“’Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before… I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!,” So wrote Scottish playwright and journalist Robert Kemp in 1948, thereby coining the title for the Fringe Festival. A festival that unofficially had launched a year earlier, when eight uninvited theatre companies turned up to Edinburgh’s International Festival, and took over the city’s smaller and more unconventional venues for their productions. The aim was obvious, to target the large assembled theatre crowds, to showcase their own alternative theatre and performances. To say they succeeded is a bit of an understatement, considering the Edinburgh Fringe today has grown into the world’s largest art festival. Last year a staggering 55,000 performances went ahead, comprised of over 3,500 different shows in over 300 different venues. The celebration of alternative art and entertainment has spread across the globe, where hundreds of different Fringe festivals now take place. Most importantly from a Stockholm perspective, this year it’s ten years since the Fringe concept found its way to our little corner of the world.
The three founders of the Stockholm Fringe, high-school friends Adam Potrykus, Helena Bunker and Lina Karlmark, are still proudly pulling the strings and this year decided to do things a little differently for the anniversary edition of the festival. All the performances in the programme – 150 in total – are the work of female, non-binary or transgender people, the argument being that women are underrepresented within the performing arts, with their stories left out or muted, thus undermining the freedom of speech.
Apart from that chosen path, the spirit of the Fringe is what it has always been. Various art forms mix freely, international and local acts do too and daring art is prevalent throughout. Just as in all previous incarnations of the festival.
To help festival-goers navigate the vast catalogue of performances, the organisers have broken down the shows into easily-digestible categories such as ‘Night Out With Mom’, ‘Shock & Challenge Me’ and ‘I Want to Impress My Date’.
But if we rewind ten years or so, to pre-Fringe Festival Stockholm, alternative Fringe culture hadn’t gained a foothold in a country where theatre and performance art rarely ventured outside the conventional frameworks. Helena and Lina came to the conclusion that if they wanted to see a Fringe Festival in Stockholm they would have to do something about it themselves. They contacted Adam and soon thereafter Stockholm was able to experience an event where the audience could expect the unexpected.
When the three founders reflect back on the previous decade of Stockholm Fringe festivals, they say they are overwhelmed by the incredible artistic force of the independent artistic landscape they have witnessed, and they deem it to have been such a privilege to have experienced the strength and passion that characterises the whole global Fringe movement.
Stockholm Fringe is turning ten years old; did you ever think you would reach this point?
Adam: Yes and no! No one ever dedicates a year’s worth of work just to do a pilot. We’re all a bunch of dreamers, and the dream of an annual festival, similar to our global peer festivals, has always been there from the start. Having said that, sailing the Fringe boat can be a little bit like playing a computer game. You need to skilfully ‘joystick’ your way through the ‘current level’ of the game, before you can advance into the ‘next room’. Does that make sense? We’ve never had any doubt in the force of the Fringe movement. Along the way, encouragement from artists, audiences and funding bodies, and the spreading of the Fringe format in Scandinavia, has motivated us to keep doing what we do.
Helena: Well, our aim was certainly to reach this point, but before launching year one it was hard to know. As soon as we were ‘out’, we quickly noticed the big interest in this sort of artistic platform and we knew we had to keep going, no matter what.
Lina: Ten years is a milestone for us for sure, the concept of the Fringe is becoming established in Stockholm and we are proud to have been part of that.
What’s been your personal favourite STOFF moment over the ten years?
A: Favourite moments are the kind that shouldn’t really leave the vaults. Let’s call them bloopers. Think: an entire baroque orchestra forgotten at Arlanda Airport! The real highlights are the passionate artists, volunteers and crew that make magic from few or no resources. A few years back, we had a Finnish group called Recovery Laboratory who took over Kummelholmen in Skärholmen. It’s an old derelict heating plant, a brutalist beauty made from concrete that screamed to be turned into a Fringe stage. The artists took over the space and lived in it, while creating a labyrinth maze of installations, music rooms, circus spaces and packed it with performers. It was the ultimate Fringe camp, with young creative people, who delivered an audience participatory experience that few visitors will forget. Total wow factor. With near zero budget. The group was awarded the major Stoff trophy that year!
H: There are so many different, funny, worrying, mad and wonderful moments that it is hard to pinpoint just one. Apart from being so overwhelmed by the amazing artists that we see every year I think one quirky one was when we arrived with John Malkovich in an elevator to his dressing room located at floor 3.5…
Otherwise we could write an epic novel about year one, all-nighters at the venue working out technical problems, opening the doors to artists in the morning dressed in PJs, running around town finding raw meat, blood and drums, coupled with sticky migration issues and unreal technical challenges.
L: My favourite moments aren’t always the shows themselves, but what happens behind the scenes. The meeting between the artists, I know there have been many new collaborations and projects that have been brought to life by formers Stoff artists. I think we even have a Stoff baby! We can´t forget that the Fringe is for the artists to show their work, but also to interact, be inspired and network with other artists. It´s a creative force bringing artists around the world into one melting pot of artistic freedom.
If you look another ten years into the future, how do you think Stoff will have evolved and what do you hope to have accomplished?
H: During the first years Stoff was very much run by the three of us, and now it has developed into several people taking ownership over the festival. I believe this is great for Stoff’s future in a way that it can get better nourishment and ideas from a more diverse group of people. I believe Stoff and the Nordic Fringe Network has all the potential to grow into something bigger, with more collaborators, and with that opening up more opportunities for artists both nationally and internationally. Our aim is also to launch a permanent Stoff House which will host artists, networks, talks and developmental opportunities all year round.
L: We are working to become an open access festival, but to be able to accomplish that we need to get more venues onboard. Hopefully more theatres will open up their doors to the Fringe. This is what I hope to see in the future.
A: We’d like to run a production house with our own stage. It would be a much-needed addition to a city with a chronic lack of performance spaces. And yeah, we’d love more organisations and theatres to put on their own Fringe events and/or share their stages one week a year, with talent from near and far, under the Fringe umbrella!
This year’s edition is entirely comprised of female, non-binary and transgender artists. Let me know how you came to run with this theme, and what it means for the festival?
H: Normally, we try to avoid having a theme, to enable everyone and all stories to apply to take part. We believe that is important to be able to see and take the temperature of the range of concerns artists are battling with, right here, right now. Over the past year however, much of the performing arts have been about metoo, about women’s experiences of sexual abuse, and as we have noticed in our application trend women, non-binary and trans artist are underrepresented as creators of performing arts. Their stories and voices are often left out from the stages, thus undermining freedom of speech. Therefore, it felt like an obvious choice this year, to mark our celebrations by highlighting these narratives.
A: It’s an organic process. The Fringe reflects the world we live in. We have our eyes peeled for local and global theatre and performance. We frequent overseas festivals and are both inspired by the diversity of work presented and surprised by the lack of female narratives on stage. Despite already being a festival that puts women at the front, we want to take it a step further. What happens if you have an entire festival powered and made by women, non-binary and trans artists? For Stoff it means making a bold statement.
L: Stoff is and was created as a platform to encourage work that is bold. Work that questions the structures of the art industry and society. It´s a reflection of the days we live in and it came about rather organically.
The headline show is clearly Peaches Christ Superstar. She cancelled last year but one could argue a case for the show being very well-suited to this year’s theme. It is also a bigger name than STOFF usually offers the audience. How do you think this influence the festival and people’s perception of it?
L: Of course, inviting bigger names is a way to bring awareness to the festival. In the past we’ve had names like Forced Entertainment, Mykki Blanco and John Malkovich. It´s important that the groups or artists present work that in some way has been groundbreaking and challenged structures.
H: It was truly a sad situation last year as Peaches lost her beloved father and when that sort of thing happens you sort of drop all ‘what ifs’. But if she had performed in the last edition, no doubt it would have been an incredible addition to that festival, and even though it is an amazing year to have her, I am certain we would have programmed another female, non-binary or trans act with the same calibre to this year’s event [if Peaches had played last year].
A: We feel privileged to have been able to Peaches in the first place. Each year we try to find a global name that embodies our core values as a festival: Bravery, creativity, innovation and punk attitude! Peaches is all that and more! So was Christeene, Mykki Blanco, Forced Entertainment and John Malkovich, in their own ways. The notion of A-list talent does elevate the entire event. The untimely passing of Peaches’ father was a major set-back for us, but most of all, a very hard time for Peaches, who in her career before that, to my knowledge, has never had to cancel any gigs. I remember seeing Peaches at a festival in London a bunch of years ago. She had broken her leg or knee, and rocked through an entire concert in a pimped wheelchair! Having this tour de force coming back for our X edition, is amazing, and we look forward to seeing her live on stage at Orionteatern in Peaches Christ Superstar and getting to know the woman who inspires artists across the globe, in an intimate Live Q & A with Tiina Rosenberg at Zita cinema (after the Peaches Does Herself film screening).
What’s the one thing the audience shouldn’t miss from this year’s festival? Do you each have a personal highlight you want to share with us?
H: It is very hard to pick one out of 94 unique acts but we are thrilled to welcome back the indigenous rapper Aku Matu from Alaska, who took the festival by storm in 2011.
A: I have a fair few shows I’m really curious about. But our audience should pour themselves a drink and flick through the 94-page programme guide. Our team has prepared ‘recommendation pathways’ through the programme. Depending on the mood you’re in, you can pick to follow one or several of ten pre-set directions such as ‘Just Give Me That Festival Feeling’, ‘Night Out With Mom’, ‘100% Queer’, ‘Interesting People, Quality Stories’ or ‘Sex, Genitals and Gender’! Make your own fringe! Dive into STOFF X and enjoy the swim!
L: I would say, don´t miss out on the performances at Bångska Våningen, an amazing space. Also our off-venue performances like Soak, which is in a secret location. And use the recommendation paths that Adam mentioned. It’s a good way to make your own Fringe experience. My favourite is the ‘Shock and Challenge Me’ path.
Stockholm Fringe Festival STOFF X will go ahead between September 3-7 across multiple venues around Stockholm. See www.stockholmfringe.com
Main photo: FEMME, with Erin Fowler. Photo: Chris Herzfeld