New circus show The Defiant was forged in tiny windows of space amid the precarity of repeated COVID lockdowns.

“But it’s not about the pandemic,” says director Elena Kirschbaum, who is presenting five shows at this year’s Fringe, while also fulfilling her role as co-director of Gluttony.

Kirschbaum’s production company, Highwire Entertainment, is based between Adelaide and Melbourne. For the company’s team of 25 artists, the last two years have been some of the harshest of their careers, with lockdowns obliterating their touring schedule and making training, rehearsal and creative development largely impossible.

While The Defiant isn’t about the pandemic, Kirschbaum says it does draw on the difficulty of those experiences.

“It has a post-apocalyptic theme and aesthetic to it and one of the things that we have spent a lot of time working on is the way that the individual performers connect with those kind of world-shattering moments,” she says.

“But the show is not about the trauma and the darkness of the apocalyptic moment, it’s about the camaraderie and the celebration and the community… the way that you pick those pieces back up.”

It’s also about the spectacle and joy of humans performing truly incredible feats.

Created by an all femme-identifying cast and crew, the show is an outlier in its genre. Kirschbaum says male-dominated casts are prevalent in circus, and stereotyping in roles sometimes denies femme performers the opportunity to showcase all their skills.

In its subversive yet fun tone, The Defiant fits neatly alongside another show Kirschbaum is directing at Fringe. Rouge is a sexy circus-cabaret hybrid that undermines the usual tropes of the form by making sure silliness, tenderness, awkwardness and true inclusivity are a part of the mix.

Both Rouge and The Defiant are large ensemble shows, and Highwire is also presenting three other works at this year’s Adelaide Fringe. Kirschbaum’s schedule is full – weighed down between the works and her responsibilities at Gluttony, where she is a partner and program director.

This is not an accident. Since the pandemic began, the Adelaide Fringe season has become a life raft for Kirschbaum and many other artists – a constant that has thankfully remained while other performance opportunities evaporated.

The Defiant. Photo: Kieran McNamara

This is not the first time Adelaide Fringe has been pivotal for Kirschbaum. Since her early career, the festival has been an essential platform, particularly as it helped contemporary circus make the leap from marginal genre to audience favourite.

“When I got involved with Fringe 12 or 13 years ago in Adelaide, circus was not really on the radar,” says Kirschbaum.   

“I do think that Fringe festivals have played a really big role in that change. In a festival as substantial as Adelaide Fringe, you can bring a show in a way that is relatively – and I absolutely say relatively – cost-effective.

“It enables companies of every sort of size to put work on and to experiment and take risks in a way that you can’t in other circumstances.”

Adelaide Fringe was also seminal in building Kirschbaum’s skills as a producer. Her marketing skills and logistics savvy have grown through trial and error in an environment that made room for mistakes. With the lessons from her early experiences, she’s been able to transition from presenting smaller works, to multiple ensemble works, to operating a touring venue, and then becoming an essential element in Gluttony’s success.

Involved with Gluttony casually since its inception in 2011, Kirschbaum became co-director in 2014 and has helped the hub to become one of the biggest dining and performance destinations at Fringe.

She says the growth was initially made possible by partnering with local artists, who are the driving force of Fringe – making up about 70-80 per cent of the program across the entire festival, and, in 2021, dominating the list of top 20 best-selling shows. 

Because we were growing, what it meant was that we had to kind of go out there and go, ‘Okay, what locals are there who are doing really good things who might want to take that next step up in terms of the size of venue, or come into a park-style hub?’,” says Kirschbaum.

“In that first year we started to have a lot of success. It was the first year that we were working with people like Matt Tarrant, who is now one of the biggest-selling magic acts. When we started working with him, he had only done one or two Fringe shows with a couple of mates.

“These small artists took a punt on us and we took a punt on them and I think we were able to kind of grow together and I think that’s a huge part of where our successes came from.”

Times have changed since those early years, but the strength of the relationship between artists, audiences and the Gluttony team remains. This year, the venue is hosting more than 140 shows spread across genres as diverse as workshops, dance and hypnotism. Between the blockbuster names like Hugh Sheridan and Kirschbaum’s own large-scale shows, there is still a strong representation of locals and undiscovered gems.

Elena Kirschbaum is presenting five shows at this year’s Fringe.

Kirschbaum points to Millicent Sarre is Opinionated, Classical Mystery Tour, Manbo and Arcadia as examples of smaller, SA shows she believes will become 2022 program highlights.

Maintaining this programming balance is only one of the many balls Kirschbaum is juggling during this Fringe season, but after years of seminal experiences at the festival she is well-equipped to keep them all in the air.

Gluttony is open in Murlawirrapurka (Rymill Park) from February 18 to March 20. Its program is out now.

The Defiant’ and ‘Rouge’ are both showing February 18 to March 20 at Gluttony, in The Peacock and Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent respectively.

The Business of Art is an InReview series about the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of Adelaide Fringe.

Read more of the series here.

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