By Peter Maddern

In this morning’s Sunday Mail, columnist Peter Goers quips that the Fringe has become ruled by the ‘Garden of Melbourne Entrepreneurs’ providing entertainment for ‘the Great Unwashed’ comprised of ‘comedy and tits’n’’teeth.’

One probably does not need to be as keen an observer as Goers to have picked up on these trends but an analysis of the Fringe program from 2011 to this year bears out his barbs, raising questions of where to now for the Fringe.

After three or more years of very rapid growth, this year Fringe registrations were slightly down on last year’s peak. Over the past two years, ticketed fringe productions (Productions) have increased by around 30% while total ticketed shows (Shows) are up over 50%. But by genre, the biggest increase in Productions and Shows is unquestionably Comedy, with Show numbers up a huge 75%, accounting for over 60% of the entire growth in the Fringe over that time. Comedy now accounts for just over 50% of all Shows.

And Goers is also right to suggest that interstate artists are the ones providing the extra content. Comedy Productions emanating from interstate have nearly doubled in two years, providing all the growth in that genre relative to local and overseas Productions, whose numbers have stalled.

Indeed the role of South Australian artists in the Fringe is one that must be starting to get people concerned. For it would appear the ability of our local performers to contribute to the Fringe has basically maxed out across the board with only Cabaret Productions showing any increase over the past two years. Our share of all Productions has dropped from 48% to 44% and while an analysis of the number of Shows has not been done, anecdotally these must now be well down.

While Comedy has grown massively, as noted other genres are starting to show the signs of stress. Visual Arts shows have declined markedly (over 30%) since the 2011 Fringe and now Theatre is starting to exhibit signs of decline. Over the past two years, the number of Theatre Productions has increased by just 10% and its percentage of all Shows has decreased by about 15% to 17%. Further the number of local productions is now in decline.

While theatre artists are endeavouring to increase returns through longer seasons (up from 7.3 to 8.9 Shows per Production), they are doing so unable to get audiences to pay more for the pleasure, with Theatre ticket prices effectively stagnant over this time. In contrast, such issues are not there for the comedians who have enjoyed a massive 20% increase in their average ticket price over the same period.

While the growth of the Fringe is much trumpeted by the Fringe Office, the strains and consequences of that growth have been less well spoken about. While the Fringe listings grew by 50% between 2010 and 2012, (declared) ticket sales only increased by 20%. Notionally that meant average Show attendances dropped by 20% across those two years. But when one witnesses the hundreds filing into some very ordinary Comedy events at the Garden, one can only guess at how inequitably this average show size is now affecting other venues and performers.

The market is a great thing and we can do nothing to arrest the reality of the survival of the fittest, but with Visual Arts now in decline and the contribution to the Fringe of local and overseas artists along with Theatre effectively maxed out, one wonders what direction the Fringe will now go in. No doubt, as Goers observes, there is a dash to the lowest common denominator of ordinary one man stand-up comedians and that means the Fringe is an increasing distance from its original core and objective.

While all credit must be given to the people who run The Garden, given the rip roaring success of The Barrio, perhaps the time has come for the Festival of Arts to start up its own curated ‘Excess Fest’ to help give better, edgier artists the chance to keep their heads above water at this time of year. Otherwise, this once annual time in the sun for local performers may become like much of the other 11 months of the year. Or, perhaps they will simply see it best to go with the flow and become an interstate artist who comes here as well.

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