Shaftesbury Fringe’s 2020 Vision Is For More Art and Street Performers

Registration has opened for Shaftesbury Fringe, with performers being offered a new, discount booking deal. And this year, organisers hope to transform the High Street into a space for public performance with artists displaying their creativity.

Shaftesbury Fringe co-chairman Rob Neely is an accomplished artist himself. He gained his first-class Fine Arts degree at Leeds University and still occasionally exhibits his work. You have possibly seen Rob’s art without realising. If you walked past the ‘Fringebury Towers’ – ten-foot tall notice boards topped with mannequin heads or legs, painted in the Fringe’s ‘rhubarb and custard’ colours – these were Rob’s creations.

This year he’s urging our town’s artistic community to help decorate Shaftesbury by showing their work and creating pop-up art pieces. “Art doesn’t have to be in the gallery,” explained Rob. “It could be in the street. It could be anywhere. I’m hoping that more people will come forward to do art. It doesn’t have to be a painting or static. Let’s see if people will respond. I hope that they will. It would be nice to have something a little more unusual, more fringe-orientated but it is really up to them. If we start something going, who knows? It might become more prominent than it has been. We could do some great things with that.”

Fringe co-chairmen Rob Neely (left) and James Thrift

Rob says he is excited to put out the call to encourage artists to participate. He promises that the Fringe team will work on the logistics of displaying outdoor pieces if artists respond positively. “That’s the kind of problem we have to look at when it arises. We can try and solve it,” said Rob. His message to our town’s artists is straightforward. “Get cracking. Art should be out there for people to see and I think it’s a blank sheet, really.”

As we chatted, sat at Rob’s kitchen table strewn with Fringe paperwork, pictures and forms, it is hard to believe that this well-established calendar event is only in its fourth year. Co-chairman James Thrift backs Rob’s call to artists to become more involved. He says it’s important to come up with new ideas to keep the festival fresh.

“The Fringe is very much in its infancy. We know from experience that is it is well-received, and it works,” said James. “Every year we go along and find that new niche thing we can do. The beauty of the Fringe is that it is organic, it grows. It’s not one person. It’s all those people coming together. If you’ve got some mad, crazy idea, come and talk to us. It could be the thing that we are looking for.”

Each year, people ask whether the forthcoming Fringe will be bigger than the previous event. Already the Shaftesbury Fringe has secured its place as the third-largest fringe festival in England, bigger than Brighton or Manchester. And whilst those city events are spread out over a fortnight or longer and take place in venues across large geographic areas, Shaftesbury’s festival crams over 170 performances into a single weekend, filling venues within walking distance of each other.

James believes that there is potential for our town’s event to become bigger because the Fringe committee doesn’t book the acts themselves. The number of performers determines the festival’s size. Artists from all over the UK respond to the call to put on shows. “We are open access. If there are more people out there who would like to perform at those venues, potentially it could become much bigger,” said James.

James says Shaftesbury’s rich musical talent should be tapped further and he would love local bands and artists to book a venue or busk in the High Street to help create that magical Fringe ‘buzz’.

Rob Neely with his ‘Fringebury Towers’

Rob says he loves being involved because of that special atmosphere. Six months after last summer’s event, shoppers still visit his Dorset Store business to say how much they loved the excitement of the weekend.

And James believes the event should become more prominent. “When you come into the town, you suddenly realise there are thirty or more venues and at any one time there can be thirty or more shows. But if you stand in the High Street, people wonder whether it is actually going on, because it takes place behind those closed doors,” he said. “There’s always a vast amount going on. We have a lot of outdoor space in the High Street. It would be fantastic if we could utilise that space and get more acts on in the town, whether that is music, performance art or visual art.”

If you want to take part in the 2020 event, or you know someone who might be interested, you can now reserve your place on the Fringe website. Last year, organisers introduced a discount for performers who register early. That fee reduction for each show is being offered once again. “They have a month to register – the whole of January – at the early-bird fee of £15 per show. After that it’s £25,” explained Rob.

All of the money raised from registration gets ploughed back into the festival. Much of the cash is used to promote and market the Fringe weekend and to encourage people to visit the town. And it works – the turnover of some businesses can be boosted by tens-of-thousands of pounds over the weekend. Although Fringe helps Shaftesbury’s economy the event remains not-for-profit and none of the Fringe team is paid.

Shaftesbury Fringe 2019

Rob says they can choose a venue that suits them. “Each one will have a description of the size of the venue. There will be pictures. You can see what you think. You should try and tailor your performance to the right type of venue. You’re not going to be able to put a large orchestra in a small shop, for instance. You wouldn’t put a rock band in the church. Then it comes down to the venue people to decide whether they think that you, as a performer, are suitable for the premises.”

Rob says some venues do charge. The Fringe website identifies which places a require a fee so there are no ‘nasty surprises’.

The Mitre has decided not to use their back-garden terrace for music again this year, but Rob is pleased to add some new show spaces. “King Alfred’s Kitchen was just opening up on Fringe weekend last year so they couldn’t become part of the Fringe. We have got the Rolt Millennium garden coming on in St James. I’ve been trying for a long time to get that venue because they’ve done a fantastic job down there with the plants. I’m hoping that will be a really good addition to the list of venues.”

If you would like to book your show, visit Shaftesbury Fringe runs from 3rd – 5th July 2020.