The little Fringe that grew

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Sarah Thomas previews the festival that is Adelaide's cue to dress up, take to the streets and party.

THIS year's Spirit of the Fringe Award - one of the 13 gongs given out at the end of the Adelaide festival - didn't go to any of the artists that took part.

Instead, it went to the audience.

More specifically, it went to David and Karen Hyland, a couple from Two Wells, an hour's drive north of Adelaide, who immersed themselves in up to six shows a day, spending thousands of dollars during the 24-day festival.

The director of the festival, Christie Anthony, says she wants to celebrate the audience that supports the festival so fiercely and the Hylands best embody this backing.

"They said that their lives were fully enriched by the festival and they could live off the Fringe experience for a long time,'' Anthony says. ''They encourage everybody to see things that they've never heard of and discover new artists.''

This year's Fringe - the festival takes place every February and March - saw almost 5000 performances across 260 venues. An estimated 900,000 people attended the various events linked to the Fringe, such as a street parade, with about 250,000 tickets sold for performances.

Next year the event is celebrating its 50th birthday, having started as an offshoot of performances deemed on the ''fringe'' of the main Adelaide Festival in 1960. It became a symbol of community theatre in the 1970s with plays by Patrick White.

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Now the festival is second only to Edinburgh as a fringe event worldwide.

''It does suggest from little things, big things grow,'' Anthony says. ''A community swell or ground movement are significant moments in the rock bed of history. The Fringe is in the fabric of the city and community - it's grown up and is entwined with the history of Adelaide.''

Another notable moment for Anthony this year was the Fringe Parade, which saw 80,000 people come out to watch 70 community and business groups take to the streets. ''Some of them were hilarious,'' she says.

''The Adelaide City Council decided to put their office on wheels, so they got desks and filing cabinets and frocked up in '50s outfits and big hair and pushed them down the streets.

''It just embodied for me the sense of civic pride in the idea of an arts parade for the Fringe. The title 'Fringe' gives people permission to open up and be a bit mad.''

The audience and community aside, the festival is primarily known for being a springboard for new and emerging artists, not just from Australia but worldwide. More than 290 shows premiered at the festival this year, covering the spectrum of arts in comedy, music, theatre, cabaret, dance and puppetry, among others.

To help celebrate the festival's 50th birthday, organisers are also putting together an open-access web project in the vein of Wikipedia, which will invite past performers to put forward their experiences so there will be a written account of the event's history.

Anthony expects next year's event to be the biggest ever and says the appeal is the enormous choice. ''It's absolutely enriching,'' she says.

ADELAIDE FRINGE

WHEN February 19-March 14.

WHAT An arts festival covering a large range of performances, such as music, theatre, dance and even circus shows, and known for being a springboard for new and emerging artists, as well as a showcase for new work from established acts.

INFORMATION See adelaidefringe.com.au.

THE STAR ATTRACTIONS

MANY major stars have cut their teeth at the Adelaide Fringe.

Comedian and Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation presenter Shaun Micallef (pictured) is from Adelaide and has been heavily involved with the Fringe in the past. Musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars - comprising Paul McDermott, Tim Ferguson and Richard Fidler - won Pick of the Fringe in 1986.

More recent stars include comedian Sammy J and his show The Forest of Dreams, which premiered at last year's festival and has since been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and London's West End.

Drum and beatbox crew the Tom Tom Club were a big hit at the Fringe last year and had a sold-out run at the Edinburgh event in August.

The director of the festival, Christie Anthony, says the event is a ''cultural pilgrimage'' for artists, who come knowing the audience is motivated and there's a great chance for exposure.

''In terms of giving it a go and trying something in front of an audience, it's tough and it can be competitive,'' Anthony says. ''Artists are compared, whether they're professional or first-timers - it's an even playing field. But should they be brilliant, they will have the opportunity to connect to people in a much quicker way."

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