THE idea of putting together a Newcastle Fringe Festival arose while Hunter writer, actor and director Phillip Aughey was cooking breakfast in an Edinburgh flat in August, 2014, while staging his play The Exchange at that city’s fringe festival.
One of his fellow actors, Matthew McFarlane, said: “You know, Phil, we should start up a Newcastle Fringe”.
His response was “That’s not a bad idea, Matt,” and two days later he sat in a quiet Edinburgh park and spent two hours working out what would be involved in putting together a Newcastle event.
Aughey decided that the festival would have to be smaller scale than those in major cities like Edinburgh and Adelaide, where he had also staged The Exchange, if the artists involved were to at least recover their costs.
When he returned to Australia he began developing a Newcastle Fringe for staging in in early 2016. It was between the Sydney and Adelaide Fringe festivals and he hoped overseas artists who performed at those festivals would also come to Newcastle.
While some impressive international performers did put Newcastle on their itineraries, the response was not as good as he’d hoped. So he moved the 2017 Newcastle Fringe Festival into late March, coming hard on the heels of the Adelaide and Perth festivals. Thus, there has been a boost in overseas artists, with six individuals and teams among the 22 shows that will be staged at seven inner-city venues from March 22 to 26.
Phillip Aughey’s presence at Australian festivals has given him contact with foreign performers who have pencilled in this year’s Newcastle Fringe. When another of his works, Chopin’s Last Tour, was staged at last year’s Adelaide Fringe, he met German TV presenter and cabaret artist Sylvia Brecko. As a result of their conversations, Brecko had no hesitation in including Newcastle on her itinerary when her latest show, Myth, which looks at the lives and songs of female legends including Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf and Marilyn Monroe, was booked into this year’s Perth Fringe.
Aughey’s plays – The Exchange, Chopin’s Last Tour, and Islands in a Sea of Confusion, with the last premiering at this year’s Newcastle Fringe – have largely arisen from his experiences or those of people he knows.
He was raised on a farm near Griffith and began piano lessons at age nine. An acclaimed pianist, he attended several concerts focused on that instrument while in Edinburgh with The Exchange in 2014, and observed the passion that piano works by Polish composer Frederic Chopin engendered. He wrote the solo work, Chopin’s Last Tour, which had the composer talking about the influences on his life and music, and was invited to take it to the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. It has had 64 performances, including one last month in Griffith.
The Exchange arose from his experiences in 1981, when he trekked around Australia’s outback after graduating from the Bathurst campus of Charles Sturt University. He spent most of that time as a roustabout in a small Queensland town called Muttaburra, where the farm workers headed to a pub called The Exchange each Saturday. The play has two retired workers arguing and laughing on their Saturday excursion to the pub, observed by a barman who is relatively new in town. The Exchange had its first performance in 2001. It has since amassed 193 performances. The Exchange will have one performance as part of this month’s Newcastle Fringe.
Aughey, who runs a company called Anvil Theatre, has worked as an actor and director with other groups including Maitland Repertory. He built his new play, Islands in a Sea of Confusion, around the impacts that changes in communications, such as Facebook messages, have had on people’s relationships. It shows two formerly close friends, a man and woman, meeting after years of having no contact and wondering what revelations the other will make.
Other highlights of the festival include Circus Avalon (a tent show in Birdwood Park), comedian and performer Dangerboy, magician Joel Howlett, drag queen Kara Zmatiq, David Baker’s jazz cabaret show Daddy-o, Don’t You Dare, Clark Gormley’s film noir send-up Dial N for Nerder, and Laurie Black’s Bad Luck Cabaret.