“Remarkable, rambunctious, sloppy, weirdo-filled”: A tribute to the Fringe, 40 years on
Those involved in the early days of Melbourne’s Fringe Festival look back with fond memories of exciting and perhaps crazier times.
And as the festival turns 40 this year, the reflections from those at the forefront paint an amazing picture of what mid-1980s unpredictable, experimental and, at times, chaotic artistic expression in Melbourne was like.
“There was no occ [occupational] health and safety; people would stand on cars and be driven, or lie on the bonnets as they were driving up and dancing all around them,” actor, writer and director Maude Davey explains in an interview with State Library Victoria (SLV), detailing the “remarkable, rambunctious, sloppy, weirdo-filled” street parades of the early Fringe.
“There was always, as a I say, random nudity … it was kind of wild, and silly, and bad music, but it was really exhilarating. It was really fun.”
Fringe co-founder Arpad Mihaly recalls the festival in the early ‘80s: “Everything was exciting, everything was new. It was like stepping onto a roller coaster. And you would get up to the first hill and then it would go flying down and you go ‘wow, this is incredible’. And then it would go up to the next one and it would do it again.”
Their reflections are just small parts of a major exhibition celebrating the city’s longest-running multi-arts festival, which has now opened at SLV.
Running until July 2023, The Rest Is Up To You: Melbourne Fringe Festival 1982–2062 (which opened alongside this year’s festival) looks back at the past 40 years — then forward to the next 40 — through sound and video installations. Notably, it also draws on an impressive archive of all things Fringe; thousands of letters, posters, programs and flyers, telling the story of the festival’s “shaky beginnings”.
It tells the story of how Victoria’s independent artists demanded to be heard by creating their own movement in which to perform, provoke and protest.
The exhibition’s title is a nod to a 1984 Festival newsletter that underlined the need for all to be invested in its success.
“Our title, The Rest Is Up To You, is from a 1984 Festival newsletter reminding artists to practice and promote their work along with Fringe,” SLV curator Kate Rhodes said.
“Nothing has changed about the intense labour of making art but today we might read this instruction more broadly: that cultures live through everybody’s participation in them.”
Comedian and ABC Melbourne Radio breakfast host Sammy J said that 40 years on, the Fringe Festival remained a safer space in which to try new material in what was, as others have put it, the “R&D department of the arts industry”.
While the first half of his year was usually occupied by the Comedy Festival, Fringe occupied the second half and was a rawer, often the more interesting experience.
“Fringe is known in Melbourne as the place where you can try new ideas — ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily take to something like the Comedy Festival,” he said.
“The audience have been educated to expect different things, expect challenging things, to go with ideas and to see huge successes and to see huge failures, and that’s all okay — that’s all part of it. For me personally, it’s where I would take something risky, something that I’m not sure about, and throw myself into it and just know that if it doesn’t work, it’s been a beautiful experience.”
The Rest Is Up To You: Melbourne Fringe Festival 1982–2062 opened in the Keith Murdoch Gallery on October 6 as part of the 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival, and will run until July 2023.
Photo caption 1: A Fringe Festival parade from 1989.
Photo caption 2: The exhibition at State Library Victoria (Picture: Nick Robertson).