Nine Lessons from Fringe World

Updated: Feb 22

With Fringe World coming to a close again, I sat down to process some thoughts that've been swirling around in my head (as abstract thoughts, not an annoying inner monologue). Over the nine Fringe Worlds I've participated in, I've learned a few things about myself, others, and performing in general. If you're interested, check out my cathartic journal entry below:

2012: My first Fringe World fell into my lap. I had recently met and performed with Lady Velvet Cabaret & Azure Entertainment, and I don't think I fully realised just how life-changing that would be for me. Thinking back, I don't think I realised a lot actually.. Instead, I was just over the moon to have a lanyard around my neck that gave me a discount on booze and "priority access" to the bar (which.. what even is that). I was stoked to perform in the Treasury building, which I'd always walked past as a teen goth moping around the city, desperate for a peek inside the historic abandoned building. There I was, scurrying through the labyrinth of hallways and avoiding the actual open holes in the floorboards on the way to our dressing room, which faced onto St George's Terrace and of course had no curtains. The closing night of The Burlesque Garden coincided with the opening of PIAF and the Places des Anges, and we performed to a chorus of leaf blowers attached to wheelie bins, sucking up two tonnes of feathers from the streets of Perth. This was the year I also participated in the Visual Arts category, contributing a piece to an exhibition at the new Paper Mountain collective (that's right, I had two lanyards). Let's be honest. I had no idea what Fringe World would grow into, I was just stoked to be there. I was young, excited, and thought I was the bees knees - and that's the lesson I want to remember from 2012's festival: I had no doubt that I belonged there. I believed in myself, my art, my colleagues - hell, we even won the People's Choice Award for Lucha Royale that year! Not an inch of my mind was taken up with self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or any concern with what anyone else was doing for the festival. Simply being involved and getting paid to perform was already the best thing I could have hoped for.

2013: By this time, I was working with the Azure Entertainment team, teaching, performing and doing admin within the business at Lady Velvet Cabaret and The WA Performance School. I had become a part of this amazing family, and in response to our 2012 review praising The Burlesque Garden but pushing for "more narrative", we took over the Circus Theatre with Club Velvet, our first murder mystery show. Unlike our regular burlesque graduation shows, this time we had to invest in props - I painted a bar backdrop, we bought a bar (which I still have in my house, thanks Stella!), and each night I filled up our wine bottles with grape or apple juice for Lucinda to serve in her bar - much sticky. Despite being a complete drama queen, I'd actually never performed in a play, ever. I couldn't do drama at school due to gridline clashes with my specialist music classes, so for the first time, I had to actually act. In front of many paying customers! And yet, I still had that weird, perhaps unearned confidence from the previous year - yes, I'd never done it before, but I had no evidence to suggest that I couldn't do it, so.. I did it. I guess if I learned anything from 2013's Fringe World festival, it's a toss-up between:

- Big earrings make you look smaller

- There's a right way and a wrong way to smash a wrestler in the back with a fold up chair - You don't need a qualification or experience to start doing something new. If it's outside of your usual wheelhouse, but it's pretty close to it, that's close enough. Whatever you'd write on your resume or website bio to convince an audience that you're good - believe it yourself. Somewhere along the line, I think I managed to un-learn that last lesson, which is interesting. I guess some weird anxieties come with age...

2014: This was our first year presenting a collaboration, between us and Kinetica Circus. The show didn't have a 'host' so to speak, as a twisted, surreal journey through secrets and temptation. It was my first time performing music at Fringe, I played the violin accompanying two circus performances. This is where I start to only learn lessons from a Fringe season in retrospect. So for this year, I'll include the lessons that I should have learned at the time, but it took me a few years to catch up:

- Just because you specialise in something you think is 'irrelevant' (i.e. maybe you've played the violin for your entire life), doesn't mean it doesn't belong in some other aspect of your performance. Maybe it's what makes you stand out! If you've toured overseas performing as a student, then call yourself an internationally experienced performer, damnit. Whether it's a solo in a Corelli concerto, played in the same cathedral that Mozart once performed in as a child, or yelling obscenities at the audience of a burlesque show in Perth, it's all your art.

- Sylvia. You don't need the sheet music. Your classical training made you who you are today, and will always be a part of you. Now it's time to fucking relax and enjoy making music for fun. This lesson still took a few years to fully bake.


2015: We produced Deep Sea Divas, another fun chance to learn lines and perform more theatrically than I had in the past, and Hey Hey It's Cabaret, a super fun wild cabaret game show that I'd really like to do again some day. Also the best pun-based show title I have ever come up with, in my opinion.

At this point I was working part-time teaching at a high school and part-time teaching and as assistant manager for Azure Entertainment. Later in the year I'd be diagnosed with PCOS, and whilst I'd lose weight on Metformin, I still didn't know that my diet was the reason I was almost falling asleep on the way from one job to the next, or in the middle of lessons. By this time, Fringe World was normal to me - a welcome break from my routine where I got to run wild, stay out late, and be glam, then rock up to school the next morning and pretend to be normal. I think this was the first year that one of my show ideas came to full fruition in Hey Hey It's Cabaret. It taught me a few things:

- Leopard print

- How to recognise when a bob wig is on backwards

- Fringe is (and always was) supposed to be a testing ground. If you're lucky like me, you can also test material out at graduation shows or other open mic-style situations, but Fringe is supposed to be on the FRINGES. Try new things, test ideas, and for the love of god, learn from them, remember those lessons, and don't be afraid to workshop them for future years. Some of our troupe members' best acts were performed in 2015, and I hope they remember that and aren't afraid to revive them in future. I don't know when we'll revive Hey Hey It's Cabaret, but the lessons it taught me will stay with me until that time.

2016: Two words:

Rap

Battle

Again, a chance to test new skills and new challenges in a familiar environment - exactly what Fringe is supposed to be about! My partner says this show was his favourite to date - in Alice: Off With His Head, not only did we have a script (and yes, an entire rap battle) for me to memorise, but each performer created an act that fit perfectly within our gender-bending interpretation of the classic Alice in Wonderland tale. We had card guards, a vaping caterpillar, the wildest cheshire cat you've ever seen, tumbling tweedle dee and dum, a white rose painted red, and a mad hatter with the most creative teabags and teapot I've yet to see onstage. Alice was, of course, a mullet-sporting roadie named after Alice Cooper.


2016 was also the very first year I wrote and performed my own solo show. I Owe My Parents $65,000 was an exploration into the lifelong investment that myself and my parents had made into my arts education. I think back now and see it for what it was: a good first try at what was to come. It was broad - covering my fine art degree and my music education. I sang songs, showed artworks, talked nonsense. Writing it was not as easy as I thought it'd be (considering it was autobiographical) because it just so happened to coincide with my divorce. But, it was a built-in deadline that I had to meet, and it taught me about pushing through no matter what. When I found myself lying on my living room floor a month out, staring blankly at my computer, I picked myself up and went to my mum's place. At the same kitchen table where I did my homework for all those years, I sat and wrote a show about my education, what "success" is, and how I'd be nowhere without my parents' support (and money). I think at the time I was too stressed to really take it all in, but I think back now and it all seems pretty apt, really. Another one of those lessons that didn't really sink in until a few years later. Let's face it, the show was not ground-breaking, but it got me some nice reviews to use for future promo, and I brought it on tour to Busselton Fringe. I even performed a condensed family-friendly version at a festival in South Perth. At this early time in my solo career, what I needed was confidence, practice and exposure (paid of course), and that's what I got from this show. Plus some cool photos of me swimming around in lots of money.


2017:

What a year... the last time that I participated in a Fringe World whilst juggling two jobs! I helped to produce two Lady Velvet Cabaret seasons: a sell-out sequel to 2016's Alice show, and a brand new show: Symphonies of Sensuality, which required burlesque artists to strip to only classical music. Another chance for me to squeeze in some of my classical training to a burlesque show!


There was a third sell-out season I participated in.. my own! Again produced under my own name, not my stage name, An Absolute Idiot's Guide to Art surprised me a lot. The show was born from my own art lectures to high school students, where I'd try to engage and excite them with my charm (ha), cool artworks, funny stories or analogies. I thought, this is too fun to just share with 12 year olds, and produced my own comedic art lecture - again, keeping my own passions/qualifications separate from my cabaret persona. I managed to get a great venue, the City of Perth Library - how perfect, an art lecture, in a lecture theatre - and to my surprise (and a lot of my friends, who still haven't seen the show), it completely sold out. Looking back, I think it was the clear marketing that showed exactly what to expect from this funny but educational show.. however my reviewers for the most part disagreed. I got one great review, and two that did N O T approve. One was appalled that I had the gall to make fun of teenagers ("shooting fish in a barrel") in one part of the show, and the other complained that this was not stand up comedy, but was in fact just a lecture. I look back now, and am really grateful that these negative reviews came at the same time that my season completely sold out - perhaps if the show hadn't done so well, I would have let them affect me more than I did. As it happened, I read them, laughed at them, reminded myself of Tim Minchin's Song for Phil Daost, and then packed up my bags to head down to perform the show at Busselton Fringe, with my Fringe World Perth pay packet covering all my costs and then some. I'd like to think that if I receive future nasty reviews, this experience has somewhat inoculated me against any emotional distress. I'd like to think that I have the emotional intelligence to distinguish between constructive criticism (which I see less and less of in current Fringe World reviews) and instances where reviewers clearly just don't "get" a show's intention. I hope that in future this proves true, and that I don't dismiss genuine criticism the way I dismissed these reviewers for complaining that my comedic art lecture was in fact, a lecture. How do I feel about the show now? I probably won't do it again - I feel like this was a good way to end my time trying to keep all the different parts of myself separate. I know I don't want to be a stand-up comedian, I don't "have 15 minutes" of material memorised, I don't enjoy repeating the same material verbatim, it's not me. But boy am I grateful for the lessons that these shows taught me.


2018: I took a break from doing the solo thing and focused on my (now full-time) role as studio manager for LVC. I got to enjoy my first festival working ONE single job, and feel like this was a significant glow-up for me in a few ways...

- I got the violin out again, for the sequel to Symphonies of Sensuality. I finally started to relax - no sheet music, no worries. Plus, I got to ride it around the stage like a horsie, showing that perhaps I was finally letting Lucinda and Sylvia be one and the same. I always used to pretend Lucinda was an idiot with no skills - finally she was allowed to be a skilled idiot!

- I sang onstage, which I'd done in my first solo show, but to maybe 50 people. I sang something cheesy, fun, and to packed burlesque audiences, and boy was it fun! This was the start of something yet to come.

- With one less day job to worry about, I continued to invest more heavily in Lucinda. No costume would go onstage unless it was covered in rhinestones. Make up, crystals, boas, lashes, were all tax deducted. Can't have long nails? I learned how to make my own nail gloves. The host had to be just as much a part of the fantasy as the burlesque artists on the stage - I no longer thought of them as being the beautiful ones and me as "less" important visually. Cabaret was no longer a hobby, and I needed to sparkle just as much as everyone else. I was a performer, not "just" an MC.

- I still made mistakes. I still asked for feedback. I learned from those mistakes - I don't (usually) beat myself up for having made them, but I still don't forget them. I can remember them without guilting myself about them.

- I accepted that Fringe World was changing. Venues were changing. Our business was growing. The time of accepting any dates you were offered was over, and now producers had to be smart. With the festival growing in size, it no longer made sense to perform on day or time slots that were overly competitive, clashed with other events (hello Australia Day), or were considered too inaccessible by punters. It's time to accept that ticketholders have lots of choice in this festival, and to think a bit more like them. Better to sell-out one or two weekends than have a two week run at 30% capacity, right? Performing is a business, not just a passion - even if your ego gets a boost from having a full diary, or showing off how many dates you're performing, we're not just in this for the ego. This needs to be sustainable, and if you're not covering your basic costs, you're not performing sustainably. Granted, this comes from a place of privilege, and there are times in your career where you can't be too choosy (see: 2020 solo show, one night only, 6pm), but having a realistic view of your value and where you're at in your career is important.


2019:

Holy shit. Funny how what appears on the surface to be a 'quiet year' can sometimes be one of the most life-changing ones.

In 2019 LVC produced Aphrozodiac, a really fun zodiac-themed burlesque and variety show where each act or performer represented a star sign. Again, another sell-out weekend down at Scarborough beach (working smarter not harder) that served to not only increase our reach but cement our reputation for consistent high-quality performance. By focusing on one show, with a limited run, our quality was high, our performers not overworked, and the season was not only successful but also enjoyable. I tried, but failed, to get a solo venue offer - not unusual. I've tried for years to get an exhibition space at a hub for a visual arts show but never found something suitable. It's okay, I think I needed this year to relax and refocus for what lay ahead.

For a start: look at this dress. My mum made this dress. This alone was a very important thing to come out of this festival season. It kicked off a number of costumes that my mum created for me and I hope she'll continue to put up with my weird requests.


On the other side of things, I could not have handled a bigger run for this year, given the state things were in at home. All the weight I'd lost in previous years was back on, and then some. My lifestyle was completely unbalanced. Yes, I was now working only one job, but I had less free time, and a lot less money. A business partnership my boyfriend had entered into was becoming a huge drain on our emotional, financial and general wellbeing. We worked ridiculous hours, got home at stupidly late hours, and never - never - shared a day off together unless one of us was sick. We were driving further, eating crappier, more lonely, more tired, and so unhappy. Our happiness and health seemed like the last priority - granted, we were (he was, really), working towards something that was (supposed to be) life-changing and totally rewarding further down the track, but physically and emotionally we were broken. We ended up missing out on holidays (even those we were promised), family events, birthdays, funerals, band practice, concerts, even simple social events like dinners, drinks, birthdays or family meals .. doctor's appointments proved difficult to schedule, so health problems piled up until they became hospitalisations. It felt so lame sitting across from a doctor (or worse, $250 specialist) explaining that there was no way out of the lifestyle we'd trapped ourselves in. It was too much. Looking back, I am so grateful I didn't get a solo venue that year, because god knows how that would have ended. The biggest lesson from 2019 wasn't necessarily Fringe-based, but that year taught me some of the most important lessons of my life so far. About friendship, loyalty, hard work (and how much is too much), legal contracts, relationships, priorities, health, and about not ignoring red flags for the sake of naive hope or misplaced loyalty. I will never be the same after 2019.


2020: Yay! After the implosion that was 2019, the dust had started to settle, and in our household, we reassessed and refocused our goals for the year (and decade) ahead.

By this time I'd accepted that my weirdly specific skill-set was an asset I needed to embrace and combine with my cabaret persona. Artists like Trixie Mattel had helped show me that even if two parts of your career look like they don't go together, you can make that the key that sets you apart from everyone else. I should have learned this earlier - it'd been told to me by colleagues, and I'd seen other locals break out from their moulds of "just a burlesque MC", but that creeping imposter syndrome, or feeling like somehow I wasn't as worthy as others, was just too hard to shake. The 18 months of our household's slump across 2018/2019 certainly had an affect on my confidence, creativity and time management too. Regardless of how long it took me to learn and put this into practice, I'm glad it all fell into place this year.


In 2020 I performed in 13 shows - after performing around Perth for 10 years and building connections, I finally had the energy, creativity, and time to make the most of the festival. After spending the last half of 2019 working on my health and general wellbeing, I was organised, I had a clear head, and used the lessons from the previous 8 Fringe Festivals to manage my own schedule. With the guidance of my mentors and bosses I wrote (what I consider to be) a successful script for LVC's cruise liner murder mystery show, and scheduled rehearsals not only for that, but for my own production Lucinda Panties' Super Funtimes Singalong Jamboree.

I'm forever grateful to the producer/s who booked me for solo musical comedy spots over the 2019 new year period, which allowed me to not only gain valuable (and paid) exposure to new audiences, but to prove to myself that I was on the right path with my new ideas. I knew rationally that I was onto something good, but that creeping anxiety and imposter syndrome had persisted despite it all. I found myself filled with self-doubt because "it felt responsible" - if I'd not had any self-doubt, surely that made me arrogant or irresponsible? I guess to some extent that was true, but this year really taught me not to go overboard.

2020 showed me

... share the love. Book your friends if you can. Pay them what you can manage.

... having said that, you are good enough on your own, damnit. People will pay to see just you, but if you can book 5 singers for a Kate Bush To The Death-match, you should probably do that.

... Sylvia, you always talk longer than you think. Don't panic when someone books you for 25 minutes. Having said that, this also means that you will go overtime. Be realistic, don't let anxiety cloud your rational judgement.

... remember that Fringe is still that testing ground. So many people were surprised I would "bother" with a one night show. Reconnect to what Fringe is all about - that one night has given me more than I could ever have hoped for.

... social media and "branding" is important. You hate it, you feel arrogant for sharing, you feel like an imposter, but at least people will see you, know you and remember you. Shut up and do it.

... you don't need someone to direct and produce you. Don't freak out when people ask you "who's your director?" and you stare blankly back at them. You're the artist and you know your vision.

... you don't need to talk yourself down to appear modest. Thank people for praise (but still ask them for feedback), share your achievements with others (and always celebrate theirs too). You can be proud of yourself and humble at the same time, it's okay.

... no, it's not #fringemas, it's real life. Nutrition, rest, financial tracking and wellbeing are important now too. Don't buy more takeaway than you normally would. If protein shakes get you through the day at work, they'll get you through the night at work too.


I honestly don't expect anyone else to have read this far, so I'm wondering if I even need to write some kind of conclusion?

Maybe when I read through this from beginning-to-end, I will see some kind of unifying thread, but that's not really why I wrote this. (Why did I write this?). I am not sure if I'm getting better at learning lessons from my life experiences.. sometimes it still takes a few years for things to sink in, but I know there will be periods later this year and in the future, where I might need to re-read this entry to remind myself of a thing or two. It's clear that lots of lessons over the past decade were taught to me by life itself, not Fringe World, but it's also pretty clear that the festival has had a huge impact on me as a performer, offering opportunities for growth and development that I'd not have had otherwise. No amount of complaining about its negative aspects (however frivolous they may be in some cases) will change that.


Oh, here's a conclusion: I can't wait to see what my tenth festival brings. I'm ready to go into it sparkling, optimistic, ready to learn, and with much better wigs.. with protein smoothie in hand, and weekly award logo slapped over every piece of promo possible. Bring it on!

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