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Project Brighton: Open to Everyone: On the Fringe or at the centre of the action? By Julian Caddy, Brighton Fringe's Managing Director
Already England’s largest arts festival for many years, Brighton Fringe continues its inexorable rise. For the first time in its history, it will this year extend to more than 1,000 events, some 4,500 performances, in 155 venues all across the city. Last year, there were over 535,000 attendances, which, for a city with a population of under 280,000 is an impressive feat. Over the past five years, it has grown by more than 150%. The scale is difficult to comprehend, but why is it growing and why is it relevant?
This year’s theme “Open to Everyone” reflects the core value of what the Fringe is. Unlike Brighton Festival, which is a completely separate event, taking place around the same time as Brighton Fringe, it is open-access, meaning that anyone can take part. You therefore have the unique situation where community choirs, school theatre productions, up-and-coming comedians and everything in between, are listed alongside professional, nationally and internationally-acclaimed work. And you experience it on a scale not seen in the UK outside Edinburgh.
We do not curate the programme centrally, rather individuals and organisations choose to be part of it. It grows or shrinks depending on the number of people wanting to take part So it is never “too big” relative to that understanding. It is in fact the ultimate democratisation of art: the notion of the arts being for everyone, as it attracts the broadest cross section of participants from all ages, backgrounds and experiences.
As an audience member it can be quite bewildering though. It takes work to look through the brochure. The great positive flip side is that prices remain affordable, with an average ticket costing around £8.50 and over half the programme with tickets at £5 or less and more than 200 events completely free. It means that you are able to take in so much more and you are freer to experiment and explore. You might see some shows that need more work but you'll also see some that are life-changingly good, that for me is the most exciting thing about Brighton Fringe.
Much of the work takes place in unusual or pop-up spaces, even in people’s homes, to smaller audience sizes than you might be used to. You are also often there at the earlier stages of a creative process than you might normally see work. It might be a bit rough around the edges at times, but the excitement you get from experiencing something new and so transient is one that can stay with you for the rest of your life.
What has happened with Brighton Fringe has been an extraordinary organic growth of largely small-scale performance and visual art, driven by both the creativity of the artists and the appetite of their audiences. Also, whilst there may now be over 100 pieces of work from international companies, there remains one third of the programme that comes from Brighton and Hove itself, as do at least 60% of the audiences too. This is something that we can be incredibly proud of as a city and as a region, and long may it continue.
Visit www.brightonfringe.org for listings, events run from 5 May to 4 June