Ventnor Fringe Festival, Isle of Wight, England
While thousands of people head to Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival, at the other end of the UK there’s another event that captures the true spirit of a ’fringe’. It may not have the reputation, the big names or the crowds, but the Vintner Fringe Festival has something special. It has the soul of the community.
The Isle of Wight, just off the coast in the south of England, seems like a bit of an outpost in itself. But within the island, the town of Vintner is even more isolated. It’s on the opposite side to all the ferry arrivals and has no direct train link, like some of the other coastal communities. It seems an unlikely spot for an arts festival.
But it’s this isolation that gave birth to the idea for a Ventnor Fringe Festival. It started with a group of young locals who thought their town needed more events. It was them – not the local authorities – who began the initial work to create the festival. Five years on and their dream is well and truly realised.
One of the first things that strikes me as I start to explore the town is how the whole community has come together to help create the festival. There aren’t nearly enough traditional venues to host all the performances that happen during the week, so they are held in a range of odd places. The local taxi driver has put his cab away for the day and I spot him playing the guitar with some friends out the front of his shop; A church up on a hill is used for a lengthy Shakespeare performance; A drop-in centre for the local youth is now exhibiting a range of artworks; and (most memorably) a laundromat is the venue for a small concert where the audience sits on top of washers and dryers.
There are a few festival bars – in places you might not expect. A plot of land surrounded by trees near a church feels like a fairy forest from a music festival, for example. Or the rotunda next to the beach, which has tunes pumping into the late evening. Everywhere you walk in Ventnor during the Fringe there is something going on. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise. The town’s population is only about 6,000 people.
It’s this small size which allows it to be so ‘quirky’. And that’s what attracts many of the artists who come here to perform or exhibit. It’s not just locals – I meet performers from across the UK and Europe. There are no restrictions to entry and, as long as there’s a venue available, the organisers will put anyone who wants to be in the festival in the program. The artists also get to keep 100 per cent of the box office.
For me, this festival is one of those discoveries that you immediately want to share with everyone. Most people have presumably never heard if it (I hadn’t) but there is such a fun atmosphere in the streets and I wish I could spend a few days hanging around and going to more of the events. The attitude of the organisers and the participants is inspirational and there are so many little creative oddities to uncover.
To understand a bit more about the festival, I sat down for a chat with one of the founders, Jack Whitewood. You can listen to my chat with him or read the transcript below:
Time Travel Turtle: How did the festival start with just a small group of young people leading the charge?
Jack Whitewood: It was six friends, all 18, and we had all just gone off the university and I think we wanted a reason to come back to our hometown. Where we live is very beautiful, very scenic and we love everything about it – the way of life – but there just wasn’t really much to do… as is the same in many seaside towns around the country, even moreso being on an island. So we wanted a reason to come back every year and it’s grown from not just us, but other people coming to visit.
Time Travel Turtle: When you first started, what was the reaction from the community?
Jack Whitewood: I think everyone has loved it right from the beginning but there have been individual things that everyone has been a bit bemused by to start with – but everyone has really embraced it now. I remember the first time we put pianos in the street, that was quite an interesting experiment but there were just so many people who could play piano but none of the pubs have pianos in them anymore – just things like that. You start to let them use space in different ways. People love being able to go into areas they’re not normally allowed to go into or to places at times they’re not allowed to go into. So we do a late night lock-in at the local library most years and it’s great to have a bar in the library and have people doing poetry and spoken word until 1am. Even places that you can go, you tend to only go to one or two places that fit within your routine and there are so many shops in your own home town or city that you’ve never been into because they don’t sell something that interests you, but it’s really fun to be able to put on events there and suddenly you meet a whole new range of people and that’s a really fun experiment.
Time Travel Turtle: Was that part of the mission at the start to involve the community or has that evolved over time?
Jack Whitewood: I think it’s kind of been there since the beginning but it’s evolved a little bit now. I think before it was all with the ambition of just being fun and now it’s now evolved a bit more than that into how can we look at a different model for how a small town like Ventnor can thrive and how can we use what we’ve learned through the festival and embrace that year round. High streets in the future need to be dynamic spaces that can’t compete with the internet on price and product so they need to find different ways to be engaging and be places that people want to be in and live in.
Time Travel Turtle: Can you explain how the artists keep 100 per cent of the profits and why there are no requirements to be a part of the festival?
Jack Whitewood: The idea is to have a festival that isn’t formulated and controlled by a programmer that dictates their interests. The festival has a life of its own beyond the team running it, so we never know each year what the festival program will look like and that’s kind of very scary and really exciting. It means it’s a product of its place so artists feel like they have control over what goes on because they dictate what’s in the program. So if somebody says, ‘guys we really want to see more dance shows’, then they can create it if they want and lean it in that direction. The festival at different times has had big leanings. In the early years it was much more music-focused and now there’s a lot of performing arts and film coming through so it’s fun seeing it takes its own course. I think if you try to control something too much you’ll create a false vibrancy. I think for it to be truly organic it needs to grow in its own way and if we dictate and choose what is shown here, that won’t happen.
Time Travel Turtle: As someone who grew up here, how would you describe Ventnor?
Jack Whitewood: It’s a slightly eccentric hillside town. It’s beautiful, it’s got a lovely beach, it’s got an amazing cliffline, it’s right on the southern tip, it’s got it’s own microclimate and botanic gardens – lizards and things you’d never get anywhere else in the UK. But it’s also somewhere that embraces being a little bit odd and a little bit eccentric and I think compared to the rest of the island, it’s much more European-feeling. I think that’s a result of its geography and when you look out to sea you can’t see the mainland, it’s just the sea, which is quite nice.
Time Travel Turtle: You’re on the same time as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Do you see that as something you would like to become?
Jack Whitewood: Edinburgh is a product of its place and its location and we’re a product of ours. Just like Edinburgh has evolved as a capital city of a nation and so it’s adapted as a major cultural city, we’re obviously not that so what we’ve developed is something a bit different. I feel like the Fringe here is a cross between a city festival and a field festival and that’s because it is between those two places. Most people know the Isle of Wight for its field festivals like Bestival and the Isle of Wight Festival and not its more arts festivals and we try to cross over between the two. So while we have a lot of indoor theatre and concerts, we also have bars that are built much more like music festival bars and that hopefully makes it something that appeals to a really wide range of people. We also run every single venue which is unlike any other fringe festival in the UK. Edinburgh has individual venues that people book and hire but they are year round venues whereas here the Fringe directly controls all of them which means it has a bit more continuity across the whole festival for a fringe.
Time Travel Turtle: What’s the dream for the festival going forward?
Jack Whitewood: I think it would be great to get the word out a bit more about it and encourage new audiences to come and visit. We have a really fantastic core support group of a couple of thousands people who come every year and really enjoy it and it would be nice to get new people to come and take part and explore the city. But, at the same time, it will always be about intimate spaces and intimate performances. We’ve always said that we can carry on creating as many venues as we like as long as they always stay intimate. Our largest venue is about 200 seats and most are under 100. And that’s what makes it what it is.
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Time Travel Turtle was supported by Visit Britain but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.