Media

The Bold and the Bizarre

Tony Martin describes his upcoming Fringe Festival show as experimental – "and possibly misguided" – but he's among a slew of high-profile names who are attracted to the annual arts festival for the very reason that it has a reputation for boundary-pushing ideas – from both emerging and established artists.

This year, alongside up-and-comers, long established acts including Arj Barker, Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges, the Umbilical Brothers, Geraldine Hickey and Lawrence Mooney – even Community's Joel McHale – are on the bill.

Martin says every odd-numbered year he tries out new ideas at the festival.

"I did The Yeti in 2013which was me acting out every single part from one of my short stories, and I got the best reviews I'd had in my whole career," he says.

This year, the comedian, writer and radio presenter will premiere his new podcast, along with a cast of comedians and actors ("I can't name them all but there's a Logie winner in there!"), recording it live in front of audiences.

But Childproof is not your average podcast; it's closer to a radio drama.

Co-written with his girlfriend Sarina Rowell, Childproof is a six-part sitcom for television, about not having children. The pair spent four years developing and writing it, then pitching it to TV networks and streaming services, only to be roundly rejected.

"It's a controversial subject," Martin says. "There's never been a show about people who are 'child-free by choice' – and yet by the year 2030 we're told there will be more people in Australia without children than with children."

The common response they received was that the show would appeal only to people who don't have children.

"Does MASH only appeal to people who were medics in the Korean war?" Martin says.

Rather than let his script sit in a drawer, he decided to have a cast of actors read it aloud and release all six episodes as a free podcast.

"It's actually never been done before because, well, what kind of mad person could afford to spend a year writing a television-quality sitcom and then just piss it away on iTunes for free?" Martin asks. "Tickets to the show are fairly reasonable, and then we'll release the episodes for free – I think it might be a world first."

And "there may well be a reason for that".

"But to me, the Fringe is where you try something mad that might fail – something that's a bit more of an experiment," he says.

"Although in America, everyone's talking about a dramatic podcast, Homecoming ..."

 The work is being made into an HBO drama starring Julia Roberts.

So there might yet be hope for a TV version of Childproof?

"Yes – I may well be played by Julia Roberts."

Comedian Lawrence Mooney says the ethos of Fringe offers freedom to create.

"If something is labelled 'comedy', there is an expectation that it's got to be funny … but Fringe suggests experimentation, evolution, discovery, an artistic will and I love that," he says.

This year he's expanding his recent impersonations of the prime minister in An Evening with Malcolm Turnbull.

Mooney says he discovered he could do a good Turnbull while sitting in front of Q&A. "I'm so much happier with Malcolm rather than Tony because he just makes more delicious, fruitier sounds."

The premise for his show is that Malcolm has been given his own tonight show.

"I'm a massive Max Gillies fan who was famous for doing Bob Hawke among others in the 1980s and '90s. It's been 30 years since somebody has done a dedicated live lampooning of a prime minister. It's time."

He says staying in character for the duration has given him pause for doubt but he's "happy it'll sustain".

"Audiences are strange, amorphous beasts and you can easily project on to them way too much, you've got to allow them to be what they are," he says. "I guess if they're coming to the Fringe Festival then they've started defining that in their collective consciousness so, yeah, they're different.

For the first time the Arts Centre is a venue for one of Fringe's most intriguing performances, as part of Take Over!, an initiative which invited artists to create a site-specific work. Billed as a "fantastically bold adventure", performance collective Discordia, comprised of eight artists from varying backgrounds including dance, filmmaking, photography, live art and music, will perform a show unlike any other. At least, I think it's a show.

Discordia's Holly Durant, best known for her work with Finucane and Smith, says it may not be a show – in itself.

"It's definitely an event – you enter, you leave, there are two sessions per evening, and it's an experience that involves an amount of performative elements," she says.

"I'd call it a multi-space experience with a number of different visual and performative elements, all those things are partly in your control and partly out of your control: you're both running from and giving in to the experience."

This high-profile collective – Durant, Gabi Barton (Town Bikes), Benjamin Hancock (Lucy Guerin Inc, Chunky Move), Simone Page Jones (Black Lung Theatre), James Andrews (Antony Hamilton Projects), Hannah Fox (Tate Modern, Dark Mofo) and Will and Garrett Huxley (Melbourne Fashion Festival) are "converts" to Discordianism – often described as a "religion disguised as a joke disguised as a religion". The collective members combine absurdism with philosophy, and the show is described as the unveiling of their church of Holy Chaos. Whatever it actually is, we can be sure the Discordia experience is not one that could happen outside of Fringe Festival, at least not at the Arts Centre.

Musical comedian Sammy J – best known for his double act with furry purple sidekick Randy (operated by Heath McIvor) – is a Fringe regular and says while some people treat the festival as a "trial run", he considers it a place to stage more challenging material. In 2016, he premiered his most personal show, Hero Complex, at the Fringe, before taking it to the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2017.

""I don't think I would've felt comfortable premiering it at another festival – Fringe audiences come along to see something a bit risky," he says.

This year, he's not on stage but is directing the two-hander Birds on Sticks, starring Heath McIvor (as himself, not Randy) and actor and Play School presenter Alex Papps. Written by McIvor, it's a dark comedy about two disgruntled puppeteers, and will be a departure for all three performers.

"It's new for me – the last thing I officially directed was the 2005 Melbourne Uni Law Revue," Sammy says. "And this is a play, no puppets! There will be dark elements, but it's a comedy."

It's also unusual for Heath – not Sammy – to have his face on stage, "and I think it's been a while since people have seen Alex Papps on stage", Sammy says.

Premiering at Fringe, Sammy says, also means no ticket sale pressure.

"The whole point of this show is to be the purest expression it can be, without the need for worrying about making money," he says. Removing the need to make money is "incredibly liberating".

"You're not trying to please a crowd – you're trying to do exactly what you want to do."

This video was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 September 2017.