The Edinburgh Fringe and Adelaide Fringe are the two biggest festivals of their kind in the world. At a third of Edinburgh’s size you wouldn’t really call the Adelaide Fringe a close second but the Fringes do have a close bond.
It’s not unusual for Australian performers, promoters, office staff, bar staff and directors to make the journey to the other side of the world and work the “other” Fringe. William Burdett-Coutts, Director of Edinburgh’s Assembly (one of the four major venues at the Edinburgh Fringe) says the “two way traffic of work between Edinburgh and Australia seems to grow every year and the Adelaide Fringe has played a key role in this”. Burdett-Coutts, who has travelled to the Adelaide Fringe seven times during his 30-year stint with Assembly, remembers when there wasn’t much traffic between the two cities. Things started to change in the 80s, when aided by the Australia Council, Burdett-Coutts and John Pinder (founder of the Melbourne Comedy Festival) presented Oznost, a selection of Australian comedians, at the Edinburgh Fringe.
At the heart of both Fringe festivals is the ‘get up and have a go’ mentality. “If you want to put on a show you can. You just have to have the gumption to get out there and do it,” Burdett-Coutts says. Adelaide Fringe Director Greg Clarke adds: “We have three generations in Edinburgh and Adelaide who have grown up going to the Fringe. We understand what Fringe shows are.”
Clarke also believes that the “Scots and the Australians have a similar sense of humour and a similar sense of aesthetic”. The Fringe “aesthetic” has developed from growing up going to the Fringe. “There are people my age who never go to the opera or the ballet, they go and see shows that are under an hour and they can see a few in a night and they are in a make-shift venue. That’s a kind of aesthetic and experience we love and the Scots love it too,” Clarke says.
There are some obvious differences between the two cities – the weather for instance – but there are also many similarities. “They are both festivals which take over the city. They are big events in quite small cities and they are both much loved by the people of both cities – well I think the Scots like it,” Clarke says. Burdett-Coutts agrees, “I think festivals often work best in a close environment where you can walk from one event to the next. Equally, they usually burgeon in a place where there is not a massive display of performance the rest of the year.”
A Fringe circuit has developed where Australian artists start at the Adelaide Fringe in February and then head to Edinburgh in August. Overseas performers go the other way and start in Edinburgh before heading to Australia. “There are a lot of producers and promoters that pick up shows at both festivals and take them to the other festival,” Clarke says. “Every year there is usually someone from Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon [Edinburgh Fringe venues], all here looking for shows. So many shows premier here and the next year I’ll go to Edinburgh and they’ll be there.”
The two Fringes are also connected through more formal relationships. Underbelly (one of the big four Edinburgh venues) comes to Australia and awards an Adelaide Fringe act 7,000 pounds to help them get to Edinburgh. There is a similar program operating in the other direction with Holden Street Theatre giving an award at the Edinburgh Fringe to the best show they see and then helping them come out to Adelaide.
While the two festivals possess similarities and influence and inspire each other, as artists and arts workers dart back and forth across the globe, each Fringe also has its own identity. Edinburgh is a university city, and with students on holidays during August, empty university buildings are converted into venues and vacated students’ digs hired out to performers and visitors.
The Edinburgh Festival brings in a large number of tourists because of its location. “You have London down the road and Europe around the corner so you get a lot more of an international audience. On the other hand, 92 percent of the Adelaide audience is from Adelaide,” Clarke says.
While Assembly’s George Square Gardens is reminiscent of the Garden of Unearthly Delights, Burdetts-Coutts concedes, “Sadly we don’t have the amount of room that the Garden of Unearthly Delights enjoys, nor the weather”. The two venues do however share a “sense of environment where people can enjoy being outside at the same time as being surrounded by performance work”. Clarke points out, “I think the Garden of Unearthly Delights is better than any venue in Edinburgh. I think it’s so magical and so beautiful under the trees and the tents and you enter a whole magical world. But then Edinburgh has the beautiful old buildings, it’s incredible walking around.”
While the Adelaide Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe look to each other for ideas and inspiration, and the relationship between the two festivals looks set to continue to prosper, it’s important they maintain their own identity. Burdett-Coutts says, “Long may they be different. I’d hate everything to be the same. It would lead to the death of imagination.”