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How do fringe festivals ensure quality when anyone can choose to stage an event? Cath Mattos reveals her approach at the Wandsworth Arts Fringe.

Photo of three people holding chickens
Cabaret act Lobster Quadrille

Wandsworth Arts Fringe (WAF) is open access, a model adopted by many UK fringe festivals. Anyone with a creative project can take part so long as they can secure a venue in the Borough of Wandsworth within the festival period. They then register on our website and pay the £35 fee.

Not all our shows will be amazing but to be an accessible platform for artists to develop, we embrace this and know that no artist starts out as amazing

My role as producer is to make this happen, to get artists to the point of registration and beyond, and so create a festival that audiences will want to attend. I also want to see the community embrace it and the arts industry recognise and respect it for its quality and ethos.

I give artists support and advice about bringing their shows to the festival and encourage them to bring something special and to stretch their boundaries. I give them professional guidance as a producer about their shows and give suggestions when requested on creative and practical issues that may arise.

The question of quality

Fringe festivals are continually asked the question how quality can be ensured and maintained, and while we seek to reframe the debate we also need to answer this for our audiences and funding bodies. We seek to ensure the quality of the festival as a whole and gain trust from the artists that they will be performing at a well organised event, that has a professional approach and is able to fulfil expectations of artists and audiences as realistically as possible.

I reach out to innovative and diverse artists and encourage them to come and take part. We position ourselves as a festival that supports cutting-edge theatre, dance and experimental new work, as well as work that resonates with the locality and its audience.

We offer a WAF-specific Arts Grants Fund to artists who wish to take part in the festival, and we put the call out for artists to apply through reputable arts industry channels. This brings us some very high-quality artists and sets us up as a festival that invests in artistic development.

We successfully sought Arts Council England Grants for the Arts funding to develop our producer development programme and we are currently working with students from the Central School of Speech and Drama with the Co-Artistic Director of Tangled Feet, Nathan Curry, as a mentor to develop an outdoor arts festival called Hidden Heathbrook that promotes one of the borough’s lesser known parks.

This programme encourages producers from certain genres or creative fields to come together for a series of events. We encourage these artists to engage with the local area, and find these artists often then come back the following year.

Venue hubs

We have developed the idea of producer and venue hubs as our borough is so far-reaching. One of our venues is a pop-up venue called Fragility Takeover, which started as a performing theatre company bringing a couple of shows to us. The following year it took over a venue and brought in the type of artists it likes. This year it has two venues with avant-garde theatre and quirky Edinburgh Fringe previews.

I support this development, relishing the opportunity to reach artists who we may not otherwise have appealed to as a young developing festival. This venue hub gives the artists the support they need to come to a festival in London that could otherwise be quite anonymous.

Cooperation with other festivals

Fringe festivals such as ours create platforms that enable the stars of the future to be discovered and then go on to be booked by programmed festivals and regional venues. However, many artists want to stay touring the fringe circuit and are happy to earn money touring in the UK. Consequently, we speak to other fringe festivals and encourage our artists to go to other festivals and for artists to come from other festivals to us. We are held at the same time as Brighton Fringe so many of our artists do both festivals.

We are working with the Nordic Fringe Network and Fragility Takeover has set up an award to send a performing company over to the festivals within the network. Award schemes are a useful tool to attract artists of interest who do well in the touring circuit and this is on my radar to work towards.

Guidance and nurturing

Not all our shows will be amazing but to be an accessible platform for artists to develop, we embrace this and know that no artist starts out as amazing, but with practice, guidance and nurturing the artists will grow. As the head of Wandsworth Borough Council said in the WAF opening speech: “It’s so important to feed and nurture the minnows, who will then go on to feed the whales.”

We have Battersea Arts Centre, Theatre503, Theatre N16 and Tara Arts among others in our borough and they advise, support and use the festival where they can and need to.

Audience guidance

We guide our audiences through the programme with the messaging: “Take a risk and see a gem of a show.” Our Fringe Review does a handy guide to help audiences navigate the large programme of shows.

Our venue and producer hubs are important too, as word-of-mouth promotion can help navigate a growing festival like ours. In a large sprawling borough in a capital city, they help audiences find the shows that suit them – and discover shows they never knew they would love.

Cath Mattos is Producer of Wandsworth Arts Fringe.

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