It is not often that you see a story about life with Lyme disease told on stage using roller skates and physical theatre. Ever pushing the boundaries of art and inclusion, this is why events like Melbourne’s Fringe Festival are as important as ever. Surprising, profound, hilarious and challenging, if there’s one thing a fringe festival is good at, it’s offering visibility to diverse and varied lived experience.
“Our festival is an open access festival,” says Carly Finlay, Melbourne Fringe Festival’s Access and Inclusion Coordinator. “That means anybody can put on a show and any venue can be part of the festival.”
The 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival will run from the 12th to 29th of November, a month later than previously planned. For the first time, attendees can enjoy acts from this year’s line-up virtually as well as in venues across the city.
Carly and the rest of the festival team have been working hard to improve accessibility for attendees.
“My role is to help all artists make their show more accessible by providing them with guidance and resources,” says Carly. “[This means] advice on how to work with an Auslan interpreter, how to audio describe shows and ensuring that venues can make themselves more accessible.”
This has included, for example, working with the Trades Hall to put an external lift at their front entrance or providing communication boards in the bar at Common Rooms (the Fringe’s year-round venue) so that patrons can point to place an order.
Carly’s position also involves advocating for and catering to the access needs of performers themselves.
“There is a perceived idea that disabled people can’t lead,” she says, “so we don’t see many spaces for disabled people to perform because [the venues] are inaccessible or the environments and organisations are inaccessible.”
Financial support is a significant barrier to implementing the necessary access provisions, which cost money and take time.
“It is very important that we have more funding to create accessibility and that the onus doesn’t fall on disabled people to create this accessibility.”
For this reason, Carly is optimistic about the opportunities that Melbourne Fringe Festival’s grants create. These grants can help pay for registrations, provide venues and rehearsal spaces, assist with marketing or offer mentoring programs.
“We have a range of grants for people who experience barriers to art,” says Carly. “Not just disabled people, but people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people from LGBTQIA backgrounds, or people who have financial barriers.”
Andi Snelling – Happy Go Wrong
Melbourne actor, writer and theatre-maker Andi Snelling was a recipient of Melbourne Fringe’s Ralph McLean microgrant in 2019. It helped provide financial support and a rehearsal residency for Andi’s multi-award-winning solo show, Happy-Go-Wrong. The show has since toured to New Zealand and will run its official award-winning season at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2021.
“It was a combination of different supports that came together that allowed this show to happen,” says Andi.
Happy-Go-Wrong relays, through physical theatre, Andi’s personal experience of navigating Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a tick bite. It manifests in a range of debilitating symptoms such as heart conditions, impaired cognitive and neurological function, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
“I hadn’t set out with the intention of creating a show that raised awareness about the invisible disability experience,” says Andi, who has recently become an ambassador for the Lyme Disease Association of Australia. “It ended up doing that. It seems to have resonated with able-bodied people and also people with loads of different types of chronic illnesses or disabilities.”
Representing invisible disabilities and their unique access needs has been an important part of the process for Andi.
“It can be frustrating,” she says, “getting my needs taken seriously. That’s made me all the more passionate about disability advocacy. That’s why I’ve joined the disability arts community in Melbourne – because I want to learn more and support others more in how we can change people’s awareness.”
The first step is simply ensuring these stories make it onto the stage.
“It feels validating when you see your experience represented in front of your eyes, and when it is presented in a playful, artistic way.”
Melbourne Fringe 2020
Andi praises the efforts of Melbourne Fringe Festival’s grants and inclusion program for making this happen. She is excited to see what comes of it under this year’s unique conditions.
“They’ve really taken this constantly changing pandemic situation and run with it,” she says. “They’re doing everything they can to make the festival as flexible as possible and as supportive as possible for artists.”
Carly filled us in on how the festival is adapting by hosting some shows online, as well as ensuring adherence to social distancing advice.
“We have different categories called ‘Pants On’ and ‘Pants Off,’” Carly explains. “’Pants On’ means that you need to go outside of your house to watch a show or perform a show – so you should probably put your pants on! ‘Pants Off’ means you can watch a show from wherever you are. The show might be recorded in a venue or in the outdoors or even in someone’s bedroom.”
Carly urges eager artists and prospective audiences to explore the resources available on the Melbourne Fringe Festival website. These include access guides and information on how to register and how to market your show. Some of these documents are now available in plain English, as an audio recording or with Auslan interpretation.
You can also email email@example.com if you have any general questions about registering or firstname.lastname@example.org for access-related enquiries. Tickets to shows will be available for purchase closer to the November performance dates.