by Maria Nguyen-Emmett
It might be called the Sydney Fringe Festival but there’s nothing marginal about the festival’s intent: to bring together a city, so easily caught up in its own hustle and bustle, and remind its residents they are all part of the one community.
It’s a community, according to Festival organisers, that is brimming with a creative, artistic and vibrant soul.
In its fifth year, the 2014 Sydney Fringe Festival features almost 300 productions ranging from musical theatre, cabaret, poetry and films to comedy, dance, music and visual arts.
And despite its “underground” beginnings, many of this year’s events reflect the underlying themes of community, engagement and belonging.
They are themes pertinent to a city with a population edging 200,000 – many of whom, in a town so busy, bright and shiny – can often feel isolated, disconnected and alone.
Kerri Glasscock, the Festival director, believes events such as these play an important role in helping people connect with each other.
“I think it’s beneficial for everyone to participate in cultural activities, if nothing else than to reach out and connect with their communities on a different level,” Ms Glasscock says.
“Today, we’re all so attached to our screens and we work long hours and can often feel very isolated, so any opportunity for people to get amongst their community and connect with their neighbours or people who have like-minded interests is beneficial.”
The benefits of community engagement and the sense of belonging it entails have, for many years, been researched and documented: better health, longevity, and a greater sense of well-being.
To build on this theme of community, Ms Glasscock has, this year, introduced a range of craft events to engage Sydneysiders in sketching, crocheting and knitting, whatever their skill level.
“It’s important for us that the Festival is an active experience and not just a passive one; that people don’t just buy tickets to see a show, so they’re active in their participation of art,” Ms Glasscock says.
“I think there’s an innate need in everyone, no matter what their level of skill, to create and express themselves in different ways, and I think there’s definitely a reconnection with using your hands and reaching out to community on a one-on-one, personal level and not just through social media or through computer screens.”
Craftwork such as knitting and crocheting seems to have attracted a new generation of fans: young adults who knit in between tweeting, baking bread, tending to their herb gardens and whipping up three-course meals featuring superfoods and activated nuts.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 10 Australians engage in a craft activity, such as knitting, making it the nation’s most popular cultural pastime.
Knitting is also therapeutic and has been likened to meditation.
Carrie Barron, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York’s Columbia University, says knitting can act as an anti-depressant; that its rhythmic movements may offer similar benefits as meditation.
Knitting groups, attended by young and old, are now commonly organised by councils, libraries and knitting enthusiasts – all with a similar goal: to promote a greater sense of community.
A longing for community was the main reason Sally Ogilvie, 64, joined a Newtown knitting group 11 years ago when she landed in Australia as a British newlywed who didn’t know a soul, apart from her husband.
Now president of the Knitters’ Guild NSW, she says she joined the Guild, not so much for the knitting, but so she could meet new people.
“Most of my really good friends in Sydney come from knitting,” Sally says. “And four years ago when I was in hospital for two weeks, the nurses kept asking, ‘how many friends have you got?’ because there was a constant stream of people coming to visit me and bringing their knitting; they’d all sit around my bed and knit to cheer me up.”
Stitching together a community might be a big focus of the Sydney Fringe Festival but, like knitting itself, it’s not always easy: it requires time, commitment, patience and lots of practice.
But for both endeavours, the therapeutic benefits are lifelong and immeasurable.