The first-ever Dundee Fringe festival opens today. It’s a new big deal for a city on the up.
“I’ve lived in Dundee for the last 20 years and it’s a place I would like to be making work happen, because it’s a really thriving part of the world and I absolutely love being here.”
So says arts producer JD Henshaw, whose Sweet Venues brand is well-known to regular attendees of the Edinburgh and Brighton Festivals in normal times.
It is he who is bringing a Fringe to Dundee.
“It feels a bit strange to be dashing off to other places like Edinburgh and Brighton, when I could also be putting shows on where I actually rest my head,” he continues.
A nudge to localism?
Have the last 18 months contributed to this change in perspective, have they nudged him towards a greater sense of localism?
“Yeah, there’s an element of that, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t there,” says Henshaw.
“There’s absolutely something to be said for looking towards making work where you are, and having a good strong base of that and getting the audiences who are, to be honest, not able to travel around. They still deserve to see stuff, don’t they?”
Henshaw is talking in advance of the first ever Dundee Fringe festival, which begins today and continues for the next week and a half.
He’s organised it himself, and while it’s a relatively small offering compared to the wealth of work audiences might see on the Edinburgh Fringe or elsewhere, the bill he’s created is the kind of little acorn from which a healthily tree might grow.
Comedy, theatre and cabaret
The Dundee Fringe’s bill contains theatre, comedy, kids shows, cabaret and workshops.
While Henshaw plans to make it an annual event, he also hopes it will develop into a kind of year-round brand which might foster strong relationships between local creatives.
“Programming mostly local artists is a conscious decision,” he says. “I want to make not just a fringe, but a real community hub for performance artists in Dundee and the local area.
“So this fringe is to be a ‘forever fringe’, we want it to go on year on year, but we don’t want it to be about just two weeks in September every year. (In future) we’ll be working with other organisations that really build a proper artistic community for theatre makers and creatives.
“Dundee’s really good for that, and it’s done some amazing work bringing together designers, jewellers and other parts of the artistic sphere.
“There have been some amazing bits of theatre around Dundee, but not all of that’s quite coalesced in the same way.
“We want to make really strong connections for folk, and bring others from outside the city to really make sure we’re sharing experiences.”
About 20 live shows on offer
Henshaw explains that the Dundee Fringe’s first instalment will consist of around 20 live shows, all with a very live focus, rather than digital broadcasts.
“We’re still keeping a fair bit of Covid safety in,” he says. “Maybe slightly more than is officially on the restrictions list at the moment, but I’d much rather be in a space where everybody feels welcome, whether they’ve been feeling a wee bit nervous about going out or not.
“I want to make sure it’s really accessible to audiences.”
The venue is Dock Street Studios, a shop and cafe with a large gallery to the rear.
That gallery space will be turned into a 30-seat theatre for the 10 days of the Fringe.
“We’ve worked in it before,” says Henshaw. “We began the project of bringing shows to them last year – and we managed to get one whole show on at the end of February, before the world went away!
“We know it works and that the space is good, though. It has a really lovely café up front, and it’s already about local artists, so this is just a different sort of art happening.
Location, location, location
“It feels the right vibe – you’re right at the train station, you’re looking out across Slessor Gardens and the V&A, and you’re right in the middle of town. It’s perfect.”
“I met JD at one of my first pop-up market events at the Botanic Gardens in 2010,” says Sara Campbell, who set up Dock Street Studios in 2017.
“Since then I’ve been to many shows he’s involved in and I’ve been really impressed with his interest in helping new writers, actors and comedians get up and running.
“Hosting small theatre performances together is something we have been planning for a while together.
“Fringe festivals are places to discover new shows, talented artists and unorthodox performances, and all are welcome, from every background.
“It’s more important than ever to support small theatre productions, having seen so much damage to the creative sector in the last 18 months.
“There’s a real appetite to get out, enjoy time with others and experience new things, and Dundee is a city moving from strength to strength.
“The future for a fringe festival is really exciting, I feel privileged to be part of building something that could be really spectacular for the city.”
Best of Dundee Comedy night
Among the works being presented is a Best of Dundee Comedy night, the ominous-sounding Imaginary Porno Charades (also a comedy), and a work-in-progress show from Arbroath magician Michael Brandie.
Jamie Mykaela’s Daddy is described by Henshaw as “an amazingly strong piece of feminist cabaret theatre,” and Haystack Cabaret is a music and spoken word performance from Mark Urban.
Henshaw is presenting his own Jekyll and Hyde: A One-Woman Show with actor Heather-Rose Andrews.
“If we’re looking for a bit of music, we’ve got Sexy As Folk, where we have an examination of just how sexy Scottish people have been over the last few hundred years in our folk music,” says Henshaw.
“It’s a little bit on the naughty side, so it’s not one for the families.”
There will also be a pair of theatre pieces on one night, The Pearl by Donald Falconer and Comet by John McCann.
John McCann is based in Fife and is also the writer of Dundee Rep’s current show Wings Around Dundee.
“Having a Fringe in Dundee is very important to the theatre community in the city,” says McCann.
“JD brings many years of experience, but in our conversations he was adamant that Dundee Fringe would not seek to replicate some of the concerning aspects of a sprawling beast like Edinburgh Fringe.
Bringing the artists together
“It’s been designed with the creative development of local artists in mind, as both a platform and a gathering ground for local performers, writers and theatre makers.
“Its arrival has seen us coming together like never before, which can only bode well for future collaborations.
“Dundee has often been a city independent theatre artists leave to find work, and Dundee Fringe has a significant part to play in reversing this creative drain.”
More Bubble Trouble
More Bubble Trouble, meanwhile, is a kids show by performer Lynsey Smiles, a follow-up to her Edinburgh Fringe shows Bubble Trouble and Double Bubble Trouble.
She describes it as “a family show full of bubbles. I play my alter ego, Poppy Bubbles and I invite the audience in to my bubbleology lab and recruit them all as my trainee bubbleologists.
“I perform a variety of bubble tricks and teach my trainees how to blow bubbles with their hands and how to make their own recycled bubble wands too.
Daughter is the boss
“Poppy also gets a special visit from her boss in this story, played by Izzi Smiles, my eight-year-old daughter; I suspect we may be the only mother/daughter combo at Dundee Fringe.
“There can’t be quite as much audience participation as we usually have, but everyone who wants to, gets the opportunity to experience life inside their very own bubble at the end of the show. We all learn a bit about the science while being amazed and amused.”
Based in Carnoustie, Smiles is one of those local performers who this fringe is aimed at.
Just the right size
“I’ve been thinking for a while that we need one in Dundee,” she says.
“While the Edinburgh Fringe is an incredible experience, which I’ve enjoyed immensely as a performer, it’s also a mighty beast which could swallow you whole.
Dundee Fringe isn’t about pulling in thousands of tourists, it’s about nurturing and enriching its own community.
“Now, more than ever, we need the arts to help us through testing times, rebuild confidence in children and adults, and improve our future.”
- Dundee Fringe is at Dock Street Studios from tonight until Sunday September 26. www.dundeefringe.com