The Dominion Post
A festival born on the fringes
As the fat lady sings for one festival, another is still cranking along, reports Tom Hunt.
One arrives on a pushbike in a yellow, fruit-themed dress and pink highlights in her hair. The other is dressed in charcoal and black. New Zealand Fringe Festival Wellington director Hannah Clarke and New Zealand Festival director Shelagh Magadza have different looks but the pair agree on a lot. For one, they both like art. ‘‘It is OK to fail,’’ Clarke says. She is not referring to her clothes but rather to the 150 eclectic, sometimes bizarre, often low-budget shows that make up this year’s Wellington Fringe Festival, which still has a week to run after the international festival wraps up.
For Magadza, who is running her final festival, failure would not be so nice. The number of shows – many significantly more polished, with bigger budgets — that have sold out in her event suggests she will be fine.
Neither woman gets much time to see one another’s festival but they agree that the fringe was born from the international festival and they live alongside each other symbiotically.
It was about 1990 that Wellington’s arts community started discussing that it was missing out on performing when all the big acts came to town for the international festival.
So the international festival called a meeting with local artists, city councillors, and other arts organisations and the New Zealand Fringe Festival was born.
It was hardly a new idea. Edinburgh’s massive fringe festival was born similarly when local artists set up literally on the city fringes after the bigger festival in the Scottish city was born in 1947.
Over the years, each Wellington festival has gone its own way.
Clarke is reluctant to namedrop but in her office are old photos – dating from a pre-digital era – of young, fresh-faced actors doing early fringe shows.
Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement did their first outing of Flight Of The Conchords at the Fringe, and some of Taika Waititi’s early shows were there.
Robyn Malcolm was there before television stardom and many of the current Shortland Street crew earned their stripes at the capital event.
Magadza never acted – though she would like to write – so never really got involved in the Wellington Fringe.
For one, she was already involved in the international arts scene when the Fringe Festival was starting out. When she started in the early 1990s, the Fringe Festival worked out of the international festival offices.
‘‘Eventually, it grew up and moved out of home like all children do.’’
Despite rarely getting to any Wellington Fringe shows, she got a taste of the value of such events this year.
She had already commissioned Home – what would prove to be one of the New Zealand Festival 2018 hits – but saw it for the first time at the Philadelphia fringe festival and then knew that she had not screwed up.
A journey through old Fringe Festival programmes is a tour through Wellington’s recent history. Mayors seemingly took joy in offering their support.
One page shows former mayor Mark Blumsky with no hair and the tagline, ‘‘imagine Wellington without a fringe’’, and columns featuring Kerry Prendergast and Celia Wade-Brown.
For now, Clarke has the whole shebang to oversee – 150 different shows doing 700-odd performances in 35 or more venues. When that’s all over, she has to help run the CubaDuba carnival.