Festival of delight

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From lithe acrobats to visual artists, the Adelaide Fringe has something for everyone, writes STEVE MEACHAM.

Greg Clark is promising one of the best opening-night parties ever held in Adelaide.

Sure, as someone who has lived the past 20 years in Sydney, he realises the cynicism that will greet such a remark on the east coast. Isn't the South Australian capital usually lampooned as staid and conservative - just plain boring?

But Clark, who has previously specialised in big, free outdoor events in Sydney, such as Darling Harbour's annual New Year's Eve celebrations and the inaugural Fireworks Festival last year, says the Adelaide Fringe Festival is one of Australia's best-kept secrets.

Did you know, he points out, that Adelaide's is the second-biggest fringe festival in the world, trumped only by Edinburgh, which invented the concept in 1946?

''The Adelaide Fringe is more than double the size of Melbourne's,'' says Clark, who began a three-year stint as the director of the event in May. ''Melbourne has about 290 events, predominantly featuring local artists, whereas we have over 700. For a lot of artists, we are the big draw in Australia. Performers come from all over Australia and overseas. Plus, because we are on before the Melbourne Comedy Festival, we get a lot of the big-name comedians from Britain coming through.''

The first Adelaide Fringe was held in 1960.

As someone who grew up in Adelaide and continued coming to the Fringe to keep an eye on emerging talent, Clark has watched the festival blossom since it became an annual fixture in 2007, instead of merely shadowing the city's main international arts festival, held every two years. ''In just four years, the Fringe has doubled in size,'' Clark says. ''Both in the number of events and the number of ticket sales. It has gone from 150,000 ticket sales in 2007 to 300,000 in 2010. South Australians love the Fringe.''

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Doesn't that fly in the face of Adelaide's image? ''Yes, but this is an event that was started 50 years ago by people who weren't involved in the main festival. They decided to put on an alternative. The ethos was: anyone can be in it. If you had an idea for a show, you could pay a little bit of money and be part of the Fringe. That hasn't changed. The result is that there is something in the Fringe for everyone.''

The 2011 line-up won't be announced until January. But it will include the usual mix: impossibly lithe circus performers, sexy burlesque artists, risque comics, emerging actors, talented musicians and stimulating visual artists - all performing during 24 summer nights in the pubs, cinemas, theatres, streets and parks across the city.

Clark's team is responsible for staging the big, free events. Chief among these, as usual, is the traditional opening parade, involving 1000 choreographed performers moving through Adelaide's east end. This year, 80,000 people watched the parade, followed by a free concert on two stages featuring musical acts taking part in the Fringe. Next year, the parade will include new characters and floats, while the party will spill into the city's parklands for performances from the festival's leading artists.

Another innovation is the introduction of Spirit Festival into the Fringe. This has long been the premier showcase of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural talent but it has been held later in the year. Last year, 15,000 people attended its program of traditional and contemporary performing arts, its workshops and its popular visual arts fair. Now, by coming under the Fringe umbrella, the organisers hope to broaden its appeal.

The Desert Fringe (February 25-26) is a more familiar part of the festival. Selected artists head 300 kilometres north to Port Augusta for a weekend of culture on the edge of ocean and outback.

Visual arts form an under-appreciated arm of the Fringe. Clark says there will be more than 100 different exhibitions in various galleries. One he is most looking forward to is the Visibility Project at the Light Square.

''We've given cameras to young Aboriginal kids in Port Augusta to take pictures of their friends and family,'' he says. ''Young refugee kids in South Australia have also been given cameras. We're going to combine them and project them from a big tower of shipping containers. Their images are so powerful and so positive.''

Yet, for all its success, Clark admits the festival has failed to attract attention outside the state. ''Ninety-two per cent of our audience is from South Australia, 7 per cent is from interstate and 1 per cent from overseas,'' he says. ''There is room for huge growth. My aim is to open this Fringe up so people come down here from all over Australia to experience this great festival.''

The 2011 Adelaide Fringe runs from February 18 to March 13. For more information see www.adelaidefringe.com.au.

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