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10 minutes with ... Heather Croall

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New director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Heather Croall, takes 10 minutes to talk to us about the success so far of this year’s Fringe, how she wants to work closely with city businesses, and how the event can expand into new parts of the city.

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Welcome Heather to 10 Minutes With. Firstly, congratulations with the Fringe Festival this year. It’s smashing. This is your first year as director – how has the experience been so far?

It’s a totally thrilling job to have. I used to work at the Fringe for 10 years running film elements, managed venues and did shows myself and so on so the Fringe is very much part of me.

I love the Fringe. It’s one of the best jobs in Australia in the arts because the Adelaide Fringe is everything I’m looking for in terms of a festival experience. It has that truly-it-can-change-your-life kind of feeling as an audience member, as well as an artist.

It can change the city. It’s a transformative event. It transforms the city but it also transforms people.

I love when art takes people to an ecstatic, euphoric moment. It doesn’t always have to come from fun and games, some of that can come from serious theatre. It doesn’t have to be high-energy laughs but there’s a euphoria that happens in the Adelaide Fringe and you can really soar.

Seeing that happening already in the first weekend was amazing because that normally doesn’t build until the second or third weekend. We’ve smashed records this weekend that normally we don’t touch ‘til the third weekend.

Normally the Fringe has a slow build. It feels like everyone’s come out of the gate at high speed – Bam!

But in terms of what it’s been like, behind the scenes there’s a huge amount of stuff we have to work on.

We have a lot of partnerships we work with and our funders.

We don’t just take the money and run. We actually work really closely with them. What are you looking for? What do you want to do?

Our business partnerships are genuinely engaged in the Fringe and they’re out every night seeing shows.

That just shows that we have a relationship level with these people that’s really special. But we don’t do that overnight. We work on that all year. I’ve worked really hard on that this year and so has the team.

When I arrived as the new director I said “well what are we doing?” Ok, we always do a parade. I want it to look differently. I want to take it down North Terrace. I want to take it along the street that’s got big forecourts and footpaths.

I don’t want it to be a nighttime parade, I want it to be a carnival. I want market stalls all the way for a few hours along the mall.

We got the Art Gallery and library to stay open late. They had hundreds and hundreds of people going in after 5 [pm] when they normally would be shut. And they said there were brand new people who would not normally go to the library or gallery.

… I know the Edinburgh Fringe has 3000 shows and Edinburgh Fringe is a lot bigger than us but we are the second biggest to Edinburgh.

We’re experiencing a record year this year. Last year was a record year in tickets. We got 540,000 tickets sold. It cracked half a million tickets. It’s the biggest festival in the country, hands down, by a long shot.

This year we’re on track to sell 600,000. Over the last four days, per day, we’ve sold around 12,000 to 13,000 tickets. Everyday.

Where are the crowds coming from?

I think there are a lot of new people. Because I’ve got my pink hair people are coming up to me in the streets saying “this Fringe is so fresh” and “it’s the first time we’ve been here for years and you’ve made us come out”.

We’ve been growing for a while but I really think we’ve had an influx of new or people coming back to the Fringe that might not have been around for a couple of years.

Why do you think new audiences are trying the Fringe or have come back?

We’ve done a massive, massive campaign about the Fringe is fun, the Fringe takes over the whole city. We want to transform Adelaide.

I personally worked very hard to get Annabel Crabb. I worked hard to get her to come and do a show because this wasn’t a natural [event] in her mind. That was a huge sell out of a couple of thousand people who were not naturally Fringe-goers who have now put a toe in the water and may come back and buy some more tickets.

I’ve also put in place this new digital interactive genre. And a lot of registrations came in.

I think we’re the first Fringe in the world to introduce an interactive genre and I think a lot of Fringes will follow because, if it’s anything to go by, what’s happening here, the numbers were really good.

We’re trying to find new doorways for people to enter the Fringe.

You introduced the illuminations to the Fringe – how has that been received?

One of the projects I initiated this year was the big animated projection that goes all the way along North Terrace.

What I’m trying to do in the Fringe this year is create vibrancy but I think that vibrancy should not just be something that happens during the Fringe.

If we were a city of light year round with projections and stunning light sculptures, we would see a huge increase in tourists coming and exploring that.

If you think about [crowds] pouring out of the Adelaide Oval after a cricket match or a football match and you come out and you know that there’s the promenade of the lights on North Terrace, yeah I think Adelaide should embrace the fact that we were founded by Colonel Light and become a city of light.

I’ve seen big projections in the world for the past 10 years. These [Adelaide’s] I would say are hands down some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Explain your funding relationships with council, government and business?

For the projections, the Fringe gets a bit of support obviously from the government. This is really important and significant. It goes towards our core costs for our staff and so on.

We don’t get a huge grant in the way that curated festivals get.

We need to work hard to raise sponsorship and we also need to work hard to earn money in all different ways. We do a lot of big hospitality [events] at the Fringe. That’s one way it can help us offset some of our costs.

The sponsors in general just love the Fringe because the profile the Fringe gets is just so huge for them.

Just look at Bank SA. They’ve been our partner for 11 years. Rarely do you see a corporate and festival partnership like that for so long and just grow and grow and grow.

What is the funding cycle for the Fringe?

We have multiple-year deals with the council and the government and some of our big sponsors but generally we’re out there beating the doors of everyone and saying ‘hey, do you want to be a partner of the Fringe?’

It’s a huge tapestry of funding to sew together that we had to sew together really quickly in order to then find the artists.

If you take the gig of the Perth International Festival, you’ve got $10 million odd or $15 million, you’ve got a kitty of money and you arrive and you start spending it and you start commissioning work.

Whereas we don’t have that money but we realise that its our job to bring the city alive and vibrant.

We just have to get really clever at how can we make Adelaide as vibrant as possible.

We don’t have any real money so we go to all our partners. We’re so reliant on State Government, the council, the sponsors and all those key partners

So we’re good at taking not a lot of money and turning it into something spectacular.

We do all the stuff between the venues but the artists do their own thing as well.

How big can the Fringe get?

I think the biggest challenge for us now is we need interstate people to realise that this is a world-class experience you won’t find anywhere else.

I know Edinburgh is a beautiful amazing place but they don’t get the summers we get. And while Edinburgh is an absolutely stunning Fringe, you don’t get those balmy nights under the big skies that we get.

That is something to go out to and see a show somewhere then to be able to go out and sit among the atmosphere and the vibe we create. To go promenading along the illuminations.

That offers tourists to walk around and see all the beautiful things at night plus see the shows, plus see the trees and under the stars. There’s nothing like it on earth.

What is the Fringe’s relationship like with businesses at this time?

It’s a mixture. I mean what I’ve worked really hard on this year is to get businesses to understand how they can fit in the Fringe. I’ve tried to make the Fringe more inclusive than ever before.

When I arrived there was quite a lot of noise coming from bricks-and-mortar businesses but they felt that the Fringe was taking their business away. So we’re trying to help them understand how they can ‘Fringify’ for the month of Fringe.

Where it works really well is close to big Fringe hubs. You’ve got restaurants full, everything, teeming with people. But what we’d like to do is work with business – ‘how do you Fringify your area?’.

What works really well is a cluster of restaurants get together because of their close proximity and they make a Fringe precinct. That is something I’d like to work on in the next year because Leigh Street and Peel Street are natural Fringe precincts but at the moment it hasn’t been pulled together yet.

But if something was to be pulled together in that area and if there could be shows upstairs above the restaurants and bars and cafes, I think that could become one of the most amazing Fringe precincts.

Similarly Hutt Street could become a Fringe precinct but we’ve got to work closely with licensing and the council and all the businesses.

To me Rundle Street should be closed [during the festival at night]. All those businesses should be trading out on the street because they could get a huge amount of trade but it’s a safety issue as well.

Saturday night there was so many people walking around in the East End. There should not have been cars on Rundle Street and there shouldn’t have been any cars on the intersection.

It’s got to change because we have now hit a tipping point where the Fringe is attracting the crowds that are so big we just can’t have the crowds and the cars together.

So I think the East End precinct should on weekends be a walking only in Rundle Street and traders should trade out. That is the kind of thing that will help tourists decide to come.

 Read more of our “10 minutes with…” interviews here.

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