Prague Fringe founder Steven Gove on mixing goulash and Australian folk

Steven Gove

My guest for this week’s One on One is the man behind the Prague Fringe, Steven Gove. For many years, Steven has been working in his native Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe, and is now on the board of directors of what is said to be the biggest arts festival in the world. A few years ago, he came up with the idea of bringing a bit of this creative chaos to the Czech capital, where he is now based. Sitting at his dinner table in Prague’s leafy Vinohrady, Steven told me why:

“The fringe has now been running in Prague for seven years. A couple of years before that, in the summer of 2000, I was back home in Scotland at the fringe festival in Edinburgh, and I’d kind of been mulling over various ideas for a while about doing something creative here in Prague where I lived. And kind of out of the blue and probably after a few beers I said to a couple of friends ‘why don’t we try and do something a bit like the fringe in Prague?’ And initially the idea was perhaps to put together an English-language theatre festival, and we were trying to come up with a name for that, and all of the names we were coming up with sounded horrible. So, we just thought – hang on a minute, the whole idea of the fringe is that it is a mixed bag of everything, so why just have an English-language theatre festival, why not have some Czech work, and some work from all over the world? So the idea sort of gelled into setting up a fringe and seeing how it goes.

“So the following year I headed back to Edinburgh and we had a press launch. Quite a number of performers were at the press conference that we had hoped to invite to Prague the next year. And we left that thinking ‘God! We’ve actually announced that this is going to happen, we’ve got to do it!’ So, we had 12 shows, almost all one-person shows, and it was really exciting. We met all of the performers at the airport and took them all by taxi to their hotel. I can only admit this now that we are selling a lot of tickets, but about half a minute before the first performance at the first ever Prague Fringe, we hadn’t sold a single ticket in advance for anything.”

Can you tell me about how after that first, less than sell-out, Prague Fringe things have developed?

“We sold probably around just over 400 tickets that first year, and we weren’t quite sure whether that was a success or not. Now, this year in May, the fringe had its seventh birthday, and we sold just under 5,000 tickets. So, in a very short period of time, the event itself has grown in terms of the number of shows, the number of theatres we use and the number of days over which the festival takes place.

“It has been a struggle to get to that point, and although the first year seemed like it was going to be the hardest, it actually did get worse for about two years after. I think it was the second year that we faced a tremendous debt at the end of the festival, and we really weren’t quite sure whether it was going to be able to continue or not. But it was actually a case of survival at that point, because I was living here and I was teaching English still. I had a little language school which was doing okay. But my raison d’etre by that point was the fringe, and I was just determined that we were going to have to make this work.”

We’ve talked before and I’ve asked you about how the Prague Fringe compares to the Edinburgh Fringe – and you’ve told me that in scale it can’t, and that the Prague Fringe is perhaps like a little slice of the Edinburgh Fringe. But does the Prague Fringe have its own special atmosphere that you just don’t get at any of these other fringe festivals around the world?

“Well, without a doubt it does, in terms of the venues that we use and the bars. I mean, we use places that have a very Czech feel to them. For example, Baráčnická rychta which has a wonderful, dusty old, town-hall or village-hall feel to it. It’s full of ghosts and spirits and it’s classically Czech. They serve massive portions of goulash there and onion soup. And this year we presented Carus Thompson, an Australian folk-roots group, and we attracted both tourists and locals alike. It is a definite Prague thing, you know you can’t swap that, you can’t find that, you can’t replicate that, in Edinburgh.

“So despite the fact that it definitely has similarities - you know - the atmosphere, the buzz, going from show to show. But you’re running through cobbled streets that you constantly get lost in, and you’re finding a cellar bar that is full of smoke and at the back somewhere there is a little theatre. And all of this is a very Prague, a very Czech experience, which is great and adds its own flavour to the event.”

You mentioned earlier that Prague is known for all of its theatres and as a cultural place which is very good for drama. But in the last year, a lot of people working in Prague’s theatres have been very unhappy with the way the city council looks at theatre funding. You work with Švandovo Divadlo, which was at the forefront of this unrest. How do you see the whole funding situation?

“It is very complicated, and as a foreigner it was a very odd position to be in, because I am always aware that I am a foreigner here, despite having been here now for 11 years. So I didn’t really want to kick up too much of a fuss, but I kind of got from out of the blue somehow a bit of energy this year, given that there was so much going on, and given that the Initiative for Culture had pulled together a petition and a number of events to really highlight the situation. The fringe was in danger as many other arts events and festivals and theatres were.

“In terms of the city’s theatres and their futures, everyone’s waiting. Apparently there are going to be quite a lot of audits done, deep audits of what’s happened, before the city decides what to do. But I think it is a real shame, I think Prague is a really cultural place, and I think these theatres in all sorts of ways bring business to the city. Not just by having locals going out to the theatre and having a drink and using public transport, but also this is what brings tourists here.

“This is what makes money for the city, and so it is inconceivable that the city would want to cut funding to bodies that then generate more money for the city – I don’t understand that. And to fund commercial projects; glitzy, high-end theatre projects that have the money from other sources, I don’t understand that at all.”

I know that you do a lot of work still at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it is there that you often find a lot of acts to bring to the Prague Fringe. Now the festival came and went, we met each other in August, you were obviously at that time scouting for people to bring to Prague – can you tell us who you found, and what we can expect next May in Prague?

“Well, a group that we actually had at the fringe last year called Paper Birds, who had a wonderful show called ‘40 Feathered Winks’ which went down really well. We saw them in Edinburgh the year before, and based on their performance here in Prague they were picked up by the Amsterdam Fringe. So, I saw their new show back in Edinburgh this year, which was called ‘In a Thousand Pieces’ – they won a Fringe First in Edinburgh this year actually, which is fantastic. It is on a very delicate subject, trafficking and the sex industry. So we’ve invited them back and they are delighted to have been invited.

“You know I see about 60 shows a year in Edinburgh, that’s what I’m there for, and it varies, you know, we get anything between zero and ten shows that I’ve seen in Edinburgh coming over.”