A Brief History of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 1982-2003

A Brief History of the Melbourne Fringe: (1)

Fringe Festival

The Melbourne Fringe Network was established in 1982 after the demise of the legendary Pram Factory in Carlton. The Pram Factory was the home of the Australian Performing Group which was a democratically run theatrical collective. The group was at its pinnacle during the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll era of Carlton and revived a dreary Australian theatre scene:

The collective created a theatre in opposition to the script-based, director-dominated conservative norm. It was up-close, non-naturalistic and centred on the presence and skill of the performer. The shows were raw, rough, vernacular, iconoclastic, experimental, tendentious, comical, musical, and from time to time, magical. (2)

When the theatre collective concluded, artists returning from the Adelaide Fringe Festival (established in the early 1970s) decided that Melbourne needed its very own Fringe Festival. It was noticed that many of the performers at the Adelaide Fringe Festival were in fact from Melbourne so Melbourne did have the talent to accommodate such an event.

Fringe Festival

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A coalition of independent artists announced plans for the week long Fringe Festival in 1983 to coincide with the Moomba Festival. This inaugural festival included one hundred and twenty artists working in a broad range of artistic expressions in twenty two locations around Melbourne. Although the festival had very little funding, Fringe offered support in the form of shared resources, venues, contacts, and bookings.

In 1984 Melbourne held the first of three Spoleto Festivals and Melbourne Fringe became the Melbourne Piccolo Spoleto Fringe Festival. Upon the demise of Spoleto and the creation of the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (1986) the festival reverted to its previous name.

Generally speaking the festival has remained true to its mission. As well as presenting an innovative program of underrepresented performing arts, music, film and writing, a number of Fringe-produced signature events have been held at various times. The Festival’s opening street parade and party in Brunswick Street became a significant event on the Melbourne cultural calendar drawing audiences of more than one hundred thousand people. And Not the Archibald Prize, Fringe Furniture, New Short Works and the Women’s Season developed a reputation for presenting experimental art in an accessible and informal way. Any many new creative voices have emerged through these events.

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In the early 1990s the Melbourne Fringe Festival altered its calendar so that it only briefly overlapped with the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. The Fringe Festival has steadily grown and many events have come and gone as the Festival has matured. The festival takes place in venues across the inner city and much of the performance program is now centred in North Melbourne Town Hall, the Store Room, Trades Hall, and Chapel off Chapel. The Melbourne Fringe has been consistently presenting more than two hundred shows every year for twenty years.

Fringe Fashion

Fringe Fashion had a brief history from 1995 until 2001 and became one of the most popular segments of the Festival. It started as a part production and part exhibition and was originally called Ninety Percent Junk. It consisted of wearable garbage and recycled objects and was held at the Lounge nightclub in Swanston Street, Melbourne. Fringe Fashion presented experimental clothes which challenged the boundaries of what was wearable and what was purely art. It became a renowned industry event with participation from all over Australia. In 2000, there were one hundred and twenty designers from across the country.

Fringe Furniture

Fringe Furniture was conceived in 1984 by artist Bruce Filley. Unlike its Melbourne International Festival of the Arts rival, Fringe Furniture is a non-curated event. With the focus on art rather than function it has given established and experimental artist an opportunity to display innovative works. From boudoir to bathroom, lighting to lounge chairs; many types of furniture characterise original use of materials, techniques and processes. Throughout its eighteen year history, Fringe Furniture has become one of the Festival’s most noteworthy events. Fringe Furniture exhibitors include Rivet’s David Bourke, Marc Pascal, Chris Connel and Malte Wagenfield.

Parade/ Street Party

The (in)famous Melbourne Fringe festival parade ended in 2001 and was a feast of innovation and vitality. Think belly dancing, singing dogs, and art on sticks, tight fitting bodysuits and underpants. Events such as Le Tour de Fringe and the Waiters Race were favourites. Buskers, artists, street performers and a bevy of food and art stalls came together with thousands of people in Fitzroys most anticipated annual event. The Parade carried significance in uniting a whole community, especially memorable in 1993 when Fringe dancer and artist Bruce Fentham made his final appearance before dying of AIDS. Mentioning this day of arty celebration is generally a cue for someone in Fitzroy to say:

Oh, it’s really going downhill nowadays. I remember in 1989 when there were no dickheads from the suburbs there, it was great.

Performance

Fringe performance encompasses a variety of art forms including music, film, video, comedy, theatre, cabaret, dance and spoken word (and sometimes genres in between). The festival has spurred many new artists that include Tubby Justice (at Mietta’s) and Tiddas who went on to become Melbourne’s most sought after women’s acoustic trio (both showcased 1988). Others artists include Jean Kittson, Barrie Kosky, the Doug Anthony Allstars, Sue Ingleton and the Chamber Made Opera. In 1991, Fringe celebrated forty eight events and four hundred and thirty four performances. In the same year it ran one hundred and forty one titles within twenty four categories in the then annual film and video event.

The Poetry Cup was another noteworthy event and involved poets on a local, national and international level. Performances were held everywhere; even on trams (No.11). ‘Not the Premier’s Literary Awards’ and ‘Not the Spring Racing Carnival Fashion Parade’ also provided much misbehaviour.

New Short Works

New Short Works emerged in 1988 with its first showing at the Universal Theatre. The concept was to allow actors, movement artists and comedians the opportunity to perform short pieces (usually ten to twenty minutes long). Artists also premiered works-in-progress and extracts from longer works.

This event became a showcase for both new and established performers in many fields such as mime, shadow puppetry, ‘high energy funksters’, hot jazz and belly dancers. In 1988 Fringe hosted the Students New Short Works Season from the Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama. In 1991 the New Short Works Season was presented at Theatreworks in St Kilda and explored themes of love, children’s matinees, and the joy of flight. Its fifth and final season ran at the Grant Street Theatre in 1992.

Visual Art

Visual Art has been a constant of the Melbourne Fringe Festival since its inception. Throughout the 80s and 90s art exhibitions focused on the suburb of Fitzroy but in 1995 the visual arts hub shifted to St Kilda (in line with the current arts practices). Exhibitions and shows range from ‘Global Corporation’ themed window displays by schoolchildren in Brunswick St (1989) to an exhibition of memorabilia from 70s and 80s political causes (1990). There have been paintings of waitresses depicted as Bottecelli’s Venus rising from the Fitzroy baths (1993), photographs showing international coffee bars (1995), and images of women with their favourite bras (1999). Fringe hosts a yearly prize for the best Visual Art piece in the festival which was previously called Not the Archibald Prize.

Women’s Season

The Fringe Women’s Season began in 1986 under the umbrella of the Spoleto Fringe Festival. It displayed women’s work in theatre, comedy and performance. This was due to traditional male domination in these arts. The season produced original and provocative works which questioned and challenged women’s role in both the arts and within the broader culture and society. In 1994, the Women’s Season disbanded and became subsumed within the general Fringe events.

This Fringe Womens season produced some fabulous shows throughout its nine year history. These ranged from one hundred and eleven women singing at the Fringe street parade in 1991 to Sue Ann-Post and Lynda Gibson performing stand-up comedy as Toothless Bitches (1993). Rachel Griffiths also performed in a show about Barbie breaking up with Ken Barbie Gets Hip. (1991)

(1) Tim Robertson The Pram Factory: The Australian Performing Group Recollected, MUP, Melbourne, 2001
(2) Many thanks for Fringe Vintage staff (2002) for their previous historical research that has been incorporated within this narrative.

Directors:
2003 Dan Mitchell
2002 Vanessa Pigrum
2001 Vanessa Pigrum
2000 Virginia Hyam
1999 Virginia Hyam
1998 Virginia Hyam
1997 Virginia Hyam
1996 Virginia Hyam
1995 Peter Chellew
1994 Charlotte Yates
1993 Charlotte Yates
1992 Palz Vaughan
1991 Palz Vaughan
1990 Palz Vaughan
1989 Palz Vaughan
1988 Palz Vaughan
1987 Margaret Vandaleur
1986 Margaret Vandaleur
1985 Angela Burke
1984 Angela Burke
1983 Angela Burke
1982 Arpad Mihaly

Fringe Alumni

VISUAL ART:
Rosie Weiss
Sally Morgan
Ponch Hawkes

THEATRE:
Barry Kosky
Rachel Griffiths
Sue Ingleton

MUSIC:
Tiddas
Chamber Made Opera
Ash

FILM AND VIDEO:
Jane Campion
COMEDY:
Doug Anthony All-Stars
Jean Kittson
Sue Ann Post
Judith Lucy
Tracy Bartram
Rachel Berger
Linda Gibson
Ross Daniels
Rod Quantock
Frank Woodley
Colin Lane
Raymond J Bartholomew
Trevor Marmalade

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