Adelaide is often Australia’s forgotten city for tourists and Aussies alike. Next to the vibrant and picturesque state capitals of Melbourne and Sydney, Adelaide is seen an staid and conservative.
However, people who have visited the sleepy colonial conurbation will know it has plenty to offer.
As well as the excellent food and wine (Adelaide is minutes away from the buoyant wine regions of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale), the local tourist board sells South Australia as home of festivals.
According to the car licence plate mottos, if Victoria is ‘The Place to Be’, and New South Wales is ‘The First State’, South Australia is ‘The Festival State’.
This is especially the case in ‘Mad March’, a month of festival mayhem in Adelaide when the city hosts what seems like 75% of its biggest events. World Music showcase Womadelaide, V8 tournament Clipsal 500, Adelaide Festival of Arts as well as a host of other cultural happenings draw thousands during the month.
The biggest event both in terms of public attendance and scope is Adelaide Fringe Festival. As was the case with its Edinburgh counterpart, the Fringe festival was born out of artists’ frustrations at being excluded from the high brow Festival of Arts.
The Fringe was set up to give more popular or more subversive acts a chance to air their talents. The Fringe has now being running for over 50 years. It is open to any artist or group who want to register, and has far overtaken the original festival as the jewel in the Festival State’s crown.
The 2012 Fringe welcomed more than 900 acts to the city and enjoyed record breaking ticket sales. However, fears of the festival overstretching itself were realised to the cost of some of the smaller acts, which is an occupational hazard for a festival this size.
Returning Fringe Act Kai Smythe, who debuted his solo show Big Hairy Fun along with the award-winning Search for Atlantis with partner-in-crime Tim Mager, felt the effects of the sudden expansion.
“There was a definite stretchy feeling when it came to audiences this year,” he says. “Even the big guns were having a hard time getting numbers. The main problem was more shows with the same amount of audience. Unlike Edinburgh, you can’t just drive to Adelaide from another city.”
As a year-long resident of Adelaide, I welcomed the Fringe and enjoyed the transformative affect it had on ‘The City of Churches’ (another nickname indicative of Adelaide’s reputation).
Walking down the main shopping thoroughfare Rundle Mall, you found off-the-wall fashions, circus ‘freaks’ enjoying a flat white as well as street entertainers from around the world.
There was a general buzz which is felt in most capital cities all year round but seemingly lacking in Adelaide outside of the festival season.
Like Edinburgh Fringe, otherwise disused buildings are transformed into hot beds of creative talent during the season, none more successfully than the Tuxedo Cat on North Terrace.
The former Night Club and erstwhile Flop House and Brothel was home to some of the more subversive acts in March last year. Its six sub-venues played host to British comedian Marcus Birdman, the surreal flights of fancy of Will Greenway, and Stuart Bowden who presented their solo performances to rave reviews and the aforementioned Smythe.
A real sense of community was forged over the four weeks in the charmingly decrepit venue.
The venue is Smythe’s preferred venue whenever returning to Adelaide, “I need somewhere that will look after my shows while they gestate, which is the reason why I choose the Tuxedo Cat every time. I liken it to a massive artistic womb,” he says.
“Every artist at The Cat looks after each other, giving each other feedback and recommending audiences to see all the other shows. There is no sense of ego, no one was fighting each other for audiences.”
Across the mile-square city centre stands The Garden of Unearthly Delights on the East End parklands. Rundle Park is transformed into a magical world of big tops, fairground rides and food stalls.
Opening a week before the official start of the Fringe, ‘The Garden’ is the obvious centrepiece of the festival. Featuring a dozen equally ornate tents which play host to more than 100 acts, a night in the Garden is quite an experience.
Last year’s Garden programme ensured festival-goers could pick any one night (the Garden is open seven days a week), and be treated to an evening of comedy and burlesque at the late night Comic Strip show, a man in a safari suit with a bouffant playing the organ for an hour (Adelaide’s own Barry Morgan), or a acrobatic extravaganza set solely in bathtubs (festival hit Soap).
Across the street from The Garden, another park (Adelaide CBD is surrounded by green spaces, a measure put in place by town founder Colonel William Light) becomes Gluttony.
The Garden’s poorer but perhaps trendier brother, Gluttony, offers family entertainment in the puppet theatre by day and adult comedy by night. The trees of Rymill Park are decorated with 70s lampshades, bean bags are strewn across the grass, and local tipples are sold at the bars. Gluttony makes for a more chilled out evening with the option of a silent disco for those energised by the shows on offer.
In addition to the mega venues of The Garden, Tuxedo Cat and Gluttony, you will find red ‘Venue’ stickers in almost every other bar and restaurant in town. The Townhall opens its doors to theatre and comedy, alleyways become venues, and then there’s the caravan in the middle of Rundle Mall which enables performers to delight shoppers with tit bits from their shows at Fringe on the Mall.
As with Edinburgh it is impossible to escape the Fringe whilst in Adelaide during the season.
From Central Market (a tourist attraction in its own right) to the cafés of Rundle Street’s East End, Fringe artists tirelessly flog their act to ensure they enjoy a slice of the pie. Every piece of wall in the city and its suburbs is covered with fringe posters.
The next few years will be crucial for Adelaide Fringe as the festival has grown exponentially. Adelaide may be the poor sibling of Australia’s other capital cities for most of the year, but during the Fringe and Mad March, this Australian city competes with the best.
If You Go
South Australia Tourism