The Fringe comes to Shaftesbury
Richard Thomas meets the couple who aim to turn Shaftesbury into Edinburgh
Published in May ’16
Show producer Andy Tebbutt-Russell and his partner, cabaret singer Samantha, were so blown away by their experience last year at the Edinburgh Fringe that they left determined to do something as good in Dorset. They just didn’t expect it to happen quite so soon.
‘The Edinburgh Fringe is incredible and we loved the whole concept of it,’ says Andy of their three weeks performing in the Scottish capital. ‘It’s the biggest arts festival in the world with more than 3300 shows at more than 300 venues last year. And the best part is that it’s open access, which means that whoever wants to perform can. Performers make their own arrangements with the various venues and the festival organisers simply help them promote their shows. That’s exactly the format we’re following in Shaftesbury.
‘The other wonderful thing about the Fringe is that it’s so much fun. Wherever you look, there are venues in unexpected places and performers in bizarre costumes wandering the streets and often trying to entice you to see their show – in the nicest possible way, of course. We wanted to bring some of that same buzz to Shaftesbury.’
Lovers of live performance and music will find out how far Andy and Samantha have succeeded when the first Shaftesbury Fringe hits the streets of Dorset’s highest town between 1-3 July to coincide with its famous annual Gold Hill Fair. A total of some one hundred different acts are expected to perform at about sixty venues during the three days of the event. Among these venues are the town hall, the Grosvenor Arms, most of the town’s six pubs, church halls, cafés, shops and a number of open spaces.
‘Because it’s open access, anyone can take part with any style of performance and at any ability level,’ says Andy. ‘The organisers have no input into who appears and there’s no selection process. Shows are organised by performers making direct contact with venues. Our role, the Fringe team, is simply to publicise all of them and the event in general. Shows are listed online and in a printed programme so visitors can choose what they’d like to see and there’s bound to be something for everyone. We’ll have not only all the shows you’d expect – theatre, cabaret, music, comedy, variety and so on – but also the unusual and unexpected.’
Without giving away too many surprises, he says he’s already had registrations from a group who want to put on a story ‘Slam’, an art exhibition with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment, a comedy ukulele duo, pop music on the bassoon, a beer festival band, a public reading of a new sci-fi novel, a teenage stand-up comic, and Tibetan monks doing something with bronze singing bowls! ‘I can, however, also reveal that we will have rising pop star Just Millie – who not many people know was Shaftesbury born and bred – with her band and, of course, Samantha doing a reprise of her Edinburgh Fringe show.’
Andy and Samantha met at a local theatre group in Ringwood. Samantha had always wanted to perform – even after she had been told by her school careers adviser she should ‘stop dreaming and get a job in a call centre’ – and it did not take Andy long to decide that the careers adviser could not have been more wrong: ‘I thought she could not only sing but she had a world-class voice,’ he says. He quickly became not just her manager but her partner as well and very soon had her performing all over the UK, including in London’s West End and even
Then came the Edinburgh Fringe last August and getting bitten by the ‘Fringe bug’. Travelling to Scotland just two weeks after moving from Verwood to Margaret Marsh, Samantha performed her one-woman cabaret show for the next three weeks to great acclaim. Flattering reviews from professional pundits included one by the influential newspaper, the Stage, that read: ‘Cabaret is something Samantha was born to do… Perfection… her vocal range is remarkable.’
They had barely returned to Dorset when they heard about a meeting in Shaftesbury to create a Fringe event in the town and went to it. ‘The meeting in the town hall was asking for volunteers for a Fringe-type event that had been under discussion for a couple of years or so,’ explains Andy. ‘The idea was to complement the existing Gold Hill Fair and of course we immediately volunteered. A month later we found ourselves asked to run it! The rest, as they say, is history – or at least we hope it will be, come July.’
For this the couple thank their almost accidental move to Margaret Marsh, a tiny hamlet in the Blackmore Vale to the west of Shaftesbury: ‘We moved here because we wanted peace and quiet. We now live on the edge of a tiny village in a hamlet of three dwellings with views of landscape uninterrupted by anything man-made in three directions. It’s heaven,’ says Andy, ‘and in retrospect it was the best place we could have found, largely because Shaftesbury is not just so friendly but we have been able to realise immediately our ambition of bringing our version of the Edinburgh Fringe to north Dorset.’
Andy and Samantha are very clear that Shaftesbury Fringe will be a clone of its wildly successful Scottish parent – or at least in as many respects as they and their small team of unpaid organising volunteers can manage: ‘Perhaps the only real difference is that although both we and the Edinburgh Fringe offer awards for the best shows in various categories, unlike them we offer cash prizes to accompany our 22 awards. So the top shows in both adult and youth (under 18) categories will get £100 and others will get £50 each in categories such as theatre, art, comedy, variety, the spoken word, and various kinds of music.’
Their aim is to make the Shaftesbury Fringe as major an event for Shaftesbury as the Edinburgh Fringe is for Edinburgh. Local firms are already enthusiastic sponsors, paying for the awards money, but the pair hopes the investment will reap rewards: ‘The Edinburgh Fringe attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Edinburgh each year and brings in a massive amount of extra money to the local economy. We hope the same will happen in Shaftesbury. The town is already well-known for its arts and crafts and the area seems to be alive with creative people of all sorts, from painters to poets, actors to writers, so it’s a natural progression to create a major event for them to showcase their work and boost the local economy of the area in the process.’
Shaftesbury’s Fringe does not expect to be quite as impressive as Edinburgh’s in its first year, but for Andy and his small team this is a labour of love. ‘As anyone who knows Shaftesbury is aware, the town is not only historic and on a hill, with these amazing views over four counties, but it’s also very compact so it’s easy for both performers and visitors to walk to a number of venues in one day,’ says Andy. ‘And in some cases the venues where you might want to sit and eat or have a drink are also the places where there will be performers performing.’
As for the future, Andy believes the sky is the limit. The aim this year, he says, is ‘to establish the event in the consciousness of local artistes and the community’. He expects the number of performers this year to double in 2017. ‘And who knows after that? We have some way to go to catch up with Edinburgh but we’re making a start.’ ◗
I want to perform – what do I do? Everything you need to know is on the website www.shaftesburyfringe.org.uk
I want to come along – how do I get tickets? Most shows are not ticketed – just turn up and either pay on the door or donate afterwards. Full details including a list of shows with descriptions, dates, venues and times are online with maps of where all the venues are as well as parking facilities and other useful information.