Future shape of community festivals: Adelaide Fringe

photo by Aranxa Esteve from Unsplash

With festivals facing extremely difficult times at present due to the coronavirus virus, event planners and audiences alike can only look on nervously at how future months will play out. Here we look at one example of a large community-based festival, the Adelaide Fringe. Indeed, as the largest arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere and due to go ahead early in the new year, it serves as a bellwether for numerous other arts events around Australia, large and small, that are having to navigate challenging times ahead.

The Adelaide Fringe has been a fixture in the life of its city for sixty years, and over four weeks each February and March it holds numerous events in venues that include pubs, clubs, theatres, art galleries and pop-up locations as well as outdoor hubs traditionally located in the city parklands. Music makes up roughly a quarter of its program. As an open access festival, artists pay a registration fee to participate and must fund their shows and hire venues themselves. Coordinating the whole thing is Adelaide Fringe Inc., an administrative and marketing umbrella that does not actually sponsor or curate shows itself.

Earlier this year, the Fringe managed to escape the pandemic almost scot-free. New York multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, who was due to perform on the closing weekend, 14-15 March, was one of very few artist who had to pull out.

Next year, the event is planned to proceed as normal, from 19 February to 21 March. However it will of course have to operate within COVID-19-safe constraints. Given its size and complex situation regarding venues, this will understandably be a major task.

Heather Croall, Adelaide Fringe’s Festival Director, took time out to talk to Music Australia about plans for 2021 and how they are tackling such matters.

What generally can the public expect when the Adelaide Fringe comes around again in March 2021?

“As the Fringe is an open access festival, we never know what the program will look like until the shows sign up and register their season… and this year there’s even more up in the air than usual. Adelaide Fringe is usually made up of around 500 venues that are spread across the state and range in size from holding a handful of people up to many thousands. In 2021, every venue that registers in Adelaide Fringe will have to be certified as complying with the South Australian government COVID rules. All venues of up to 1000 capacity need to have a COVID safe plan approved by SA Health and in the case of venues with a capacity over 1000, an approved COVID management plan is required. These plans focus on crowd density, social distancing and contact tracing which requires details of the audience members in the venue to be collected at point of booking. The current limit for venues in SA is 50% of their capacity and we will be working closely with the State Government to be across any changes that may happen to that. Government rules around crowd density and distancing may change – all Fringe shows will have to operate under the directions that are in place at the time.”

With Fringe traditionally running in multiple venues across Adelaide, do you anticipate some venues will be available for the 2021 program but others not? Will more of the program shift to outdoor venues?

“Outdoor venues are most definitely lower risk for transmission of COVID-19 than indoor venues (as long as physical distancing and hygiene is practised) so I do expect that there will be some more open-air venues than usual. In recent times around the world we have seen live performances played out in drive-ins and concerts played in pop-up outdoor theatres on farms with hay bales as walls. I have no doubt we will see some new, innovative outdoor performance spaces in Fringe 2021. Our venue registrations open in late July so we will see some of the details on these spaces soon.”

What are the most pressing issues Adelaide Fringe is having to address to ensure the safety of patrons and artists?

“The Fringe is made up of hundreds of venues and we need to have as much consistency as possible in regards to hygiene and crowd density across the festival to ensure participants and audiences feel confident they understand the guidelines. We will be working closely with SA Health to make sure that all the Fringe venues have approved COVID safe plans and COVID management plans to assure patrons across the entire Fringe landscape whether the venue is indoors, outdoors, large or small.

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