It was a heroic effort – but did the online Fringe really cut it?
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It was a heroic effort – but did the online Fringe really cut it?

THEATRE

Melbourne Fringe

November 12-29, online

Personally, I feel about digital performance the way I feel about decaf: endurable if circumstances demand, but not nearly as satisfying as the real thing.

Something About Skin performed at the Melbourne Fringe.

Something About Skin performed at the Melbourne Fringe. Credit:

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Over the past few weeks, the 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival has streamed hundreds of digital performances, with a smattering of live events on the side.

Given the scale of the disruption that COVID-19 has caused in Melbourne, it was an impressive feat. Artists and organisers delivered a collective act of artistic solidarity in troubled times, even as they sometimes struggled to adapt to the online realm.

Some veteran artists appeared to feel the same as I do. In The Worst of Yana Alana, Sarah Ward’s cabaret diva perfected a low-key resentment at the lack of narcissistic supply her live audience usually provides, while cycling through her greatest hits.

Cabaret did suffer from the digital migration. Some things are too intimate to be experienced except live in the flesh. Yana’s bum puppetry – her infamous “Scat Morrison” sketch – is surely one of them.

Sarah Ward, in The Worst of Yana Alana, didn't hide her preference for a live audience.

Sarah Ward, in The Worst of Yana Alana, didn't hide her preference for a live audience.Credit:

So, in an opposite way, is Telia Nevile’s What Would John Hughes Do? – a cabaret patterning a nostalgia for ’80s teen movies, struggles with mental illness and deliberately bad singing that seems to require the pathos of presence, of simply being there in a room with someone, to work its magic.

Something About Skin was a festival highlight.

Something About Skin was a festival highlight.Credit:

One interesting approach to digital constraint was to choose further constraint. Radio plays are a total lockdown version of theatre, and the gaggle of them on offer, including a memorably messy capitalist parody of John Milton’s Paradise Lost from The Bloomshed, tended to be technically inventive and well produced.

The digital realm worked powerfully to interrogate exclusion in Chelle Destefano’s Safe Space – a poetic cri de couer from a prominent deaf artist and activist performed in AUSLAN, voiced and unvoiced, with subtitles and without.

The program also connected artists and audiences from around the world. There was cabaret live from New York, pre-recorded Fringe performed in Britain and a mini-program dedicated to Taiwanese artists, the highlight of which was Something About Skin, a contemporary dance work recorded live through a robot vacuum cleaner.

Some artists clearly enjoyed the suite of digital effects available. Animation and audiovisual manipulation enlivened everything from the rambunctious gags of The Game Boys comedy news channel to video art screening in suburban side streets.

But there was an awful lot of poison-tasting, too. That isn’t unique to this year’s Fringe, of course – and it’s a feature, not a bug. Giving emerging artists the chance to develop their craft in front of an audience is one essential service the festival performs. The results aren’t always pretty – and failure is easier to take live, when we’re all in it together.

From that perspective, it was hard not to feel both disappointed for and galvanised by graduating theatre students at the Fringe, those from Monash University in particular. Their theatre school is closing and they must have felt totally abandoned during 2020. But still they forged on, producing a suite of works with talented, established theatremakers. That sort of artistic courage is a good omen for the future, and it deserves to be experienced live.

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