JULIAN Caddy is the managing director of Brighton Fringe, England’s biggest arts festival. There are more than 4000 performances taking place across 150 venues in the 2018 edition. EDWIN GILSON met Julian to talk about the Fringe’s ideology and how he fled his day job to “join the circus”

The mantra for this year’s Fringe is “set yourself free”. How does that sum up the Fringe’s ethos in general?

The Fringe is a format which enables people to express themselves in a way that other festivals could never do. Anyone can take part. The thing that troubles me the most about the arts in the UK is the funding gaps that exist. Less than three per cent of our funding comes from public sources, but our ethos remains that we want as many people as possible to be involved. We want to help people make their way through this very complicated, often very unrewarding life choice – to go into the arts.

You’ve written passionately about the link between art and personal freedom in your introduction to the Fringe.

I think it’s about understanding your own motives and not being constrained by societal limitations. That pervades everything from LGBT, Black Lives Matter...these themes which are coming through in society are good examples of the importance of always questioning things. The idea of “set yourself free” is not to sit back and let yourself be judged by other people’s views.

What is your own background in the arts?

I’m an actor and a theatre director and teacher. My revelation was escaping from the life of somebody who worked in marketing and advertising. I didn’t enjoy it and one day I thought, ‘I can’t be doing this anymore’. At that point I was doing drama in my spare time. I gave up my day job and went to drama school.

Three years later I came out as an actor and director. Then I performed in and produced shows in Edinburgh, which I did for 22 years. I suppose my personal journey was setting myself free from parental expectations of what I should be doing in my life. That was probably getting a regular job, not running off to the circus. Everyone has their own reasons for doing what they want to do.

It takes a lot of courage to put yourself on the line as a performer.

The moment you put yourself out there you’re at the mercy of the general public. It’s a lonely business being a performer. When you’re doing the daily grind, working in marketing, you have this vision of what life could be, and it’s about daring yourself to go and do it. I’ve taught thousands of people and a lot of them are young professionals. Many of them gave up their jobs and went to drama school. A lot of people aren’t necessarily happy with what they have, or what society says they should have.

You’ve said the Fringe manages to be both huge but also feel quite intimate. How do you achieve this balance?

The Fringe is massive but its constituent parts are often very small. There are 4000 performances – it’s difficult to say if that’s the most ever until the Fringe starts – but you might be sitting in a room above a pub, or a school hall, or a beach hut. There might only be half a dozen people there. It’s very intimate. Even at Edinburgh Fringe, the closest relation to Brighton, those experiences are less common than in Brighton.

Do you take influence from Edinburgh Fringe, do you watch it closely?

Every festival is always looking over their shoulder. When I was in Edinburgh, the Festival Fringe Society were always watching Brighton. They commissioned a report in 2004 called Thundering Hoofs, a bit like the Wild West. They didn’t mention Brighton by name but it was implied there were other events that could be a threat to Edinburgh. I take the view that it’s important to learn from each other, from each other’s mistakes and what we’re doing right. There is a lot of cross-pollination between festivals – I have connections them around the world.

Do you visit these festivals all year round?

Yes. I was commissioned by the British council to work in Lagos, in Nigeria, for example. I went out to help them set up the Lagos theatre festival, which has a Fringe element to it. We put on workshops for students. Every arts festival and event learns from other ones. One thing I notice with all festivals is how similar we are – we’re all striving for the same thing.

That's relieving but also disappointing, sometimes. You hope to find some kind of “grass is always greener” mentality somewhere but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere. Then again, the positives are we’re creating something great. It’s not a coincidence that Brighton Fringe is England’s largest arts festival. It takes place in an extraordinary city with people who make it what it is.

The role that a festival like this plays in communal wellbeing seems important to you.

Yeah. It’s about being as inclusive as you can be. Although there are swathes of Brighton that don’t experience the Festival or the Fringe. The Festival made some headway in reaching the outer-lying areas of Brighton last year. But a festival doing certain events isn’t going to change the society in which it happens. It will always be a drop in the ocean. That’s a wider issue.

You referred to Brighton Festival’s Your Place scheme there, in which events were held in Hangleton and East Brighton. What can you do to take the Fringe to the areas you mention?

Brighton Fringe is just a platform and if somebody from any area would like to be part of it then they can. There’s no cost to become a venue. It can be a massive risk, though, so it’s about finding individuals in communities who are willing to invest their time and energy into it. It’s our job to inspire people to have more engagement. It’s a process. We’re ambition rich and time poor here. Even with something like the festival brochure, it’s put together by a very small team, led by a lunatic.

How does a festival with 4000 performance come together?

The venues are the Fringe. The thing I need to stress more than anything is that I am not the Fringe. I’m the managing director of bugger all. I run an organisation that supports – I’m a cheerleader, a lobbyist for a network. The Fringe is more than just a festival, it’s a festival of festivals. The Spiegeltent is a festival, The Warren is a festival. There are 150 venues putting on shows, so you could probably say there are 150 festivals. If the Brighton Festival was part of Brighton Fringe, it would just be another venue. That just puts the scale into context. It’s a bit bewildering if you think about it in those terms.

Is the Fringe always defined against Brighton Festival by its very nature?

We operate in different spheres but there is crossover. There are plenty of events that have been part of both. The key difference between the Festival and the Fringe is that we’re a bit more rough and ready. You won’t be going into a polished theatre space. You won’t be watching a piece that has received any funding, in most cases. You might be watching something that’s quite raw, and it might not be ready yet. But it also might blow you away. In a little way, your life will have been changed forever.

Brighton Fringe starts on May 4. For more information on the Brighton Fringe visit brightonfringe.org