Fringe World embarks on its next journey as new CEO takes the helm

This year marks a changing of the guard in Perth's festival scene. As Iain Grandage finishes his tenure as artistic director of Perth Festival, Jo Thomas (pictured above) commences hers as director and CEO of Fringe World. It’s a big change.

This year’s Fringe World is coming into the final straight—its four-week run coming to a close on Sunday, February 18. It’s been a strong festival. With more than 500 acts, it again claims third spot among the largest fringe festivals in the world (Edinburgh one, Adelaide two), while a sturdy critical response and a lift in attendances back to pre-COVID levels have made it again the largest single cultural event in WA. As usual, it has brought Perth to life this summer—Northbridge in particular has been bubbling with people, activity and energy. Not bad for a festival that was only initiated in 2011.

The State Government is right behind the event. Just before Christmas, it announced that it would inject an additional $2.9 million into the festival over the next three years. This new money will make a big difference, enabling Fringe World to both grow its support for artists and continue wowing audiences in ever-new and different ways.

Having arrived in late October, once this festival was more or less in the oven, Jo Thomas has been casting her experienced outsider’s eye over Perth and its arts scene. Most importantly, she has been watching Fringe World closely from the box seat. The 2025 festival will be her opportunity to meld this newfound knowledge with her vast arts experience and start the slow process of putting her own stamp on the festival—it usually takes a new director three festivals before they can reach all the pedals and completely occupy the driver’s seat.

Thomas brings to Fringe World a complex background in the Fringe arts. She arrives in Perth after some eight years as CEO of Metro Arts in Brisbane, but, just as significantly, if not more so, before moving into production, she was an artist. As an actor, she performed in fringe shows. Some twenty years ago, she crossed over and began working as a producer for various Queensland festivals, then Circa Contemporary Circus, before settling into Metro Arts in 2010 as a managing producer, eventually becoming CEO.

Premier Roger Cook at Fringe World 2024's Opening Night

Along the way, she has picked up a Masters Degree in Fine Arts (Cultural Leadership) from NIDA, won a double gong in 2020 from the Queensland Telstra Business Awards (Purpose and Social Enterprise, Business Woman of the Year), and, in conjunction with Metro Arts, in 2021 was given a Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award celebrating Metro Arts' achievements.

A meticulous person who puts in the time and energy to make a difference, not only does she have the entrepreneurial smarts to run a successful large-scale cultural organisation like Fringe World, she also knows the Fringe arts from the inside as an artist. This is exactly the experience and temperament Fringe World needs coming out of its bruising COVID years.

Although Fringe World is barely a teenager, Artrage, the organisation that produces it, is well into middle age. This year marks the 40th anniversary of its first festival. Before Fringe World, there was the Artrage Festival (1988–2009), and before that, the Festival Fringe (1984–87). For the sake of brevity and continuity, collectively, it can be called the Perth Fringe.

The great strength of the organisation is its flexibility. It has always responded in innovative ways to the changing needs of the Perth arts community and the temper of the evolving city. Like Perth Festival, it has long been a key generator of West Australian culture.

Yirra Yaakin, Circus WA (in its Bizircus manifestation), DAADA, The Blue Room and the Revelation Film Festival are but some of the now prominent arts organisations that produced their first shows under the auspices of the Perth Fringe. Some thousands of artists have cut their teeth through the various festivals, many of whom have gone on to have serious international careers, while most of the Perth-born managers who drive the arts scene here had their first experience managing Fringe shows. Simply put, it is the first and most obvious port of call for the arts in this town.

Fringe World 2024's Opening Night

In many ways, this is the direct consequence of the unique modus operandi of fringe festivals. The following may seem a bit technical, but bear with it—it explains a lot about the unique character of fringes in general and the Perth Fringe in particular.

The essential features of a fringe festival are that it is open-access, anyone can take part upon paying a fee, and it provides umbrella promotion (of the festival itself and the program as a whole, not individual shows) while supporting artists with infrastructure (subsidised venues, tech, etc.). Crucially, it does not underwrite the shows in its program: it neither covers artists’ costs nor pays them a fee. The artists must take the financial risk on their own work. In this regard a fringe festival is an open market. The participating artists and independent producers are essentially small businesses (or entrepreneurs).

On the upside, this formula means that the artists have complete creative freedom; as Thomas puts it, the fringe allows them to lead and empowers them to explore their creativity without setting strict guardrails. The benefit for the fringe administration is that, in giving artists this freedom, it doesn’t have to take a financial risk in presenting often unknown and untested work. This stabilises the organisation, meaning it can keep the shows on the road regardless of the audience response.

The payoff for emerging artists is that they can use the fringe to establish their cred and launch their careers. More established artists, and crucially, commercial fringe producers, can use the heightened awareness created by the festival to attract a larger audience.

On the down side, the artists often end up paying for the privilege. Although fortunes have been made through fringe festivals, this is not the festival’s primary aim. Rather, like a marriage broker, the goal is to bring new work to the public’s attention. Most fringe artists the world over only make money on their subsequent work once they have proven themselves.

This formula holds for Fringe World, though the economies of scale are now vastly different from what they were in the earlier manifestations of the Perth Fringe.

L'Euro Grande

To slip back into the history, unlike the first and current iterations, the Artrage Festival was held in spring—independently of Perth Festival. In this, it was slightly 'un-fringed', hence the name, but it still stuck to the essential formula. Its unique position, though, did mean that it was able to mess with the model and provide enhanced support to artists, more than a fringe otherwise can.

The size of the city has always been a crucial influence on the evolution of the Perth Fringe. The impetus to set up Artrage sprang from the realisation that Perth in the mid-1980s was simply too small to host two arts festivals at the same time. Twenty years later, the city had doubled in size and, significantly, developed a strong inner-city residential lifestyle. By then, there was a large and diverse audience, hence Fringe World. The new festival quickly took off and has been soaring stratospherically ever since.

The relationship between the Perth Fringe and the local arts community has also been complex and symbiotic, at times fraught. There has long been tension between the different ends of the arts spectrum—the explorers vs. the entertainers, if you will. It’s not surprising that the tension is often about money.

The impetus to set up the Perth Fringe came from an affiliation of independent artists and producers working outside the mainstream. Committed to creating challenging work but exhausted by the lack of funding, out-of-the-way venues and limited audiences, they figured a fringe festival might help them. As such, in its early years, the Perth Fringe’s manifesto abounded with words like ‘avant-garde’, 'innovative' and ‘alternative’. Later, ‘new’ and ‘emerging’ also became prominent. During this era, the core audience was people who liked to be challenged and were prepared to take the risk on untested work, what were then called ‘the opinion leaders’.

Over time, both have shifted. There is still a strong component of avant-garde/alternative art in Fringe World, but the shows with the highest profile, in terms of media, publicity and audiences, tend to be at the more popular end of the spectrum—comedy, burlesque, circus and popular music. Likewise, the audience has become more mainstream. A typical Fringe World house includes a strong component of older, empty-nesters, an increasingly important group within the Perth arts mix. These people were rarely seen during the Artrage years and are not usually big fans of the most challenging work.

The Pleasure Garden

It's tempting to say this is all swings and roundabouts and that in years to come, the focus will inevitably shift back towards more edgy work. However, when looking at fringes around the world, market forces usually determine what swims and sinks.

Cutting-edge comedy and the more popular arts generally swim—every major British comedian, from Peter Cooke and Monty Python through to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, emerged from the Edinburgh Fringe. On the other hand, original music, especially serious new music, often sinks. Avant-garde theatre, dance and performance, as well as the visual arts, manage to stay afloat but still come a distant third. But then, the audience for that type of work is only ever five to ten percent of the total.

Coming from a performing arts background and having worked for so long producing edgy shows, Thomas knows how important the explorers are. Although always high-risk, she acknowledges that this kind of work is vital to the onward movement of the arts, and it is incumbent on the fringes to help them as best they can. But she is also aware of the obligation to the audience and the need to provide them with accessible work. It is a delicate line to walk.

A solution that Thomas posits is to bring the two together through specific strategic audience development strategies. Simply, help artists build a stronger audience base for their kind of work. This won’t happen in a hurry; it is a gradual, long-term process, so the effects will only become apparent a few years down the track.

And there are limits to what can be done. Some artists note that they can get more support from the Adelaide Fringe than they do here. That may well be true, but then the Adelaide Fringe gets ten times the funding that Fringe World does, even with its new and generous State support. In the end, it always does, alas, get back to money.

L'Euro Grande

There are other things that can make a difference. A key one for both Artrage and Fringe World would be to have their own venue again, which they can run year-round. Since the loss of The Bakery some eight years ago, Artrage has not had such a permanent home. Thomas believes that a building with a performance space and rehearsal rooms as well as offices would be a great boon. She is on the case, hunting around the city.

Given the tradition, there is a good chance she will be successful in this quest—since its inception, the Perth Fringe has always been good at rooting out new and different venues. In recent times, as well as The Bakery, these have included the old Perth Girls School, the Ice Cream Factory, and the many performance hubs scattered across the metropolitan area.

In this year’s Fringe World, two new hubs have come to the fore: L’Euro Grande in the old European Foods warehouse in Francis Street, a home for cabaret; and FANTASIA in the Perth Town Hall, an artist-run hub that is both a de facto artists club and centre for comedy. Both have generated good audiences and opened new possibilities for the Perth community.

Fringe World has also consolidated the participation of some of the city’s established venues. Every year, every night during Fringe World, shows pump through The Ellington Jazz Club, the centre for quality music, and the State Theatre Centre, the home for upper-end Fringe theatre. With four high-quality performance spaces—the Heath Ledger Theatre, Studio Underground, Rehearsal Room, and the Courtyard—on any night, the STC has a vibrant program of concurrent early and late shows. Other high profile Perth venues, The Rechabite and Downstairs at the Maj, are also core Fringe World hubs where comedy, cabaret and music run back-to-back every night

The Pleasure Garden has again been pumping, though it is a sign of the cost of living crisis that, even as ticket sales there have been as strong as ever, people are less willing to fork out for food and beverages. The belts are tight. In this regard, it is a good thing that, across the board, Fringe World ticket prices are still at the level they were in 2017.

The Pleasure Garden

There are many other things on Thomas’ agenda for Fringe World. She is keen to strengthen relations with the local government sector. The City of Perth has always been a solid supporter, and there are plans afoot to further develop the Russell Square precinct. Thomas also hopes to re-engage with the other metropolitan city councils. She is looking to reactivate the Fremantle component of the program as well as the suburban hubs, such as those that used to be in Scarborough and Midland. Such community engagement is core to building audiences and taking Fringe World shows further afield.

No two Australian Fringe festivals are quite the same. Each city has its own unique character and challenges. In spite of its population growth, Perth is still a small city, and this remains an issue for the development and presentation of the fringe arts. Nonetheless, all fringe festivals share much in common, and perhaps the most ambitious item on Thomas’ agenda is to look at ways the Australian fringes can collectively attract greater support from the Federal Government.

This has long been a sore point for fringes around the country and is mainly due to their unique programming style. Habitually, the federal funding agencies want to know years in advance the exact work they are supporting—they are not as prepared as the various state agencies are to invest in programs that only come together six months out. Many have tackled this old chestnut, but few have had the broad national perspective that Thomas brings to Fringe World. She may be the one to finally crack this case.

As may be apparent by now, the director of a fringe festival is not an artistic director in the usual sense. They do not pick the program or commission new work. At times in the past, the Perth Fringe has been able to bring elements of this into play. At one stage, at the instigation of the state funding agency, Artrage did provide direct financial subsidies to selected acts. That process doesn’t fit within the current Fringe World model. But then, as the Perth Fringe has shown time and again, models are not set in stone.

The fringe festival director’s role is more that of a facilitator or maybe a shepherd: they bring artists into the fold and point them in the right direction, then leave it up to them to make their way forward. This requires a different set of skills, and Perth is fortunate that the new Fringe World director has these in abundance. But she can’t do it alone. Luckily, she has a highly talented and experienced team to work with—people who have extensive corporate knowledge of Fringe World and a solid history of running fringe festivals. She also needs the community to get behind her and provide the impetus for both continuity and change. It’s a big challenge for Jo Thomas but a great opportunity for the Perth arts and Fringe World to have such a capable and clear-headed person to lead it. Let’s wish her every success.


Ian Lilburne worked for the Perth Fringe from 1986 to 1994, covering seven festivals, one Fringe and six Artrages. He was the founding director of the Artrage Festival.

Photos by Giselle Natassia, Ven Tithing, Sophie Hirt and Michelle Ranson