and Fission, a new work by afterburner (image is an amalgam of performers Jodie Bate and Katherine Kennedy).
Hero image for Blackbird Ensemble's Bjork: All is Full of Love.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

20 Mar 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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