Belfast Festival Fringe Isn't Frayed

Festival director Peter Quigley on this year's highlights and epic ambitions for the future

How did the Belfast Fringe Festival come about, and what is your role in it?

I started Belfast Fringe when I came back from Edinburgh a couple of years ago. I had been going to the Fringe there for many years and thought it was a shame that the largest arts festival here, the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, did not have a Fringe.

I got two or three likeminded people together and we put an ad out online for submissions. We weren’t sure if it would work, but I was overwhelmed by the response. What we wanted was a fringe festival attached to the Belfast Festival, where there was no artistic vetting – so anybody with the will and determination could participate. We wanted something that was accessible and open to all.

So the goal of the Fringe is to compliment the Queen’s Festival, rather than replace it?

The Belfast Festival at Queen’s is, by nature, not accessible to everyone. This is not a criticism. The organisers there choose the best national and international artists, but this means that there is very little room for lesser-known home grown talent. I think the Fringe gives a welcome platform for this.

The Fringe Festival was well received last year. Have you expanded for 2011?

Last year the Fringe was attended with 70% of the total box office, which was great. This year we’re trying to better that. It is a much larger festival and we have two companies over this year from London. We have also had interest for next year from a company in America. It is great to see it expanding in this way.

We're delighted with the venues this year. There are quite a few events going on in the Spectrum Centre up the Shankill Road, for instance. We are trying to broaden the festival so we cover most of the city, rather than keeping it in what I call the ‘arts ghetto’ of south Belfast.

Like the Edinburgh Fringe, stand-up comedy plays a huge part in the festival. A quickly snowballing local scene, do you see a distinct brand of Northern Irish alternative comedy emerging?

We have a guy performing this year, Paddy McDonnell, who is a taxi driver doing a one man show. To me this encapsulates the spirit of the Fringe. I’m really excited about the gig and he has caused a lot of interest.

In a broader sense, I think more global themes are emerging in Northern Irish comedy, which I would love to encourage with something similar to the Perrier Awards. We just need a sponsor!

As well as Paddy, we’ve got Andrew Johnston, who is a punk drummer and journalist turned comedian, Ruari Woods is doing his show Strabanimal, there is improv from Yes And, as well as appearances from the Audio Picnic gang and much more. Media Zoo in Linfield Industrial Estate are hosting quite a few of our comedy events, which should be an interesting venue.

There is a lot more to the Fringe than comedy. What are your personal picks for the rest of the festival?

We have The Sons of Robert Mitchum, who always get great reviews. We had them play at our launch and they went down a treat. Jenny Kallen is doing a theme night in the Errigle for fans of 1940s music, called Saturday at the Hop. She will be bringing a live band who do all the old numbers, with a themed disco afterwards in fancy dress. A great family orientated event will be The Brothers DiMM puppet show in the Black Box, based around the Grimm fairy tales.

A fringe festival like this relies so much on the enthusiasm of the acts and the organisers. Do you think you’ll be able to keep the ball rolling and expand the festival further in the future?

We will have a review after the festival and see how we can grow and do it better. We’re all amateurs, so we will have to use our common sense. It is a learning curve, finding shortcuts and better ways to do things, as well as asking for feedback from the artists.

However, going back to the Edinburgh Fringe, it started in 1947 with a handful of spontaneous events, and now it has grown to epic proportions. This August there were 2,500 shows in three weeks. With enough determination and quality acts, we should be able to reach the same scale.

Belfast Fringe Festival runs from October 14 – 23. For more information go the Belfast Fringe Festival website.