Myra Robinson went to her first Fringe World show in 2011, the festival’s pilot year. She lived in Northbridge – still does – and noticed a circus tent being set up down the road from her house that immediately captured her imagination. She can’t quite remember that very first show – was it the Wau Wau Sisters, or a comedy act? But she does remember being blown away. “It felt like this really underground experience,” Myra says. “It was really exciting. And that’s Fringe.” Since then, over the festival’s 10-year history, Myra estimates she’s been to an average of 20 shows per year (she was slowed down by the arrival of her daughter), with her biggest season being 2014, when she saw 54 shows.
This year, two weeks into the festival, Myra has already been to 18 shows, five of them on a single Saturday, and has a long list of others she wants to see. “I do find myself running between shows,” she says. Myra makes her picks based on performances she’s enjoyed in previous years (looking for new work by the same artists), chatting to fellow fans, reading reviews and through social media – but her favourite method is to buy an artist a drink at one of the festival hubs and mine them for recommendations. She and her husband, an arts journalist, juggle care of their young child to pack in as many shows as they can, walking down from their Northbridge home to lap up the buzz of busy streets and bustling venues that the Fringe World brings. For four glorious weeks in Perth’s mid-summer, such is the life of a ‘Fringe Binger’.
Asked what keeps her coming back with such commitment, Myra is reverential. “It’s all about supporting the artists,” she says. “Because of the artists, the festival is constantly evolving and pushing boundaries. And you really get immersed with them. They are there with the audience rather than just performing to us.” In other words, the fans are just as much part of the festival as the artists and the organisers. Fringe World is one big, bright, bedazzled cultural organism that gleefully embraces everyone and anyone who comes near it and doesn’t let go.
Fringe World festival director Amber Hasler, who’s been with the festival since its inception, says the first few days of Fringe each year are always electric. “There’s so much love and appreciation for the festival, and there are thousands of familiar faces who’ve come along the journey with us since day one, all catching up for another year.”
Hasler has seen first-hand the impact of Fringe World on Perth’s cultural life and perceptions of the city. “We’ve seen a huge positive impact across social, cultural and economic terrains,” Hasler says. “Fringe has played a part in shifting perspectives on the safety and vibrancy of the city, and shifting the way people consume art and entertainment here. And, importantly, the kinds of figures we see in box office paid to artists, that economy being generated by artists for artists hadn’t really existed here before Fringe. That’s a huge achievement.”
On top of producing a creative marketplace that supports working artists, she says talking with festival-goers about their love of Fringe as a place to connect with others and engage in new ideas gives her a sense of responsibility that drives the festival’s work. “There are people who take their annual leave in order to just ‘Fringe properly’,” she says, “I think that’s incredible, and it feels like an important responsibility.”
That pilot program 10 years ago was a two-week curated program of international and local acts that almost entirely sold out. It was the big, future-focused project from Artrage Inc. – an arts and events not-for-profit that’s been a cultural force in Western Australia since 1982, and produces Fringe. That same year, Artrage hosted the Fringe World Summit, a space for artists to discuss, debate and ultimately shape the future of the festival. Ever since, it’s been an open-access festival, in which Artrage works to support independent artists, producers and venues to offer their own shows and programs.
In 2011, the program contained twenty-three shows, mainly contained to their then-newly acquired De Parel Spiegeltent – the one that caught the attention of Myra Robinson. That number grew exponentially in the festival’s first six years, peaking at 722 shows across 150 venues in 2020 – establishing the festival as Western Australia’s largest annual event, and the third-largest Fringe Festival in the world, of which there are hundreds.
But Myra, who Hasler describes as the ‘shooting star’ of Fringe, still remembers when the program was written up on a big chalk board near the box office in the city’s Cultural Centre, and, later, taking the paper program, making spreadsheets containing the shows she wanted to see and tracking her progress. Now, there’s an App for that, which Myra says it makes it “so much easier to organise a Fringe binge”.
What is perhaps most heartening about the enduring success of Fringe World is what it says about the capacity for Western Australians to explore different perspectives and embrace lifestyles and forms of expression that might be unfamiliar to them.
“Fringe will always be a platform for people to share ideas, connect in new ways, and for healthy commentary to exist,” says Hasler. “I’d like to think that over the past 10 years, we’ve been able to address some of the issues in our society on the stages of Fringe. But alongside the serious is also the fun. And I think those two things sit more perfectly side by side in a place like Fringe than anywhere else.”