To see the powerful opening image of a mad man in a straight jacket in the show Testimony, as part of this year Melbourne Fringe, was enough to ask this pressing and reoccurring question.
What is this fringe festival, or more importantly what are all fringe festivals, all about?
This year it’s bigger than ever. Huge, in fact. Last year it was bigger than the year before, and so one wonders, if bigger really does me mean ‘better’.
Testimony (performed by Matt Crosby) uses the Minotaur monster, half bull – half man, as a metaphor.
The original story of the Minotaur begins with King Minos (or Captain Cash if Hollywood & Marvel Comics get their mitts on him) asking the Gods for a sign, if he should be King.
Poseidon offers up a bull of unimaginable beauty, but rather than sacrificing it to the Gods in thanks, Minos gives them a lesser bull from his own herd. This hubris naturally outrages the Gods , of course because that’s what Gods do, and Athena with her ineffable style makes Minos’ Queen have sheep eyes for the beautiful bull. She sleeps with the bull, with the aid of some marvelous contraption, and bada-boom she gives birth to our monster – the Minotaur.
But in order to hide her shame, and for health and safety purposes, she orders Deadelus to construct the maziest maze to house this horror. To feed the monster though, seven youths, male and female, are forced each year to enter the maze, and you’ve have the Greek version of the Predator movie without the laser show.
The Minotaur is a symbol of hubristic desire, as is the Bull a universal symbol of worldly goods and penial largess.
So, there’s no prize for guessing why the greedy King Minos is a pertinent part of this axiomatic horror show, and the maze an allusion to the madness his types create.
The Maze has been utilised countless times, in The Matrix, Kafka’s The Trial and Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth to name a few. The common ground here, is to beat the system, whoever slays the beast and escapes the maze will free the world of its harmful ways. In the original Greek story it’s Theseus who slays the monster and escapes with the help of Ariadne’s ball of string.
Art festivals are like mazes, often mazes within mazes intercepting and crashing into each other. Just try making sense of their hefty programs or traversing the maze of a city to catch a show.
The sacrificial youths, it might be fair to say, who enter the maze at the beginning of these fringe festival adventures are the unwavering enthusiasts of culture – the participants themselves.
Each year for these unwavering contestants, it’s an inglorious shit fight for space availability, shows times, technical logistics, media attention, higher venue costs and then there’s coughing up for insurance, so everyone can feel healthy and safe. And then there’s the brutal business of getting an audience.
There’s so much to contend with, it seems making the art is the easy part. Since the world has created the maze, it’s hard to point a finger at who committed this original crime of imbalance.
And wandering through these festival mazes one hears across its many walls the cries of either victory or defeat. Many of these cries are now asking has this cultural bonanza become far too big to manage?
Or what does it mean to be really fringe? And what are those main-stream comedians or theatre companies doing here when they have a maze of their own? Are they in it to win those prizes on offer for future funding purposes?
Or maybe it’s a comedic act of desperation to do a gig that’s a little more cutting edge? But either way and for whatever reason, it’s always a struggle to be an artist/entertainer – whoever you are.
Then there’s the audience frustrating their way through the fringe hub, never knowing how to separate the good from the irredeemably bad. Forever turning right, then left, and left again, and always ending up spending most of their money in the bar.
Lets not forget when we as a city paraded through Brunswick Street, flying the arty-party flag, blissfully free of words like ‘safety’, ‘growth’ and ‘marketability’.
We can’t parade now, because the businesses who rode on the back of that creative vibe, manufactured by artists free of charge, don’t need you anymore. Unless of course you’re paying the high rent on one of their upstairs studio apartments.
If you are prize winner on the final night, well done you deserve it. But don’t forget to congratulate your very own Ariadne, your tireless publicist with her ball of string for pulling in those crowds.
If not, well then wander round The Fringe Hub ‘maze’ one more time and find an owner of an insurance company or venue or bar. Now, look them in the eye and say, “Hi, Mr King of the Minuses and the Pluses. Thanks for serving me up as your Minotaur’s lunch, but I believe you now owe me a very large drink.”