New Shaftesbury Fringe Leader Shares Vision For Festival

The volunteers arranging England’s third largest fringe festival never really stop. Preparations are ongoing almost all year round. And as we head towards the fourth Shaftesbury Fringe, between 5th and 7th July, an experienced Shaftesbury event organiser has stepped in to help head-up the weekend.

If James Thrift had needed to apply for his new, unpaid job as Co-chairman of Shaftesbury Fringe, he would have waltzed through the interview. “I’m probably the person who has been to more Fringe performances than anybody else,” James said, with good reason. He has been volunteering as a photographer during the last three Fringe events and that means he’s seen a huge selection of shows – whether music, drama, physical performance or spoken word.

James has supported the concept of the town’s open performance arts events since its inception. “I was involved before the first one started, when the first ideas were mooted,” he said. James is also a key player in a number of high profile occasions that encourage people into our town. “I’ve been involved in festivals and events in Shaftesbury for years and years. From the Chamber of Commerce’s Christmas events, and latterly the food festival and behind-the-scenes, helping out with the carnival. I have a few miles under my belt,” he said.

James Thrift

James says his vision for Shaftesbury Fringe is simple – to do ‘more of what we are doing’. But he was keen to point out the important difference between Shaftesbury Fringe and general festivals. “We don’t book acts to come in. With the Fringe, we are a conduit. We put the performers in touch with venues. We let them come up with what they want to do and then we publicise it,” explained James. “I think that is where this Fringe has been so fantastic. It is not just music. There’s comedy, poetry, we have relaxation and there is an amazing diversity of events. I just want to grow that.”

James says that the range of performance venues across the town also adds interest to the Shaftesbury Fringe. “We have the obvious venues, like The Grosvenor, Angola and Ye Olde Two Brewers, but we also have places like the back garden of Shaftesbury Wines or the flower shop. It is growing that diversity that’s important,” he said.

None of the Fringe committee members are paid for their work putting on this three-day event, but there is a small £25 charge for performers. I asked James why? “When we get the performers and the venues together, we publicise it through our website. This year, excitingly, we have an app, so people go around over the weekend and check what events are coming up on their phone. There is a programme, which is growing and growing in size. They are all distributed. For the fee the performer pays, which is quite modest, an awful lot is given back in promotion of the event,” said James.

People often ask whether the fringe is going to get bigger. James has considered this issue carefully. “Because it is a fringe and not a festival, it is not down to us to book acts. It has grown every year but it hasn’t grown massively and we will get to the point where we don’t want it to be huge. The performers coming in are often not local. They come from all over the country. Some of them are saying it is like Edinburgh was before Edinburgh got big. It is good that it has grown and it will continue to grow but it’s important that it grows in diversity as well as in numbers,” James said.

Many of the performers commented on Shaftesbury’s ‘friendly fringe’, James know why. “This is a small town. We are definitely punching well above our weight in what we put on,” he said. “We are the third biggest fringe in the country. People get confused because they think of Edinburgh, but that’s not in England. At the core of it, this is a market town. Everybody knows each other. All of the volunteers who come in over the weekend are local. This is not a business. Nobody is in this to make money. I think that is reflected on how we treat the performers and also how the audiences react to the performers. Performers love coming here.”

Fringe Co-chairman Rob Neely asked James to share the chairmanship role with the full support of the Fringe committee. The position became vacant on Monday, with the resignation of Sue Allatt, who has been co-chairman for a year and a half. Sue wants to spend more time on her own business.

“It can be an awful lot of work,” said James. “I think the more people who dip in and help will mean there is less workload across the board for everyone. When this fringe first started, Andy Tebbutt-Russell and Samantha put this on in the first year. They gave up their life for six months to get this event up and running. It was a huge commitment. Luckily we have this fantastic team who took it on. We all have lives, families and jobs and commitments change.”

James added, “Fair do to Sue, who has put in a fantastic amount of work to get this going. She’s been in the position where she couldn’t afford to give it that much time. We thank her for all of her effort and hopefully we will carry it on, to do her justice,” he said.

Performers’ registration closes on 14th April. You can register at ShaftesburyFringe.co.uk.