Canberra Fringe Festival to have emphasis on local talent

Arts all-rounder Jorian Gardner is growing up - and is hoping to make the city's art scene just as mature, writes Stephanie Anderson.

Naked women, "penis cams" and citywide scuttlebutt all play a prominent part in Jorian Gardner's past.

But that's where the 40-year-old arts identity is hoping they remain as he takes on another year of directing the city's Fringe Festival, Canberra's annual celebration of alternative art.

Slammed in the past for his risky programming and budget blowouts, Gardner says this year's show will be less controversial due in part to his growth over what have been a few rough years.

"I've been beaten up in the last few years around the place pretty heavily," he says.

"It tends to make you think about what you're doing a little bit more rather than just mouth off straight away."

It's an unexpected admission from Gardner, whose name has become synonymous with controversy in Canberra.


After leaving the WIN newsroom in 2010, the former chief of staff was suspended from his 2CC show in mid-2012 for suggesting on air that former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy wear a "penis-cam" to look up the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard's skirt.

His departure from both WIN and 2CC followed his loss of the Fringe directorship in 2009, when the then minister for multicultural affairs John Hargreaves merged the event with the National Folk Festival.

The merger also followed a dispute between the pair over an advertising logo for the Fringe Festival's burlesque event, which included drawings of bare-breasted women.

Gardner says there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision to pull his directorship after the "challenging and booty-shaking program", but maintains the decision was wrong.

Now in its 11th year, he says his sixth Fringe Festival in Civic Square will also be markedly different because of its changing audience.

"Five years ago, I had wowsers complaining that we had naked girls dancing in the middle of civic," he says.

"Now I think people are understanding of burlesque, comedy and performances. I think there are fewer wowsers out there because there's more performers and there's certainly more shows.

"I think the audience has become a little more educated and a little less concerned."

Gardner is also hoping the show will be welcomed more warmly because of the emphasis on local talent, such as composer Cameron Smith and musician Chris Endrey.

He says the city has seen a surge in local talent since he last oversaw a line-up, resulting in a 2014 program littered with Canberrans.

"The last big burlesque show, whether I got into trouble with it or not, had performers from all over the country," he says.

"We had to bring them in and that was expensive, putting people up and bringing them in from interstate. This time around in the big burlesque night we're doing, one performer is coming from Sydney and the rest are locals."

Even Canberra's politicians are getting in on the act, with Gardner saying that ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is expected to make an appearance alongside dancers, singers and comedians.

Gardner says the festival could also promote a Canberra that people don't usually think of, one populated with artists such as burlesque performer Tiffany Blue or poet Andrew Galan.

"More and more, the performers that have grown here are now staying here, while going to Sydney and Melbourne to perform," he says.

"We used to have the opposite, we used to have a drain of performers going to live in Melbourne and Sydney … Now there is enough opportunity for them, demand for them to go interstate and then come back."

It's not only the two-hour evening of burlesque, comedy and dance that showcases local talent - Gardner says the explosion in Canberra's music scene allowed him to pick a line up to rival fellow underground festival You Are Here.

He says although the two events had their differences, it was heartening to see smaller festivals finding both support for local artists and support from the ACT Government, even if the budget is "bugger all".

"In a town like Canberra where we shoot down festivals when they become successful after a few years which people have had a habit of doing, it's great that we've managed to continue this in one form or another," he says.

"I put this whole show on for $20,000 and that's paying every artist."

But Gardner isn't letting his limited spending hold him back.

He says he's back with something to prove after his initial funding and directorship was redirected to "punish" him.

"I certainly am out to prove something," he said.

"What I'm out to prove is that we can do it again, how much fun it is and how important I think it is for the local artistic community to do these sorts of alternative arts presentations."

Despite all his growth and plans for redemption, it seems there is still a glimmer of the old Jorian Gardner left.

When asked about some of the event's interstate guests and what reaction that may draw from the more conservative crowds, Gardner responds with a question from his past - "who cares?"

"Can't Canberra people connect with others?" he asks.

"We don't want to be in that little bubble."

The 2014 Fringe Festival will begin at 6.30pm on Thursday, February 6.

Top picks of local talent

In Canberra Tonight - 8pm on Thursday, February 6

Catch up with local musicians, performers and politicians for an evening of interviews and entertainment with host Chris Endrey from Canberra band Fun Machine. The evening will start after the Fringe Fanfare, composed by Canberra's Cameron Smith.

The Fringe Burlesk - 8.30pm on Friday, February 7

Join Fringe Festival director Jorian Gardner and the city's sassiest performers - including Harley Quinn and Venues De Milo - for a two-hour extravaganza of burlesque, featuring music by local musicians Little Mac and the Monster Men.

Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! - 7pm on Saturday, February 8

Canberra's monthly poetry slam moves from the Phoenix to Civic Square for a night of performances from the experienced, enthusiastic and downright entertaining. Poets free to sign up from 6.30pm.

The International Fringe - 2pm on Sunday, February 9

Join local duo Beth n Ben for the festival's closing evening, featuring international acts from Iran, Chile and Russia. The event will follow the morning Interfaith Gathering in Civic Square, from 10am.