Fun at the Fringe
Guilford Fringe Festival is celebrating its fifth birthday loud and proud with 130 events at 12 venues throughout July. Festival director, Nick Wyschna, joins us for a chat
So, Nick, five years… is Guildford Fringe celebrating this birthday in style?
“Of course! This year we’re staging our biggest show yet and getting the Fringe underway with a huge opening night show at G Live on Saturday, July 1. With an all-star line-up of comics, Gag House Comedy Superstars brings Mark Dolan, Paul Sinha, Zoe Lyons and headliner Joe Lycett to Guildford. If you saw Joe on his tour, you’d be paying £45 for that ticket, but we’ve kept the tickets at £18 to do our best to ensure everyone can afford to be thoroughly entertained by these brilliant acts.”
So, what’s new for this year’s Festival?
“There’s LOADS of free stuff! Fringe festivals are all about accessibility, so for our opening weekend, in addition to programming an epic comedy night and keeping our ticket prices low, we’ve gone one step further and thrown in lots of free entertainment throughout the Big Free Fringe Weekend.
“On Saturday and Sunday, July 1 and 2 – with the support of our three headline sponsors; SaidSo, Experience Guildford and the Harbour Hotels – the High Street will be buzzing with activity with a huge range of performances from the likes of Rock Choir and Surrey Hills Ukulele Big Band. There will be an arts and crafts area where children can let off some steam and get creative, and there are three free evening shows on the Sunday too.”
And what about the overall programme of events for this year’s Fringe?
“The biggest development is that five years of word of mouth means we now have a huge number of high-quality acts that approach us about participating in the Festival, which is exciting. We could easily have programmed 500 shows this July.
“We’re staging 30 more events this year than 2016, and we have two new venues. Tudor Antiques is brilliantly quirky – you’ve got to love a place that serves cocktails in teapots, right? They’re hosting Naked Girls Reading and Ben Earl, one of the world’s best sleight-of-hand magicians, who not only performs but also gives away some of his trade secrets.
“And we have the Guildford Harbour Hotel, which is an independently owned, trendy hotel. I’m performing my own cabaret there in aid of the Jack Wyschna Foundation, which is named after my dad and gives bursaries for professional theatre training to people who have the talent but not the funds.”
Five years on, what’s the story behind creating Guildford Fringe? I’m told your passion for the arts began at school, when you realised that acting up in maths class got you into trouble, but that in the performing arts arena, the more you showed off, the more you were encouraged…
“Whilst I was at Guildford County School I fell in love with singing, with performing. It felt like I’d found something that enabled me to be myself.”
Nick, you trained at the Royal Academy of Music, and enjoyed success both in London and touring theatre productions such as South Pacific, Mamma Mia and Scandalous the Musical. But is Guildford where your heart really belongs?
“Guildford’s my hometown, my Mum’s here! When I was working away, I always missed it and I knew I’d come back to the town I know, to the people I know.”
And so, in 2012 the Guildford Fringe Theatre Company was born. That must have taken one hell of a leap of faith…?
“I didn’t know ANYTHING! I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I was adamant I wanted to give it a go. We already had a good network of local performing arts groups from the Guildford Fringe Theatre Company work and it became apparent that small theatre companies were struggling to find affordable performance spaces to hire so the concept of creating the Fringe Festival sprang from the financial barriers they were facing.
“I didn’t know if there was demand for a Fringe Festival here so we were cautious: we programmed very carefully, with people we already knew so we were confident the acts would be good quality, and we only featured one venue – The Back Room of The Star Inn – to reduce the risk and limit any potential financial losses.
“Five years later and we’re preparing to celebrate with events in 12 venues – but if we’d attempted that for our first Festival, I think things would have gone very wrong! You have to start small and build on that.
“Guildford had an added bonus in that we could rely on the support of our friends and family. Once you’re off the ground, you’re not dependent on them to fill your audiences but at the beginning it was a huge comfort to know we’d have some friendly faces at our events.”
Guildford has really embraced the Fringe Festival, which has grown from one venue and 32 events in their debut year, to 12 venues and over 130 events to offer for 2017. As the programme continues to grow, what is it about this Festival that engages people?
“Guildford is so lucky with the huge variety of art and culture we have here. I hope the Festival offers something for everybody. On average the tickets are about £7 which encourages people to book something they wouldn’t normally see: they’re more willing to give something a go.
While Nick’s always looking for ways to develop and enhance Guildford Fringe Festival, one thing that hasn’t changed at all is his attitude to what makes a cracking Fringe Festival:
“It all hinges on accessibility and that will never change. We will always keep the participants’ entry fee low, to make being a part of the Festival as accessible to producers and acts as possible. And on the flipside, we will always keep our ticket prices low so that audiences can come and see events without risking a high value ticket. It’s the driving concept of Fringe Festivals worldwide: encouraging grassroots, affordable, small-scale theatre and arts.”
Guildford Fringe Festival runs from 1 – 30 July. For a full list of events click here: guildfordfringefestival.com.