JO SOUTHWELL is founder of the Henley Fringe and Henley Fringe Trust, whose ambitious seedling of a concept has flourished into a well-established branch of Henley’s social calendar in a matter of four years. Jo also runs Aston Productions who have had several previous critical successes at the Fringe with BASH, The Vagina Monologues and Talking Heads. This week we spoke to Jo on what the Fringe experience means to her as the organiser.
Jo has teamed up with director Julie Fox who has experience of more than 30 productions and is a current Director’s Guild member to produce a set of six monologues, all “little gems, as observant as anything in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads — and considerably less static”.
Written by Joanna Murray Smith, Bombshells is “beautifully judged in its mix of comedy and depression” (the Guardian). A witty insight into the lives of women, the show is running at the Chambers on Monday, July 18 and then Thursday, July 21 to Saturday, July 23 from 7.30pm with a Saturday matinée at 4pm.
Julie Fox then directs Jo in a further production called Eight, which will run in the afternoons at La Bodega restaurant and evenings at La Parisienne. This collection of captivating characters will enthral the lovers of monologues as they paint a truly revelatory picture of Britain today.
This off-beat snapshot of modern living includes the tale of an Iraq war veteran, a high-class hooker and gay gallery owner to name just three. Jo returns to the stage on this occasion as Millie, a jolly-hocky-sticks girl with a sideline in sex. I had time to catch up with Jo and ask what drives such an ambitious project.
What motivates you to continue organising and running the Henley Fringe year on year?
“Maintaining this event has been a personal and professional struggle in many ways. We constantly rely on sponsorship — funding and volunteers. However, I strongly believe that the Henley Fringe adds value to the performance industry. Each year it is becoming more established and well recognised.
“I have a strong passion for all things local and Henley. It is easy to forget what a wonderful place we are lucky to live in and the opportunities, community spirit and people that support me are reason enough to run it each year.”
Who has the Henley Fringe Trust been able to assist in their acting/performing career so far?
“Nearly every performer that has attended the Henley Fringe has benefited in some way from gigs at the Henley Festival, other castings, work or opportunities as a result of being seen.
“Each year several apprentice technicians work alongside the companies and I am happy that so many choose to return and some have been offered professional work as a result.”
As an individual do you prefer performing, producing or a creative role such as writing?
“Not sure how to answer this! Producing gives me a sense of the overall show. Acting is the real challenge for me as I don’t get to do enough of it. Writing — I am always scribbling ideas for short films and children’s stories. I guess that’s why I love the industry — I don’t have to choose just one art form!”
I know you spend enormous effort scrutinising acts to perform each year but if you could only choose one performance to see this year, which would you choose or recommend?
“Much of the programme this year is a chance for the audience to see real fringe theatre — Bombshells, Eight, one-woman-comedy and Edinburgh previews to name just a few. I would challenge everyone to go and see something that they wouldn’t normally choose and tell me what you think of it.”
Your new programme brochure offers fans the chance to vote for their own favourite but who has been your favourite Fringe performance to date?
“I really can’t choose a favourite, I just hope that every year the audience will find something they love, something unexpected and something that moves them.”
You are planning a bumper year for the 2012 Fringe for the fifth anniversary. What can we expect to be special about the 2012 Henley Fringe?
“2012 will be a celebration of the last five years including some of the public’s favourite choices. It will also be a look at what is to come with unique or new fringe writing. I also have a musical with a full array of West End stars just waiting to tread the Henley Fringe.”
Published on 13 June 2011 by the Henley Standard, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire.