Blake Johnson: Why you need to visit the biggest Australian arts festival you’ve never heard of

Blake Johnson
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Silent Noise Winery, McLaren Vale.
Silent Noise Winery, McLaren Vale. Credit: Supplied.

“You’re going to a fridge festival?”

My friend’s face kept its confused expression when I told her the festival in Adelaide is Australia’s biggest arts event of the year.

“Why don’t you just go to The Good Guys?”

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Once I’d cleared the mistake by enunciating the ‘n’ in ‘Fringe,’ the confusion was only slightly reduced. “What’s that?”

For an event hundreds of thousands of South Australians love and get involved with every year, it seemed odd to me Adelaide Fringe doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition outside Australia’s fifth-biggest city as it does within.

Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Adelaide Fringe Festival. Credit: Supplied.

But that’s changing - quickly. Interstate visitors to Adelaide Fringe went from 45,000 last year to 55,000 this year.

That’s more than what the AFL managed when around 40,000 interstate visitors attended the inaugural Gather Round, featuring all 19 teams playing in South Australia in a weekend.

For an arts event to knock off the country’s biggest footy festival in a football-mad state, it must be decent. There’s a bit of history on its side; the festival started as a form of protest in 1960, when artists who felt excluded from a larger arts festival banded together.

More than 6,000 independent artists are involved in Fringe today, performing shows in ‘spiegeltents’, in bars and on the street (they even close the main Rundle Street for parts of the day). The event claims to be “Australia’s biggest arts festival and must-visit destination for travellers seeking out cultural experiences.”

South Australians are a parochial bunch and this extends to their Fringe festival which runs for a month, from February 16 through to March 17.

“Best time!” told me one friend living here. “We’re heading in again, tonight. Every year it puts a dent in the bank account!”

The median ticket price of $33 puts it in a slightly more affordable range than many other events, with some shows free and others featuring well-known comedians going for up to $80.

Street performers at Adelaide Fringe.
Street performers at Adelaide Fringe. Credit: Supplied.

Event organisers say 526,020 tickets were sold in the first week. Ticket sales for the period are up 7.5% on last year.

The 2023 festival recorded an impressive 4 million attendances. That’s a lot of eyeballs watching stages.

For an event that by its name suggests it’s not mainstream, it’s starting to gather considerable mainstream momentum.

Director and CEO of Adelaide Fringe Heather Croall AM said, “The vibrancy and energy that everyone has brought to this year’s festival are truly inspiring, and it’s clear that we’re on track for a spectacular season.”

We land in Adelaide at 8.30pm on a Friday and we’re off to a show at 10pm. To make the most of Fringe, you won’t want to request early nights. Shows, and their related parties and events continue into the night making the most of Adelaide’s cracking late summer weather.

We sit inside a small tent, no more than 25 seats to choose from. We have no idea what to expect and that’s why it’s fantastic. An eclectic line-up of artists entertains us, mixing comedy and physical performance with ad-libbing using the audience’s at-times awkward help. The crowd is rowdy and ready! I’m called on stage and teased by an artist (in good faith) before I’m grabbed by the hand to dance with her and blow a party popper at her face. It’s weird, it’s hilarious.

Adelaide Fringe performance,
Adelaide Fringe performance, Credit: Supplied.

A husband and wife call for adjectives and nouns to be yelled out by the audience. They write the words on each other’s stomachs and act out a make believe scenario using all the words provided. Many of the acts elicit laughter, some provide gentle second-hand embarrassment when a joke falls flat. All are enthusiastic and ready to read the crowd. These aren’t Broadway acts, or even off-Broadway. There’s a rustic, un-polished feel to their time in front of us, but they’re fringe artists and that’s why the event is true to its name.

I’ve attended Fringe events in Melbourne and Perth, and to enjoy them it’s recommended to dismiss most of your expectations of a perfect performance. Of course, the bigger acts (Tommy Little, Tom Gleeson etc) are at the sharper end of the showbiz spectrum. But respectfully I’m not here for them this weekend, and the smaller, niche artists are the focus.

Drag shows at Mary’s Poppin’ are in front of a packed crowd. Queens from interstate relish the fresh faces in the club and (almost) old-school favourites Sneaky Sound System rock the millennials in attendance.

The family-friendly nature of Fringe thrives in the alfresco dining that spreads into Rundle Street. Closed to traffic, the road is taken over by tables, chairs and pedestrians in the late afternoon sun. You could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Europe. It’s a magical atmosphere, book-ended by two large garden areas devoted to Fringe.

These are part beer garden, part royal show, with tables, chairs and people propped up at bars surrounded by carnival rides.

Rundle Street during Adelaide Fringe.
Rundle Street during Adelaide Fringe. Credit: Supplied.

We venture outside the city, where a disused railway tunnel is devoted to a light show about mushrooms. Kids seemed to love it, while some adults looked like they wished they were on a different kind of mushroom to enjoy it.

McLaren Vale Hotel was the perfect spot for lunch, and suddenly we’re ticking all the visitor must-do boxes! A Hither & Yon Rosé over a meal went down a treat, and we visited Silent Noise winery where Charlie charmed us all over tales of his family’s successful small batch winery.

McLaren Vale Hotel.
McLaren Vale Hotel. Credit: Supplied.

Fringe in Adelaide is sprawling, all-encompassing and importantly - accessible. If you’re seeking off-beat performance art, high-end stand-up comedy, or just a few days in a city that now knows how to run big events, check it out.

The author was a guest of Adelaide Fringe.

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