The co-chairman of Shaftesbury Fringe, Natalie Evans, says she is both ‘exhausted’ and ‘ecstatic’ following the success of the third annual performance festival.
Based on the number of performances, our town now hosts England’s third largest fringe event.
And if you chatted to performers over the weekend, you probably heard the same message again and again. Many of the acts said they want to return next year. “A couple of quite well-known performers have already signed up for 2019,” said Nat. “We normally don’t hear about next year’s bookings until we do a shout out at the end of the year,” she added.
Heidi Regan, the comedian named the BBC’s new comedy act of 2017, has already said that she wants to be part of next year’s line-up. “It was definitely worthwhile and really lovely,” Heidi said. “There was an amazing turnout and I will be back. Definitely.”
Over the three days of Fringe, attendees were able to choose from a diverse range of performances. Sturminster-based Rural Redemption Theatre Company performed two excellent short plays in Ye Old Two Brewers’ skittle alley, which had been transformed into a pop-up theatre.
There were poetry and book readings, too. The Arts Centre’s writing group released their book of ‘Shaftesbury Tales’ and the group read some of their stories.
People who watched Paul Preager’s close-up magic couldn’t believe their eyes. Neither could the crowd packed into The Shaston Club for Doug Segal’s mind-reading show. Members of the audience picked random numbers before Doug incredibly revealed their choices, printed on a National Lottery ticket. Rightly, Doug received a standing ovation.
That was the first of many over the weekend. The crowd also showed its appreciation by leaping to its feet after Robin Walters’ Ukulele Big Band show in the Abbey Gardens. The Palida Choir was offered sustained applause after their performance in the Grosvenor Arms courtyard.
Anybody seeking a little more in the way of exercise than standing up to clap had the chance to join dozens of fringegoers for Kirsty Elliott’s Park Walk yoga session.
New for 2018 was the children’s hub – Abbeytropolis – in the Abbey Gardens. Angola 76 also setup a new outdoor stage on Muston’s Lane. Their crowd-covering canopy was required to keep the sun off the audience, rather than keep them dry. The Hidden Pizza Company also provided a new busking stage next to their mobile kitchen, set up on The Commons.
“Everybody seemed to be buzzing. There was something for everyone,” said West Knoyle based singer songwriter Kachina Aimee. Kachina was, interestingly, one of two acts playing the harp. The other performers were Chloe and Adrian who appear as Hummingbird.
Shaftesbury Fringe’s is unique in that it takes place in multiple venues, within walking distance from each other, situated all over the town. Performance spaces included the ninth century Abbey grounds and secret or walled gardens like those at The Potting Shed or behind Shaftesbury Wines. Sloane’s Hair salon hosted a gig, a genuine ‘fringe’ event. Two estate agent offices also became performance venues. It’s rumoured that one agent even sold a house following a show!
“I’m loving the town. It’s quite cute and lovely, actually,” said Chloe from Hummingbird on her first visit from the capital to North Dorset. “We love how warm everything is. People are doing stuff everywhere and really getting involved. It’s been lovely,” she said. Chloe enjoyed playing gigs at Coffee #1, Bright Blooms and the Bell Street Church. “We had a dog and some kids at the church, which was cool,” she added.
Fringe committee member Rob Neely believes that Shaftesbury’s relaxed vibe helps makes the event a success. “The atmosphere in town was quite remarkable,” said Rob. “Everybody seemed to be aware that there was something happening. The whole place came alive and people were very happy. This lasted the whole of the three days.”
Chairman of Shaftesbury and District Chamber of Commerce, David Perry, felt that Fringe gave the town a lift. “It’s absolutely buzzing, from Friday lunchtime all the way through,” he said.
Kachina sensed that the Fringe was 50% bigger this year. “The ‘pockets’ all around the Fringe festival appear to be bigger. It feels more established,” Kachina observed.
Will Shaftesbury Fringe grow even more for 2019? Natalie says the committee need to discuss that. “This is a difficult one,” Nat said. “We want to get better. I hesitate about saying that we wanted to become bigger. It depends on how you define bigger. I think that the number of performances this year was probably about right. We don’t want to overdo it. We don’t want to become a large, commercial festival. That’s not the idea and it’s not what the town wants. I think we’re very proud to stay small and to keep those seats filled with people coming in. There are only so many performances that people can go around and see.”
Natalie was particularly moved by comments she received, which compared Shaftesbury Fringe with the world’s greatest performance event. “A performer said that this weekend in Shaftesbury felt just like Edinburgh fringe did at the start, all those years ago. The friendly atmosphere of the town, the committee spirit and the feeling of excitement was very much like Edinburgh when it first started,” Nat said.
This year, the Fringe team had made an extra effort to decorate Shaftesbury for the event. “I think the town looked fantastic,” said Nat. “Our wonderful flags, which were sponsored by our Chamber of Commerce, and colourful ribbons hung by volunteers.”
The event is reliant on sponsorship from local businesses. Nat is pleased that initial feedback suggests that the town’s traders are happy with the event. “Pubs, cafes and restaurants did a roaring trade,” says Nat. “Shops had great footfall.”
David Perry, who owns Shaftesbury Wines, had personal experience of the pulling power of Fringe. “We’ve had a couple in the shop from Christchurch. They just decided it would be a good idea to come to Shaftesbury for the weekend because Shaftesbury ‘is where it’s at’,” said David. The visitors bought some of David’s wine before leaving. “Fringe has grown massively and is certainly a big draw”, David added.
Natalie and her team have distributed survey forms, seeking feedback and opinion. The information will be used to improve the 2019 event. You can email email@example.com with your comments.
Natalie says this event could not happen if it were not for Shaftesbury’s unique qualities. “We really do have one of the most amazingly, tight-knit, friendly, tolerant and supportive communities that I know of. These festivals can’t happen without the support and commitment of the whole community. If you came to watch a performer, you are one of our sponsors, or a hard-working volunteer, then a heartfelt thank you,” Nat said.
The Shaftesbury Fringe team hope to announce their 2019 dates soon. In the meantime, Kachina Aimee summed up 2018’s Fringe in three words. “It’s been brilliant.”