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The story behind the Ventnor Fringe ahead of its 10th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 14:47 16 July 2019

Ventnor Fringe in full flow (Photo by Julian Winslow)

Ventnor Fringe in full flow (Photo by Julian Winslow)

Picture: Julian Winslow

It's the 10th anniversary year of Ventnor Fringe, the arts extravaganza that's given this seaside community a fresh lease of life. We meet one of its leading lights

Taking a seat in the Ventnor Exchange, once the town's main post office and telephone switchboard, all is not as it seems. Now a record store and coffee shop by day which morphs seamlessly into a craft beer bar and evening performance stage, the clue's in the assembly of large black and white photos looking down from the walls. As instead of picturesque views of this small corner of the Isle of Wight or indeed some of its famous visitors, these are the faces of local Ventonians.

And that's because each summer, this is where the box office and beating heart of the Ventnor Fringe can be found. Over the past decade the Fringe has ballooned from a handful to hundreds of artists performing in dozens of empty buildings and disused spaces, magically transformed to host everything from theatre and cabaret to film and music. Unlike the Exchange, which is run as a year-round social enterprise, many of these venues are temporary. Yet the annual explosion of creativity has re-energised the community living in this once grand Edwardian resort. And, on meeting event co-director Jack Whitewood, what's impressive is that far from the product of youthful idealism this was the plan, almost, from the outset.

"It started in 2010 with six of us who were all 18 and about to go off to university. We'd mostly grown up in Ventnor and wanted a reason to come back home. There's obviously a big legacy of festivals on the Island, yet in Ventnor things came and went.

"We wanted to show people different ways of using spaces and to appreciate the good bits about their town. Although we didn't know then, how this might manifest itself."

Yet, as Jack recalls, to go from nothing to attracting an audience of around 6,000 took a degree of self-belief. And, fortuitously, some wise words from one-time festival promoter and Island hero, Ray Foulk.

"Ray told us about how he and his brother set up the original Isle of Wight Festival and how in 1969, they persuaded Bob Dylan to play. In setting this up, Ray had talked about all the poets who'd also come here, such as Tennyson and Keats, which impressed Dylan.

"So, we certainly picked up some tips on how to sell the island's heritage - it's not just a festival where artists come and do their thing and then leave, it's about building a relationship with the place. We've some who come back year-on-year and they then bring new people, that's how it grows. Whilst we're only 15 miles from Portsmouth, once you're on the island it feels very different."

He continues: "For local artists the Fringe gives them the chance to mix with other British and international performers. It definitely makes what could be quite an isolated place feel much more connected."

A fringe festival by its very nature means that the line-up depends on which artists choose to come. So, some might perform in front of 300, others to 50, or fewer. Although the challenge of adapting some spaces is, apparently, "a bit like renovating a house but on a much bigger scale", as there's no one size fits all when it comes to organising the basic requirements for power, acoustics, toilets, and access in and out. However, reusing vacant plots and having audiences able to walk between venues is a big green tick for the environment.

With performances spread across the whole town, Fringe week sees Jack and the team racing up and down the zig-zag streets as if playing a giant game of Snakes and Ladders, with dozens of volunteers providing much-needed support.

"This year we're anticipating at least 75 different shows running, plus all the free acts from buskers to street theatre. The park, the harbour and the town's churches are our core venues, but not everyone can squeeze into a little chapel so we'll have all sorts of other weird and wonderful spaces.

"These include people's front rooms. And one of the most popular venues over the years is the laundrette which has hosted everything from ventriloquist shows to heavy metal bands. We've had events in the cellars below the Botanic Gardens, where the old hospital used to be, as well as in warehouses and a cave. Or you might go to a late night lock-in at the library.

"I like this diversity, it's one of our strengths as each evening you can have a totally different experience."

For those willing to go a little deeper down the rabbit hole there's the Fringe's 'secret' venue, which might involve a mystery code that leads participants to a ringing phone box for the next set of 'instructions'. Or, a Narnia-style coat-filled wardrobe within a shop, could conceal a flight of stairs down to a hidden bar.

"The Fringe is at its strongest at its slightly anarchic managed madness. Obviously, ticket sales need to be organised but it's the vibe that you're trying to achieve," Jack observes.

So, what of this year's milestone?

"It feels really significant; we feel like we've grown with the Fringe. And now our main aspiration is taking all the energy and creativity generated and making it even more year-round and beneficial, for the young people who live here.

"We definitely want to see the next generation taking more of a role running the event. They also have their own ideas about what's cool: last year's Ventnor Giant mural was our response to the island's lack of street art, with the local legend spun that he created the hill behind the town. People were never expecting the world famous Phlegm to do a piece here."

Watching a community see where they live in a different light is, for him, endlessly rewarding.

So too, is witnessing a former bank and former pop-up venue, converted into a permanent arts club, whilst another's become a trendy bar and cinema. Then there are the numerous galleries and makers' workshops springing up, the artisan shops and eateries, as well as accommodation for every budget. This resurgence of independent businesses is contributing to the town's optimistic outlook.

"It's more than simply staging a festival, it's about creating a community and a culture for Ventnor," says Jack. "This Fringe could be the flagship for a much wider movement."

Ventnor Fringe runs from Tuesday 23 to Sunday 28 July 2019. Look out for new boutique big top The Magpie, pre-Edinburgh stand-up shows, and the return of the Bookshop Bus. All the latest info is at vfringe.co.uk

Staying in Ventnor

The boutique Hambrough hotel, with its uninterrupted sea view, is a Ventnor favourite. Seven elegantly furnished rooms exude style with comfort, providing the chance to soak-up the town's creative spirit and to explore the island's other attractions. Although, if you book one of two first floor executive suites, each with its own spacious balcony, enjoying a leisurely sundowner as the light fades, takes some beating. Plus there's the newly revamped hotel restaurant which opens Tuesday to Saturday for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, as well as for Sunday lunch, with head chef Ashley Randle serving-up a modern European menu.

Ventnor's varied accommodation options, and travel to the island, can be viewed at visitisleofwight.co.uk

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