You don’t think of Alexandria as a honeypot for Sydney’s arts scene. A drive from the inner city to the new Sydney Fringe Festival hub, bordering Sydney Park, confirms your impressions of the area as an extended, dilapidated industrial estate: factories, warehouses, the odd showroom and factory outlet. On a swathe of Euston Road approaching the new Fringe outpost, the WestConnex project has put a choke-hold on traffic and pedestrian access.
But come September, one of these warehouses will crank into life as an arts factory, turning out performance, installations and experimental hybrids in a month long experiment. If it goes well, it may just change the face of arts in Sydney.
Dubbed the HPG Festival Hub (after building owner Hailiang Property Group), Sydney Fringe’s new Alexandria outpost has a 7,000sqm ground-floor footprint, which right now is looking quite austere – all concrete surfaces and scaffolding – but will be transformed into a festival village of sorts from September 1: there will be food trucks, a Coopers festival bar, and curtained-off 'mini venues' for performances, live music, exhibitions and screenings.
Sydney Fringe Festival director Kerri Glasscock says, “The gift of space – this much space – is just so rare in Sydney. So when I found out that we had this warehouse, I put a call out through my networks: ‘Bring me your Sleep No Mores! Your Secret Cinemas!’ I’ve got whole floors of offices to play with in this building.”
When it comes to immersive, interactive theatre and screening experiences, however, she says Sydney is a step behind. “I was surprised: it was hard to find local companies who were thinking outside of the box – beyond a ‘party’. When you go to Fringes and festivals around the world, people take over buildings all the time, and do immersive works.”
It’s no big secret, and nothing new: regulations and a steroidal property market (which developers are of course part of) make it hard for artists to work, let alone experiment, in Sydney. But in the last decade, with the popularity of immersive and interactive experiences like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, London’s Secret Cinema, and the popularity of envelope-pushing arts festivals like Hobart’s Dark Mofo, the contrast between Sydney’s art scene and the rest of the world has become painfully stark. While other art scenes are pushing into new literal and conceptual territory, Sydney is still very much tied to theatres, cinemas and established venues.
“It’s the regulatory framework that is prohibitive here,” says Glasscock, “and prohibitively expensive.” As soon as you want to create a show in a building not already zoned for performance – for example, a warehouse – it triggers a regulatory framework that involves expensive development applications, limits what you can do in the space, and takes time: three things that hamper independent, self-funded artists.
For Glasscock, this environment has created a feedback loop: “Sydney artists don’t have the space to be able to create [works like Sleep No More], because any substantial space is insanely expensive. And then we don’t have an audience willing to support that work – because they’re not familiar with it – so you can’t take those financial risks.”
Glasscock and Sydney Fringe have done the hard work this year, and gone through the legal process to adapt the former warehouse for performance use, in partnership with the City of Sydney council and HPG. “This is the first time in New South Wales that large-scale temporary space has been adapted legally for performance,” she says. “It’s a ground-breaking pilot. This is the key to making the underground warehouse activations that we all love legal.”
One of the Sydney companies working in the same immersive ‘choose your own adventure’ space as Sleep No More are Mongrel Mouth, who debuted in 2014 with their show The Silence Came, taking over Surry Hills eating house the Commons. For the Fringe, Mongrel Mouth have created a site-specific work called Undertaking which will take over a whole floor of abandoned offices. Audiences will be able to move around the space and follow the characters and story threads of their choice, within a “multi-sensory thriller” involving disappearing people.
For Fringe ambassador Tim Freedman, frontman for the Whitlams and a solo artist who has produced cabaret and theatrical works, there’s a deeper cultural issue behind Sydney’s embattled arts scene: “We’ve always been a very commercial city, and the little bolt holes and weird artistic ghettos have been cleaned out by commercialism in the inner city.”
Freedman, who came up in the live music scene of Newtown in the 1990s, will perform at the HPG Hub over two nights, with a geographically-focused set featuring “songs of hunger, desperation and romance in your twenties.”
“You can smell the Netflix in this city,” he says of the change in Sydney. “You drive around at night and there’s not much going on. There’s not enough little spaces to see weird little stuff. That’s where artists start, small rooms. And I’ll be proud to play one of those small rooms come September.”
Sydney Fringe Festival runs September 1-30 in various venues across Sydney. Come September, you can find the HPG Festival Hub at 225 Euston Road, Alexandria. For the full festival line-up see sydneyfringe.com.