People of Prague

Founding Fringe: Steve Gove

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When 29 year old Steve Gove arrived in Prague from Scotland in the Autumn of 1997, like many other expats at that time – he was aiming to enjoy a few years sightseeing and take in the culture of his newly adopted home. Little did he know that two decades later, he would be the proud Founder of the longest-running and largest English-language theatre event in mainland Europe. 

Before relocating to Prague, Gove (a native of the North-East of Scotland) began his journey into the world of Fringe after leaving a secure teaching job for a summer position with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the mother Fringe from which over three hundred spin-off Fringe Festivals across the world have been launched.

Gove and Fringe Co-Founder Angus Coull with Fringe patron and then-British Ambassador Anne Pringle at the Press Launch in Prague May 2002.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a veritable “who’s who” of stars who got their big-break as a result of performing in the Scottish capital, including the likes of Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Ricky Gervais, Rowan Atkinson, Alan Rickman, Graham Norton and Little Britain creators Matt Lucas and David Walliams.  Originally formed in the late 1940s as a spin-off event of the city’s main (and rather formal) annual festival, the concept underpinning all Fringes around the world is quite simple – alternative arts presented in an accessible format with minimal censorship. The work on display can include theatre, comedy, performance art, spoken-word, installations, readings, magic, kids shows and much, much, more.  a sense of (without sounding too cliché) being part of a real family atmosphere, a sense of community.” Says Gove. 

The Edinburgh Fringe meant so much to Gove, in fact, that he would spend his free-time flying back from his new home in Prague to work at the festival each August. Eventually he thought to himself “We should have something like this here”. 

And why not? With established Fringe Festivals in many major cities all over the globe – Gove thought perhaps launching a Fringe-inspired festival in Prague wasn’t such a bad idea. 

There was definitely a hole in the Prague market, Gove felt, with very little English-speaking theatre on offer in the city, other than ballet or opera, the options for tourists were limited to black-light theatre and marionette shows.   Young Czechs were all speaking English and a rising number of expats were moving here from the UK, USA, Australia and countries across Europe, Gove began to sketch out plans for the ‘Prague English Language International Theatre Festival’. “Such a snappy title” jokes Gove! It wasn’t long before he thought – “why don’t we simplify this and just start a fringe festival, whereby we can have an open arts event, anyone can apply and it’ll be a really interesting mix of genre and work from countries from around the world.” And so the Prague Fringe concept was born.

Full of ambition and excitement, Gove and his co-founders (Angus Coull, a fellow Scot, and Carole Wears from Newcastle, England who Gove had met working at an Edinburgh Fringe venue) publicly announced the launch of the new Prague Fringe at a press conference at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001. This statement put Prague Fringe on the map as the first Fringe Festival in mainland Europe and one of only thirty around the globe at that time. 

“We held the press conference at the Pivo Café, was which was Edinburgh’s Czech bar and we announced it to a handful of Scottish press.” It wasn’t until Gove left the press conference that the realisation dawned on him the pressure was now on, and reality soon hit as the planning of the inaugural Prague Fringe got underway.

Getting performers to come all the way to Prague was a task in itself, but ensuring they’d have an audience was just as challenging.  Back in the days of internet cafes and dial-up connections and with the beginning of the inaugural festival upon them and the first performance about to begin, they hadn’t sold a single ticket to that show, or any other performance in the entire festival, for that matter.    “We thought ‘What the hell have we done?! This is going be a complete disaster’”.  Panic stricken, Gove and his colleagues’ anxieties were put to rest as an eager customer appeared.  “This guy ran up to us and said, ‘are there any tickets left?!’”  And we grabbed him, sold him a ticket, the first performance started, and the rest is history.”

One ticket culminated in around 400 attendances in 2002, at this stage the team weren’t sure if these were good numbers or not, but the fact that they had managed to pull off the five-day event at all, was a huge success as far as they were concerned.   What was clear however, was that people were coming from all over the world to attend the event, and international visitors to the Fringe still make up a core percentage of the overall attendees. Gove recalls an Australian couple who the fringe team met one year when handing out flyers on the Charles Bridge who were delighted to discover the city had a Fringe.  They ended up seeing six shows that year before flying back to Australia.  Two years later they came back with two friends and have been returning to the city for Prague’s Fringe ever since.   This sense of community built before, during and after the festival is unlike any other at festivals around the world.  Despite the size of the festival, which nowadays is a significant player alongside other annual events in the city, there’s still a feeling of “togetherness” as Gove put it  

This is what Fringe does best; build and foster relationships between people from all over the world to celebrate a compilation of theatre, arts and comedy.  Gove described one venue in particular which captures the quintessential Fringe setting –  the pop-up theatre in the basement of the Golden Key Hotel which at a squeeze, can accommodate about 20 audience members per performance.  “You’ll recognise some people sitting next to you, maybe you’ll recognise people you saw at the show an hour ago.  Not to mention after the show you’d wander down to a bar later to see the people you were sitting with and ask them how they liked the show.”  

“Whether you’re a technician or an artist, a tourist travelling from Australia, a member of the volunteer box-office team,  or someone that just walked out of their apartment in Malá Strana, there’s a sense of it being everyone’s event, everyone’s in it together.   And that’s a beautiful thing to witness unfolding day by day.” 

What’s even better is the range of work presented on the eight intimate stages on which the festival takes place.   Each year brings around 50 companies from all over the world to showcase their performances on stage. 

Gove mentions one artist in particular, Henry Naylor (writer of the Bafta award-winning British satirical series Spitting Image), whose exceptional work has earned him five-star reviews round the world, and Prague Fringe Awards for three consecutive years.  In 2018, Naylor brought “Games by Henry Naylor” to Prague Fringe, which told the story of a young fencer in the 30’s who was denied entry into the Olympics because of her Jewish ethnicity.  Gove cited Naylor as an incredibly exciting writer and is looking forward to his brand-new production premiering at this year’s festival entitled “Crime Story by Henry Naylor”.

Although it can be a gamble, financially and artistically, Gove noted the artists’ experience of bringing a show to Prague can be an incredibly valuable one.  “Many of the artist can end up taking a piece of work that they have trialled in Prague to festivals in Scotland and Australia, so it’s a breeding ground for new talent as well as a place where award-winning, celebrated writers, like Naylor, can hone their new work.”  

So what does the future hold for Prague Fringe? With the 20th anniversary fast approaching, it is now one of the longest-running Fringes in the world. But rather than trying to expand the event year on year and grow the festival into a huge, city-wide event as many Fringes have done around the world (including Edinburgh which is now the world’s largest arts event), Gove and his team have a different aim – to keep the event boutique, to retain the unique family atmosphere, and focus on continuing to improve the festival for all involved, and to continue to bring ground-breaking, award-winning and genre-bending theatre, comedy, cabaret and more to Prague for years to come. 

When asked what he believes are the reasons behind the enduring success of the Fringe, Gove explains “It’s due to a number of things; the beauty and lure of Prague – for artists, visitors, and international team members alike, the intimacy and community-feel of the event, and the dedication of core members of the team and Fringe partners and supporters, many of whom have been involved since the festival began all those years ago. Long live Fringe!” 

The 18th Prague Fringe takes place from Friday 24th May – Saturday 1st June 2019, full programme and tickets on sale now via www.fringe.cz.

Check out the double-page spread in our May issue for our top shows from each venue and other useful tips. 

 

Written by Riley Keefe

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