Interview by: Olivia Williams
Photos: Claudio Raschella
For over six decades, Adelaide Fringe has reigned as a cultural cornerstone, a living testament to the transformative force of community-driven arts. At the helm of this artistic juggernaut stands Heather Croall, the Director and CEO, whose indomitable spirit has guided the festival for an impressive 19 years. Under her leadership, Adelaide Fringe has not only weathered uncharted waters but has risen to global acclaim.
From her roots as a filmmaker to the helm of one of the world’s largest open-access festivals, Heather Croall’s story is one of innovation, adaptability, and a profound love for the arts. Join us as we chat with Heather about the festival’s past, present and exciting future.
Q: Adelaide Fringe has been a beloved festival since 1960. What unique qualities do you think contribute to its enduring popularity, and how have you approached building on this legacy since taking on the role in 2015?
A: Adelaide Fringe has always been a festival that runs from the grassroots up – it is “The People’s Festival” – it’s a truly collaborative event where anyone can put on a show and connect with their audience. We have stayed true to the roots of Fringe – it has always been an inclusive, affordable and accessible festival and remains so to this day.
Being an open-access festival, it has become the launchpad for tens of thousands of artists over the decades to kickstart and develop their careers, this is a very rare and special thing and it’s something South Australia should treasure. Many cities want a festival like Adelaide Fringe, but they are rare and they evolve over time. The fact that we have grown so big yet young, emerging artists still come and present new and experimental work is testament to our hard commitment staying connected to the community and is also thanks to the awesome, eager and willing audiences that attend every night!
Q: As the Director and CEO of Adelaide Fringe, you’ve been recognised as the Festival Management CEO of the Year in 2022. What did this recognition mean to you, and how do you see it reflecting the growth and success of Adelaide Fringe under your leadership?
A: Winning that award in 2022 was incredible after a couple of tough years of managing the Fringe through COVID. We were one of the only festivals in the world to not cancel an edition through the COVID years; we had to be extremely agile and willing to adapt and leading the Fringe through that time was certainly more complex than ever. I was incredibly grateful to the thousands of artists and hundreds of venues and all the funders, sponsors, donors, staff and volunteers – we all worked together, we were joined at the hip and we did everything we could to deliver the magic of Fringe in those years and so that award I won belongs to us all!
Q: Your background includes experience as a filmmaker, having produced and directed documentaries for SBS, ABC, Ch 4, and BBC. How has your filmmaking background influenced your approach to directing a major arts festival like Adelaide Fringe?
A: Heading up a festival like Fringe requires many of the same skill sets of a film producer/director. One of the skills you need is a willingness to Raise Significant Funding – films and festivals require Herculean fundraising efforts every cycle (whether your cycle is a film production or a festival). And just like in film, where you “put all the money on the screen”, in a festival you put all the funds to the activity in the event and make it the best you can and then start the fundraising all over again. Film making and festival directing also require deep commitment to and belief in co-creation and collaboration as well as a love of working with creatives and artists and understanding audiences.
Q: In what ways has your approach to leadership allowed Adelaide Fringe to innovate, adapt to changing circumstances (and we sure have been dealt with a few of those over the last few years!), and connect with new audiences?
A: I always implement adaptive methodologies in my work practices – I’m a massive fan of personas and user-centred design when it comes to mapping solutions. I don’t like to come up with solutions too early – understand the challenges and the blocks and then allow the solution to emerge. I am also a believer that what got us here will not get us there – a willingness to continuously improve is required. We listen to our stakeholders and focus on their barriers and work out how to minimise any barriers. It takes a lot of time because it’s easier to rinse and repeat but that never results in innovation. The team and I strive to deliver the best customer experience and the best artist experience in Fringe. To do this, you have to be willing to consult and allow solutions to emerge from mapping the user journeys – rather than implementing solutions before understanding what the problem is.
Q: Your tenure at Adelaide Fringe has seen an increase in ticket sales, high critical acclaim, and expanded audience demographics. Can you share some key initiatives that have contributed to this success?
A: Lots of the persona work described above has played a big role. Also a willingness to implement deep change. The first initiative was a digital transformation that I oversaw – this included building a whole new digital platform for Fringe Artist and Venue registration as well as ushering in a new ticketing system that met the needs of our customers in a fast changing world. We also dialled up the opportunities to have B2B meetings in Fringe and as a result of that we now have a thriving industry facing trade fair at Fringe where shows get booked for national and international tours. Another change was how we tell our story to the world – everyone in Adelaide knew about Fringe but we have dedicated huge time and resources to getting the rest of the country and world aware of Fringe and this has more than quadrupled the tourist numbers and spend. Another initiative was setting up the Donor Circle and the philanthropic arm of Fringe which allows us to raise funds to award much needed grants to Fringe artists and also to buy tickets for communities facing disadvantage who might not be able to attend Fringe. Because we are committed to continuous improvement, there’s many more initiatives on the way!
Q: How has the integration of different art forms, such as film, contributed to the overall diversity and richness of Adelaide Fringe’s program?
A: Bringing together art forms and different disciplines is critical to staying fresh at a festival like Fringe. Bringing people together to create new and exciting work is something I’ve always focused on across my career – I really believe that multidisciplinary co-design and collaboration are at the heart of innovation. The Electric Dreams program at Fringe is always super cutting edge and I highly recommend it! They bring shows that combine the best of interactivity and the best of creativity.
Having more and more First Nations artists participate in Fringe has been a focus – and there’s been some awesome collaborations with new technology and Aboriginal storytelling such as Sky Song and Electric Skies. This year there’s a magical piece in the Natural Wonders show in the Botanic Garden – the installation is called, “The Spirit Lives On” by Ngarrindjeri woman, Nicole Gollan in partnership with Same River Studio.
We also like to respond to needs as they arise – a few years ago, many artists made a strong presentation to us asking the Fringe to lower the fees to allow them to keep more of their Box Office and we were able to do that with support from the State Government. We also saw the rise of Magic show popularity but the magicians were unhappy they didn’t have their own genre so we created the Magic genre and it has gone from strength to strength each year with local magicians alongside interstate and international magicians attracting high audience numbers all Fringe.
Q: Adelaide Fringe is known for transforming the city into a magical festival playground. What role do you believe the festival plays in the cultural and artistic landscape of Adelaide, and how has it evolved over the years to meet the changing expectations of festival goers?
A: The Fringe is one of the only festivals in the world that truly transforms the whole city. Thanks to the hundreds of venues and thousands of artists, there truly is something for everyone in Fringe! The magical Fringe worlds that can be explored at night under the big South Australian starry skies are unique and we should all get out and support the creatives who make it happen! I also encourage people to take a risk and see some of the most innovative shows at Fringe. The Interactive genre is something I introduced in 2016 and it has been thrilling to see it grow each year with artists creating art that breaks new ground. That always helps bring new Fringegpers into the fold. Some of the big projections and light shows we’ve had at Fringe, such as the Fringe Illuminations on North Terrace in 2016/17/18 or Electric Skies in Victoria Park in 2023, have been responsible for attracting new audiences to Fringe who then go on to see other shows across the program. This year we have Natural Wonders in the Botanic Garden, this will transform the gardens into an outdoor gallery under the stars with mesmerising light and projection works and it’s one not to miss. Another amazing immersive show in 2024 is the Sleep’s Hill Tunnel which will be an incredible experience and offers access to a rare heritage site – an old abandoned railway tunnel.
Q: What excites you most about the future of arts festivals, and how do you envision Adelaide Fringe continuing to lead in the ever-evolving arts and entertainment landscape?
A: I love that so many artists regard Adelaide Fringe as the best place to try out new work and many of them use Fringe as a launch pad for new shows that go on to take the world by storm. In order to continue doing that we must make sure the Adelaide Fringe continues to be strong with great audiences and excellent support for artists. There’s thousands of festivals in the world and we can never rest on our laurels – we must strive to always provide the best environment for entrepreneurial artists and creatives. You can be sure there’s lots of places in Australia trying to take away our crown of being the Biggest Arts Festival in Australia…so we must work hard and work together to retain it and make sure artists and crew and all creatives have a fruitful and fun time at Fringe.
We have built a significant arts trade fair in Adelaide Fringe which plays a major role in this and needs to continue to thrive. We attract hundreds of programmers and show buyers from all over the world who are scouting for new talent to book on tours in theatres, on cruise ships, at festivals and even to adapt to film and TV. This is why Adelaide Fringe is truly a launch pad for artists and producers – the audiences and ticket sales are important but increasingly so, the arts marketplace is critical to the success of the Fringe. You never know who you are sitting next to at a Fringe show – it might be the programmer at Glastonbury or the curator of a theatre in New York or an Arts Centre in Seoul. They are scouting for talent. Artists know that they can be booked at Adelaide Fringe for years of touring and that is increasing the chances of artists sustaining a living year round which means Adelaide Fringe is an amazing part of the arts ecosystem.
Q: Looking ahead, what are some of the upcoming highlights or innovations that festival goers can anticipate at Adelaide Fringe, and how do you envision the festival’s ongoing contribution to the cultural vibrancy of Adelaide?
A: Recently we set up the Fringe Foundation called Arts Unlimited. We have been raising donations and absolutely all the donations go to help artists put on new shows and also buy tickets for disadvantaged communities. I encourage everyone to give what they can so we can keep doing this. People can give a small donation when making a ticket transaction or they can join our Donor Circle with an annual donation. These funds help us on our journey to make Fringe the most inclusive festival in the world.
In the last 8 years we have focused strongly on growing Fringe in the suburbs and the regions and we will continue to do so to make sure that Fringe is around the corner from everyone! The Fringe goes for 31 days and nights and we want audiences to come in and see shows in the CBD but we also want everyone to see shows in rural and outer metro areas too. We are seeing the program evolve to audience demands – the explosion of the Kids & Family genre is an example. So is the growing number of interactive shows. I would love to see more immersive shows in Fringe. We raise funds to enable some of the most cutting edge shows to go ahead and we hope we can secure a significant increase in funds to be able to shore up Fringe for the future and make sure it stays fresh and innovative for years to come.
Heather’s top tips for your best Fringe experience
- Filter for Your Festival: Use the Fringe website’s filters—select genre, date, and time to discover shows tailored to your preferences.
- Plan Your Picks: ‘Favourite’ shows as you browse and organise them with My Fringe Planner for a personalised schedule.
- Last-Minute Locator: When in need of a spontaneous show, use the ‘Near Me Now’ button on the website for nearby options.
- Unlock Deals with Membership: Enhance your Fringe experience by purchasing a Fringe Membership for exclusive deals and perks.
- Expert Recommendations: Explore curated show lists by high-profile people about town on the Fringe website for inspired choices.
- Venture into the Unknown: Go see a show you’ve never heard of in a venue you’ve never been to.
- Local Insights: Discover shows in your neighborhood by exploring the website’s council area feature for a community-centric experience.