Sharjah gets a fringe

Sharjah is getting a fringe festival, with more than 600 shows – mostly (but not all) aimed at families – running in the second half of this month.

You’d expect a fringe to be an add-on or ornament to an existing series of events, and typically the latter would be formal and official while the fringe would be informal and more anarchic (edgy, you might say). But times have moved on: these days it seems a ‘fringe festival’ is just a collection of events that have a degree of informality, often appear in short-lived pop-up venues, with free admission or low-price tickets. And you no longer need something for the fringe to be a fringe of.

So the Sharjah Fringe Festival is about as anarchic as you would expect. It is “presented by” (aka funded by) Shurooq, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority – the government body charged with “transforming Sharjah … as an investment, tourism and business destination”. Shurooq’s “strategic partner” is the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), the marketing organisation that promotes commerce and tourism activities within the emirate.

To actually put the thing together Shurooq has gone to the pros of the National Arts Festival in South Africa, who produce a thriving multi-faceted performance festival each summer in the Eastern Cape. The National Arts Festival has a Main thread and a Fringe; in practice the two look pretty similar, but the Main programme is carefully selected and the Fringe is open to all comers (basically there’s some selection on a practical level, but essentially it’s first-come first-served for would-be performers).

That might be one way for the Sharjah Fringe Festival to develop, and there was an open call for performers (albeit not one that made many waves here) that specifically solicited “productions, targeted at young people and families, that will inspire a love for live performance, theatre and entertainment in our audience”.

But to get it off the ground there has been a lot of subcontracting. Apart from the National Arts Festival’s own contacts, the prime recipient is the Dubai-based events company Dolphin Creative. Dolphin are definitely the go-to guys for street performers and the like – if you’ve seen buskers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, chalk artists, unicyclists, magicians or stilt walkers at product launches, in mall events, or at gigs like the rather fine Downtown Dubai Wonderful Winter Walk over the festive season, it was probably Dolphin that provided the talent (it did do the Winter Walk).

There is a whole Short+Sweet Sharjah programme too. That is made up of invitees, the best of recent S+S players from Abu Dhabi and Dubai plus some local groups – “there’s quite an active scene in Sharjah” said Alex Broun, who’s now head of drama at the newly opened Studio Republik complex but is organising the Short+Sweet element in his spare time.

In total there will be more than 50 artists, around 600 shows (many aimed at kids), and 1,100 hours of entertainment – music, circus, comedy and theatre productions over three weeks.

Dolphin’s work is mostly evident in the Fringe on the Streets programme, 30 or so performers giving outdoor shows on eight ‘pitches’ on the walkway between Al Noor, Al Majaz and Al Qasba from 2.30pm to 11pm each day. These are mostly free, but in some cases you will be able to pay what you want because a hat will be passed round – normal at most street performances elsewhere, but we think this is a first for the region.

The main locations will be Al Qasba (where the existing Masrah Theatre is being supplemented by a pop up open air performance space), Al Noor Island (for some free kids shows – magic, music, acrobatics and bubbleology) and the Al Majaz Waterfront (one pop up venue plus the existing open air performance space).

The rest of the time the Al Qasba and Al Majaz venues are jam packed afternoons and evenings with shows, again mostly for kids. Ticket prices are generally affordable – most in the range AED 25 to 50.

The organisers call the Sharjah Fringe “a truly global festival”: the artists come from UK, US, South Africa, Spain, Ireland, and Australia, plus a smattering from the UAE – apart from the Short+Sweet people we count just four shows.

They do look a lot of fun, though. The much-praised Magic Phil has a couple of shows, one of them – The Krazy Kitchen Show – with Emma Quintin, also from Dubai; there’s a batch of home-grown comedians in Sketchy Behaviour (among them the fierce and funny Arzoo Malhotra, recently seen at the Junction in her Unladylike show, and Kristina Gaponiuk who won Best Joke at Short + Sweet Comedy back in November 2019); “top UAE comedians” (currently unnamed) in the UAE Comedy Extravaganza; and “several local performance companies” (also currently anonymous) in the All-Star Sharjah Revue.

Magic Phil and Emma Quintin in The Krazy Kitchen Show (18 January, Al Qasba 2)

Al Qasba is hosting the Short+Sweet programme. There you can expect five ten-minute plays per night on the weekends of 17-18 January and 24-25 February, with 31 January and 1 February seeing the shortlisted finalists and then the traditional S+S gala final with awards. By our count that’s more than two dozen plays.

It’s a real shame we can’t see yet more local talent, but it’s obviously early days for the Sharjah Fringe and clearly the formula can be tweaked in successive editions.

Maybe another tweak could be the name. Why couldn’t it be called the Sharjah Performance Festival or something similar? Then it might actually warrant a fringe sometime in the future.

And finally, some more enthusiastic promotion wouldn’t go amiss. Ok, the organisers have chosen not to use the massive marketing reach of magpie to trumpet their efforts, and obviously that hurts; but beyond the press launch (no, we weren’t invited, but we were sent the pic above) and a couple of media releases there has been very little promotion that we can see.

Paul Nathan in his multi award-winning children’s magic show, The I Hate Children Children’s Show (Al Majaz 2)

In the meantime there’s a full listing of 33 bookable shows here (though the online booking wasn’t working when we tried on 4 January). The festival opens on 16 January with a raft of attractive shows, including Paul Nathan’s excellent I Hate Children Children’s Show (Al Majaz 2, 4pm) and the well cool Aussie combo of singer-songwriter-guitarist Jamie MacDowell with human beatbox Tom Thum (Al Majaz 2, 6.30pm).

The Sharjah Fringe Festival runs every day from 16 January to 1 February.

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