Culture's cutting edge

The Doug Anthony All Stars.
The Doug Anthony All Stars.

According to comedian Tim Ferguson, there's a very simple thing that distinguishes the Melbourne Fringe Festival from its peers: ''You've got more chance of getting laid at the Fringe. When you go along to the Melbourne Festival, you're not going to get laid afterwards by some random audience member. Whereas at the Melbourne Fringe, anything can happen.''

This is the festival's 30th anniversary year and with more than 400 artists featuring in the program, it's possible that some were the result of one of those late-night dalliances over the years.

Meanwhile, the roster of alumni is impressive. Melbourne Fringe has been the incubator for artists across several disciplines: locally, there's been theatre director Barrie Kosky, actor Rachel Griffiths and writer Christos Tsiolkas, while international players, such as Daniel Kitson, Stephen K Amos and Arj Barker, have all played seasons there.

It's easy to forget the Fringe is one of the city's oldest festivals, pre-dating our Melbourne, writers' and comedy festivals by some years. Ferguson remembers the early days in the '80s as ''delightfully shambolic - but all the best festivals are''.

''The Fringe started as a morally chaotic event, which meant everyone was improvising in terms of getting media,'' he says. ''There were no rules, no dues to be paid, no arts administrators who managed to claw themselves to the top of the tree. Just a bunch of well-meaning people passionate about their craft.

''Of course, what happened is that an entire industry came into being.

''The Fringe now has a lot more acts and they're a lot more professional but there is something to be said for spirited amateurism.''

This was a time when some now-familiar names were first testing the waters. Ferguson's group, the Doug Anthony All Stars (formed with Paul McDermott and Richard Fidler), would play now long-gone comedy rooms, such as Le Joke and the Comedy Cafe, alongside up-and-comers such as Wendy Harmer and Peter Rowsthorn.

The Fringe was ''a great way of banding together. It still is; banding together with people of like mind and creative spirit and leaping into the dark,'' Ferguson says.

Le Joke was the comedy institution that once occupied the space that is now Carlton's Cinema Nova, and during the 1987 Fringe, Lano and Woodley's old troupe, the Found Objects, almost brought the house down - in a literal sense. A towel left on a heater on stage caught fire, but in a typical show of audience involvement, disaster was averted through the judicious application of a jug of beer.

Dave O'Neil is another Fringe graduate who played Le Joke. He was part of the 3RRR program the Osso Booko Show with comedians Vic Plume and Alan Parkes. Together they performed a live show during the 1996 Fringe.

''A midnight show - so what a nightmare,'' he says. ''But we were younger, so it was great fun. It was a smaller room upstairs, a more intimate space. We did bits of stand-up and sketches. We did a puppet show using meat and vegetables - the 'Salad of the Century Puppet Show with Glenn Fridge and Nikki Broccoli'. People loved that. 'True Fringe', we used to say.

''Unfortunately, in '96 North Melbourne won the grand final and I'm not into footy but Alan Parkes is a massive North Melbourne fan and turned up blind. Vic wasn't in great shape either.''

Like many Melburnians of a certain vintage, however, O'Neil's first contact with the Fringe was through the much-loved Brunswick Street parade that once kicked off the festival.

''The parade was awesome. It was like an alternative to Moomba,'' he says. ''I remember when West Coast played the grand final, you'd see a few West Coast fans standing there looking shocked - 'What is this we've wandered into?' - because it was one of those great celebrations of alternative Melbourne.''

The parade was retired in 2001, to much lament, but in reality, it took up the lion's share of the Fringe's budget and didn't necessarily translate into anything helpful for artists.

''A lot of people didn't even know it was the Fringe Festival,'' O'Neil says. ''It was just an excuse to party in the street. Then it turned a bit bogan. Yeah, there was like a riot, I think. Because people used to get pissed outside the Punters Club or the Evelyn and then just riot.''

Before encountering Melbourne Fringe, Dave Callan's understanding of festivals was informed by the likes of the Edinburgh and Melbourne comedy festivals. ''I could tell the difference right away,'' he says. ''Fringe is across a variety of disciplines. Dance and music and comedy are in there. I realised it had a broader scope and appeal and the possibility of bringing crowds who were fans of other disciplines into comedy.''

One of Callan's first experiences with the Fringe came when he was asked to host a one-off ''Fringe-lympics''.

''It was when the last Olympics were on, in 2008. They wanted me to host Olympics full of weird events, like building a robot out of crap products, and have a robot fashion parade, stuff like that. We were planning … and I was going, 'This is not going to work', externally remaining positive but internally going, 'Oh god, why did I say yes?'''

But when the night rolled around, Callan says it was the audience who decided the tenor of the show. ''The people who came along went, 'Nup, this is going to be good'. They got behind all this ridiculously stupid stuff and lifted it and made it spectacular. It was one of the best nights I've had at Fringe. It was stupid fun. Everyone was laughing at each other.

''It's the people who come along and get behind stuff that really make events like that. The community spirit is really strong at Fringe.''

Ferguson agrees that it's the Fringe's audiences that appeal most to performers. ''If you want to have an argument with someone about art, you go to the people who have dirty hands and dabs of paint on their face. Those people are at the exciting end of things. And chances are, you'll be queueing up next to somebody who also has a Fringe show.''

That's what community is all about: getting people from all ends of the city and putting them all together.

At last year's Fringe, Ferguson unveiled Carry a Big Stick, an ''entirely new kind of show'' for him. Rather than poking fun at the crowd, the show turned its attention on the comedian himself. Fringe made sense because it's a place where audiences are willing to take a risk.

''It's an experimental audience that turns up to a Fringe show. The audience was there to see the birth of a baby, which we're now taking to New York, Toronto, Chicago, London and Edinburgh. It's a monster now but it started at the Melbourne Fringe.''

Cal Wilson first signed up for a Fringe show not as a budding hopeful but as a seasoned performer. She had already won awards and scored sell-out audiences at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but an extended absence from the stage around the birth of her first child left her stand-up legs a little shaky.

''I wasn't sure if my brain had fallen out or not,'' she says. ''I wanted to do a show without feeling the pressure of the Comedy Festival so I did an hour of stand-up to see if it still worked, and it did.''

The 2010 show, Lively, was a different beast to the usual Comedy Festival outing.

''I didn't do any advertising or anything, so I had smaller audiences, but I really enjoyed that more intimate thing. The venue I was in felt like performing in your living room.''

Julia Zemiro says that's the whole point of the Fringe: ''That you can be bold enough to try stuff out. You completely control the show yourself. No one's telling you how to do it.''

Zemiro's association with the Fringe goes way back - she's performed over several years in the improv show Spontaneous Broadway and in 2005, she delivered a two-hander, An Evening with Julia Zemiro and Lliam Amor. This year she's taking her first role as director, helming old friend Aleisha McCormack's solo show, How to Get Rich.

''Certainly for someone like me, I can try doing something I've never done before,'' Zemiro says.

''I've never directed a one-person show before and it's a big responsibility. It means you can try things out where it won't be on a television station, where they might get rid of it after one week. You can breathe a little.''

She's hoping her experience will be an educational one.

''I had been thinking about doing a one-woman show myself about being half French and half Australian, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. I thought that maybe by directing Aleisha, it might give me some ideas, or remind me how terrifying it can be to get up there.''

While the Fringe is always home to recognisable names, there are plenty of reasons to take a gamble on one of the less-familiar entries.

''Sure, it's good to go and see established acts,'' Ferguson says. ''It's good to see acts where you can be guaranteed your $20 will be well spent. But what is life for? Not just for spending your entire evening in the missionary position. We have to take risks.

''Occasionally, you'll walk into a venue and find the show has been devised by a bunch of people from Fitzroy who knit their own hats and just want to have a rant about ecological nonsense and sing a couple of folk songs. Well, good for them.

''But sometimes you'll walk in the room and see a young Frank Woodley performing, or a whole new kind of band. There are all sorts of new comedians and musicians who are going to be big stars.''

The Melbourne Fringe Festival begins on September 26.

This story Culture's cutting edge first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.