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Three fringe festival directors share their must-see picks for 2019

Pussy Riot. Photo/Getty Images

As a trio of fringe festivals get ready to unleash edgy seasons upon three main centres, the events’ directors discuss their role in the arts and pick some must-sees.

When the NZ Fringe began in Wellington almost three decades ago, it was an alternative event set up by local artists feeling overshadowed by the high-profile biennial New Zealand International Arts Festival.

In 1990, the country’s first fringe festival was a one-week event at Bats Theatre. Today, the NZ Fringe runs in the capital for three weeks, with 150 shows, including 30 imports. It has helped spawn seven other events, with the 2019 Auckland Fringe now roughly two-thirds the size of its capital-city forebear, having run annually since 2017.

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All share one characteristic: they are open access, which means anyone can stage a performance in any setting. They are places for artists to experiment and debut new work and are an increasingly popular destination for overseas left-field acts on a global circuit of some 250 festivals, with Edinburgh and Adelaide the largest.

New Zealand’s fringe festivals are slowly being taken seriously by the mainstream arts establishment. Although they face the perpetual challenge of finding funding, as well as luring artists who think they are “not fringe enough’’, according to Gareth McMillan, director of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

The 2019 Dunedin event in late March follows festivals in Auckland and Wellington.

This year, the two North Island programmes will feature shows by Pussy Riot. The Russian punk-rock political provocateurs are possibly the biggest international name the festivals have attracted.

Fringe Wives Club. Photo/Supplied

Auckland Fringe director Lydia Zanetti saw the show Pussy Riot: Riot Days last year at the Edinburgh event. “It’s not often that you get to experience something that shakes you out of your skin. Having Pussy Riot: Riot Days in Auckland Fringe is a dream come true.”

Assembling the line-ups, which range from Russian art guerrillas to experimental comedy, theatre, music and dance in a wide range of venues must take some impressive juggling skills.

“Running a fringe has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” says Zanetti, who has been in charge in Auckland since 2017, when a trust was established to back an annual event.

“I’ve always gravitated to art that sits on the edge of things, that pushes the boat out a bit, and so fringe is a very natural fit for me. I love how you can fully immerse yourself in the best things the city has to offer, and, increasingly, nationally and internationally, too.’’

Thom Monckton. Photo/Aurélia Tassafi/Supplied

Former fringe artist Hannah Clarke has run NZ Fringe in the capital since 2011. Her performance background “really reminds me why fringe festivals exist”. She agrees funding will always be a challenge and so is finding venues.

“We have so many shows that want to be put on but we often don’t have the venues. We’ve got 140-seat theatres and then big venues such as the Opera House, but nothing in-between. This year, we are building a festival garden and a 200-seat festival tent.”

In Dunedin, McMillan says that the “fringe” label is loaded and brings with it the perception the acts have to be avant-garde.

“We welcome all forms of artistic expression,” he says. “I love directing a festival of groundbreaking stuff and works of excellence.”

Says Clarke: “Fringe is all about experience. If you go in with an open mind, you can be blown away.”

Fringe picks: The festival directors’ recommendations for Listener readers

Lydia Zanetti. Photo/Supplied

Lydia Zanetti, Auckland Fringe

Desperate Late Night Energy
I saw [electro-pop artist] Boycrush during the Limbs Dance Company retrospective at the Tempo Dance Festival a couple of years ago, and after that he kept posting videos of dance works. Watching someone fall in love with an art form is a beautiful thing, and I’m stoked that he’s collaborating with the Dance Plant Collective on his first live gig-and-dance extravaganza, based on his latest album, Desperate Late Night Energy. I love that Fringes aren’t tied to just one art form, allowing people to stretch themselves into something new. (Auckland)

The Ride
Nothing says Fringe like something happening in a strange place. In The Ride, you choose a topic, the artist finds an expert, and you get to go on a drive with them to find out everything you’d like to know about the topic. You may want to chat about roses or politics or making the best baklava. I love that this takes us all around the city. (Auckland) 

Pussy Riot
The Russian art collective has been one of the most important voices of protest in the past decade. It’s a raucous gig, and a call to arms. (Auckland and Wellington)

Hannah Clarke. Photo/Supplied

Hannah Clarke, NZ Fringe

The Doubtful Sounds Go Underground
Funky Wellington choir The Doubtful Sounds will perform in the World War II-era Wrights Hill Fortress, which is just so fringe. Performing classical and popular tunes, they will make the most of the fortress’ acoustics. Te Arokura, the children’s choir from Wellington’s Te Aro School, will perform there, too. (Wellington) 

Only Bones 1.0
Thom Monckton is a Helsinki-based New Zealand circus arts performer who does what he calls “micro-physical theatre’’. I saw him perform this show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. He has a lamp above him and he performs in this one-metre sphere below it. He just uses his bendy, wiggling hands and moves his face. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. (Auckland and Wellington)

Fringe Wives Club
I’ve been trying to get these Australian performers (Tessa Waters, Victoria Falconer and Rowena Hutson) to the NZ Fringe for ages. They’re going to the Perth and Adelaide festivals first, but we’ve got them this year, too. Their show is feminist and funny with original music and epic dance moves. (Wellington)

Gareth McMillan. Photo/Supplied

Gareth McMillan, Dunedin Fringe

Toy Factory Fire
Simon O’Connor is a Dunedin-based performer, and Toy Factory Fire is a performance installation based on the Kader factory fire in Thailand in 1993. You’ll listen to a loop of recorded interviews with those affected, overlaid by the narrative of a Bangkok-based businessman. It looks at global commercialisation and how things are made in quite appalling conditions. 

Fission
An interdisciplinary performance that started life as a research project for Hilary Halba, an associate professor in theatre studies at the University of Otago. It brings together Māori science, choreography and dance, using elements of space, time, energy and light that are common to both theatre and physics. The story is about a present-day performance artist and her metaphysical connection to early 20th-century physicist Lise Meitner.

Lavvie’s and Trouble D
British actor Ruth Carraway appeared in TV shows Grange Hill, The Bill and Prime Suspect. Since moving to Milton, near Dunedin, she has been working with inmates at Milton prison in the hopes that acting will help equip them for life on the outside. Her forum-theatre show Trouble D will be performed in the jail by Milton prisoners. Based on the life of a recently released prisoner, viewers will be able to rewind scenes and have them played differently. She will also be performing her play Lavvie’s, which is set in the women’s toilets of an Essex nightclub.

Auckland Fringe, February 19-March 3; NZ Fringe (Wellington), March 1-23; Dunedin Fringe, March 21-31.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.