A Fringe History
From 1994 to today, how did Sydney Fringe Festival grow to its greatness?
Image supplied by Sydney Fringe Festival
The Sydney Fringe Festival as we now know it began in 2010, however, there had been a previous version. From 1994 to 2002, a fringe festival headquartered in Bondi ran as a shadow event to the Sydney Festival. It was shelved due to lack of funding and it took eight years before the void was filled by a newly minted Sydney Fringe Festival in 2010. The new festival was created by the Newtown Entertainment Precinct Association (NEPA), a collective of Inner West theatre companies which included The Edge, the Enmore Theatre, New Theatre, Newtown Theatre, Pact Youth Theatre, Seymour Theatre Centre, Sidetrack Performance Group, and Carriageworks.
The 2010 Sydney Fringe Festival was based around the Inner West with Newtown as its hub. Kris Stewart was the inaugural Creative Director. He had vast experience in the realm, including having run the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His vision was to model Sydney’s Fringe on the "edgy fringes of Dublin and New York, with a downtown, urban aesthetic.”
The reborn Sydney Fringe Festival opened on September 10, 2010 with a 17 day schedule featuring 280 events and over 3000 artists. The program included 76 theatre shows, 59 music acts, 30 musicals, 25 visual arts exhibitions, 11 burlesque or circus acts, eight dance productions and two film festivals. Performances took place in pubs, theatres, open air sites, community spaces and other venues.
In 2011, Richard Hull took over as Creative Director. In 2012, he introduced an open-access model which allowed for edgier, more esoteric performers and artistic risk-taking in the program. That model and philosophy has endured. The following year saw another switch in leadership, but this one stuck: Kerri Glasscock. With a career in film, television and theatre dating from 1997, as well as a proven record managing music and arts festivals and establishing the iconic jazz club, Venue 505 and its sister, Old 505 Theatre, Glasscock was and remains the pilot light for the Sydney Fringe.
The 2013 Fringe was held across five festival villages in Newtown, Leichhardt, Marrickville, Surry Hills, and Glebe/Chippendale, utilising venues and featuring local talent in each. The outdoor courtyard in front of the Seymour Centre was transformed into a drop-in, late night festival hub called the Emerald City. It offered a bar, food, and live performances and became a prototype for similar hubs going forward.
In 2014, the Fringe teamed up with the National Live Music Office and APRA AMCOS to present a new launch event for the festival: Ignite — Heat The Street. Along several blocks in Surry Hills, bars, shops and other businesses participated in an afternoon/evening street party with live performances, food, drink and dance. Erskineville made its debut as a festival village in 2015 and was given the dual honour of hosting Fringe Ignite and the festival hub. The launch party had a 1920s theme complete with a speakeasy lounge and gin bar. Erskineville Town Hall was the festival hub and featured the Coopers Festival Bar and two performance spaces.
In 2016, it was Darlinghurst’s turn. Fringe Ignite was held in Stanley Street with surrounding bars, eateries and shop fronts joining in. By 2019, the Fringe had totally claimed the full month of September. Some highlights that year included: a touring hub sponsored by Innocent Bystander, the Archie Rose Cabaret Club, an immersive horror theatre show, long-table dinners, a flash mob, and a Babylonian-inspired feast in Chippendale’s Kensington St. Its program orbit encompassed The Rocks, Paddington, Newtown, Lilyfield, the CBD, Chippendale and extended south to Hurstville, which hosted its own three day mini-festival, Fringeville.
For some reason, the Fringe was cancelled in 2020 (!). It did, however, participate in Global Fringe, a four-week international digital festival run in cooperation with festivals in Brighton (UK), New Zealand, San Diego (US), Stockholm (Sweden) and Hollywood (US). In 2021 the Fringe Festival team took a well-earned rest…NOT! There was no festival that year, but they worked as hard as ever raising money to support artists impacted by the pandemic and to fund the 2022 festival. And here we are.