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Like the strong southerly, Fringe is part of our city’s identity

Hannah Clarke at the 2018 Fringe programme launch
Fringe Wives Club, image supplied
Ze: Queer as Fuck, performance 2017 NZ Fringe
Performance by Tom Monckton. Image: Aurelia Tassafi
For Part 2 of our mini-series, Hannah Clarke recounts the bumpy ride that has formed the NZ Fringe Festival, and reveals why Wellington would not be the same without its Fringe.


Every decision we make comes back to the question “how does this serve the artist?" and when your artists span the breadth of experience possible, it’s no easy task delivering to everyone.

Then and now

NZ Fringe was born in much the same way as the Edinburgh Fringe. When the New Zealand International Arts Festival was created in the 80’s, bringing masterful art from around the world to Wellington, a cry from local artists rang out :“what about us!?!”, Based on the Edinburgh open-access model, the concept for a Fringe Festival to sit alongside the Arts Festival was conceived. Its purpose: to umbrella and highlight local arts and culture so local artists could ‘participate in a stimulating and lively Fringe to obtain the share of limelight and profile they deserve’. That was in 1985. There were two Fringes facilitated by a Wellington arts group as part of the international festival, and in 1990, the Fringe went independent and annual: not just “umbrella’ing” existing art but taking over the new BATS Theatre for a week with new bold performances made especially for Fringe - the festival as we know it now was born.

It hasn’t been an easy ride

In 2010 Fringe found itself in financial woe. The city council had stopped funding it and as a result, the 2011 festival, the 21st Fringe, nearly did not happen. Local artists rallied, Fringe is important! Fringe is necessary! And run purely on passion, a scaled back, fee hiked, mostly outsourced festival sort of happened. It was just two weeks long. There were no awards. Creature Design did what they could with the limited marketing budget available. But audiences came because, like sunshine on Waitangi Day, Fringe is part of the Wellington annual psyche.

The existing Fringe Arts Trust was disbanded and a new trust to provide governance to both Fringe and the much celebrated Cuba St Carnival, was formed: Creative Capital Arts Trust.

Getting amongst it

Having participated in many Fringe’s as an artist, and made huge life choices based purely on a weekend in Edinburgh, I was impassioned to ensure Fringe was not just maintained but restored and realised for its role in NZ arts. I sought out the new trust manager and got myself a job on the event.

In 2012 we had our council support back and it was on: a full 23+ days, awards, a printed and distributed programme, and 80+ registrations.

Suddenly it’s 2019, this year we have close to 150 productions and events, with over 30 of those coming from overseas. The Fringe in Wellington is officially 29 years old and working all year round, not just to deliver an annual programme of the most ingenious creativity, also in delivering artist development opportunities. We provide information, support and ensure continued sponsorship for what is, at its core, a completely unpredictable festival. In recognising the role that Fringe plays in the eco-system of creative and professional development in the arts in Aoteaora, Fringe works to champion artists and their art.

A safe place to take risks

You can’t make assumptions about Fringe art and artists. As a safe place to take risk, extraordinary things happen. Many Fringe shows and artists will go on to other lives, tour nationally and internationally, be picked up by programmed festivals, or forge new collaborations. Some things won’t work but the process of trying is incredibly valid. Fringes spark ideas. In an environment where nothing is too “wacky”, Fringe provides a structure to throw away the rule book on standard performance and art presentation. There is much to be gained for both audiences and artists.

But it’s still not an easy ride. As Lydia mentioned in Part One, it’s hard to sell something when you don’t know what it will be, regardless of what it has achieved before.

In 2008, Fringe had $50,000 from Creative NZ to distribute to NZ artists to support the making of new Fringe work. Ten years later, despite a 140% growth in participation, that amount is closer to $20,000. We are constantly working with Creative NZ to communicate the incredibly important kaupapa of Fringe.

Fringe doesn’t employ a single full-time staff member. The event is run by a passionate team who see its value and go out of their way to make it happen, even if that’s not reflected in their payments. They pour themselves into supporting the festival and its artists, working long hours while often also making fringe art themselves. We are privileged to have some fine young arts professionals working for the Fringe: Sasha Tilly is our incredibly hard-working Festival Manager, who makes the tickets work and looks after all the moving parts; Maddy Warren is our amazing Artist and Venue Liaison, who helps us to connect Artists with Venues and Venues with Artists.

The many aspects of the job

As for me, well as a Fringe Director, you’re a bit of everything and constantly being pulled in all directions. There’s only snippets of time to sit back and see the big beast you’ve been part of creating. And every year the list of things we should try and do gets longer, always discovering more things we can do to support the artists and their audiences. But it’s also a position of great privilege, there are few other roles that see you experiencing art for your job. Last year I was lucky enough attend the World Fringe Congress in Edinburgh on a bursary. I met with dozens of other fringe directors there and shared information and resources, learnt of similar struggles and inventive solutions. I got to see some extraordinary world class talent and to remember that New Zealanders are producing some of the best work of all. I only wish our whole team could have been there, because experiencing a festival on that scale reminds you of the many benefits of our island down the bottom of the world.

An essential part of our city’s culture

Fringe art is ideas from the edge and has the incredible ability to remove all construct of time from a brain, the audience is young and old all at once, and in that moment, experiencing that art.

Wellington has a proud history of embracing its wind and its culture, including Fringe. An event that offers artists the freedom to explore and challenge themselves and their audiences is essential to the development of ideas.

Like a strong southerly blasting the foam from the top of your coffee, Fringe is part of the fabric of Wellington. Long may she blow!

- Hannah Clarke, NZ Fringe Festival Director


From 1 - 23 March, the NZ Fringe takes over the city, and promises to be “Wellington's most edgy annual festival”.
You can find the full programme here - there’ll be something for everyone, so get amongst it!

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

5 Mar 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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