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Sarah Lang talks to the New Zealand Fringe Festival’s new operations director Sasha Tilly about what’s next for the fest, and mainlining coffee when it’s on.
It’s no coincidence that the Fringe Festival’s Sasha Tilly has a fringe, as she explains over a cuppa at Fringe HQ on Taranaki Street. “As a promo gimmick for the fringe opening in 2015, some wonderful hairdressers did free fringe trims outside our box office. I decided to change up my look, so I got them to cut me a fringe. I’ve tried to grow it out several times, but I’ve gotten so used to how my face looks with a fringe that I’ve kept it.”
An extrovert with an eclectic dress sense and a lot of energy, Sasha epitomises the festival that most people simply call “the Fringe”. Its website describes her as “Fringe Lady-in-Waiting”. That’s because Sasha has climbed the festival’s ladder not very slowly but very surely: from box-office intern, then ticketing manager, Artists Services’ Manager, Logistics Manager and Festival Manager, becoming in July its Operations Director. “There’s a running joke of me not getting business cards because we’d have to change them every year.”
The Fringe has had its own festival director since it began in 1990. Hannah Clarke, festival director for the past eight years, has left, and rather than replace her, the Creative Capital Arts Trust (which runs the Fringe Festival and CubaDupa) has opted to re-structure the Fringe. Sasha, as Operations Director, along with a Creative Producer, will run the festival jointly.
For Sasha, becoming Operations Director is a promotion from last year’s gig as Festival Manager (and as Hannah’s 2IC). “I’m still responsible for the smooth running of the festival, but I’m now also responsible for its strategy and overall vision along with the Creative Producer.”
Why the new model? “It doesn’t necessarily make sense for us to have a festival director in the same way a programmed, curated festival does,” Sasha says. She’s referring to the Fringe’s “open-access” policy, meaning everyone who wants to gets to do a show. There are no nos.
She probably can’t say no to this question, but does Sasha want to continue the open-access model? “Yeah, I think that’s essential to our kaupapa: the Fringe is for everyone in whatever arts capacity. Basically, if the show is legal, we won’t turn anyone away.” Last year there were between 700 and 800 sessions of 150 events.
It’s part of the Fringe’s DNA that everyone gets a go, and that audiences never know what they’ll get – from cringeworthy acts to the Flight of the Conchords (the most famous alumni). But does the open-access approach have a downside – as in the festival getting too big, meaning audiences can be paralysed by too much choice? Or that the Fringe ends up hosting a fair few acts that are, er, just not very good? “Well, Edinburgh isn’t that much bigger than Wellington and the Edinburgh Fringe has about 3,000 shows,” says Sasha, who goes to Edinburgh every year she can. “And it’s not up to us as the festival to dictate what does or doesn’t count as art, or what is or isn’t ‘good’ art. Not everyone will like everything, and that’s a good thing. I want people to revel in having so much choice.”
She’s well aware that the Fringe is competing for attention not just with other events but also Netflix. She gets why, too. “I get home and curl up under my cosy blanket, so I can understand other people not wanting to go out.” How do you make them want to? “I’m excited about trying to unpack that. For instance, we’re doing a lot more multi-media and cross-genre stuff.”
She’d like the Fringe to be even more accessible – “to one day have a Fringe sign-language interpreter and a te reo version of our programme. Also, in Edinburgh, you’re hit in the face with the Fringe everywhere you go, and that’s ideally what I’d like for Wellington – with some kind of performance or weird clown stuff happening everywhere in town.”
Her Fringe job is part-time from April to September, then full-time during “peak season” (October to March). Currently she’s getting the registration system ready for artists to start signing up in September, and forming relationships with the 30-odd sponsors.
Usually nine more people come on board before the festival. “We survive pretty much on coffee from our sponsor Havana. Someone turns up with a 1kg brown bag of ground beans, and they’ll always draw some Fringe-related artwork on it – for instance an actual fringe. We’ve kept all the bags!”
Sasha has been a performer herself. “In the 2018 Fringe, I did a one-woman solo theatre show which was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I realised that performance isn’t what I want to do.” Outside of the Fringe, Sasha is also an independent theatre producer for other people’s shows, taking care of all the logistics.
She’s also keen on quizzes. Every Wednesday night, her quiz team meets at the Waitoa Social Club brew-bar in Hataitai. “They write the quiz themselves there. If you win one week, you can pick a theme for a round the next week. I’m a big general-knowledge nerd and I kick butt in the music round.”
Sasha loves her current work, but can imagine doing other things too. “I love the idea of being a window dresser for shops – or a wedding planner, which is actually similar to running a festival.”
Might she plan her own wedding one day? “Yeah, I’ve put together a wedding vision inspiration board.” Really? “No! I’m joking!” Does she want kids? “Probably not. I really just don’t see myself, at least at this point, carrying my own child. But I think if I had children, I’d love to adopt.”
Sasha grew up in Mount Victoria. “My dad had three kids from his first marriage but they’re a lot older, so I grew up as an only child.” Her father, actor Grant Tilly, died nine years ago. He met her mum Ruth Jeffery while they were both on the Circa Theatre board. “My mum is an English teacher but she once worked for the NZ Film Commission and helped set up the NZ Film School. So, it was kind of inevitable that I’d end up in the arts.”
After Sasha finished high school, she travelled, first working as a teaching assistant in an English school and directing the students’ drama productions. Next she moved to London where she worked in a pub, then to Edinburgh. “Then I came home and decided to be a costume designer. My grandmother Margot Jeffery was a seamstress who ran a shop called Dressing Up with Margot on the corner of Woodward Street and The Terrace during the 80s and early 90s. So I started studying [costume] design at drama school and realised ‘this isn’t for me’. Then I went to Vic and studied theatre.”
Her parents never tried to either warn her off or push her toward the arts. “They very much let me do what I want and, because I grew up knowing there’s no money in the arts, I was aware of what I was getting myself into. But I’m happy I’m here.”