My least favourite annual tradition is taking part in the mass panicked exodus from Edinburgh on the final August bank holiday, jammed onto trains as more sensible people go on day trips to the seaside or National Trust properties or soak up the sun in beer gardens. This year, I stayed. I was doing some writing for a Forest Fringe residency programme called CoLab, which brought nine international artists together in Edinburgh for the last fortnight of August. During the day, we were in the insulated bubble of a studio. And in the early mornings and evenings, I felt the fringe unravel. Here are some scattered thoughts about what’s left, when the crowds go home.
I thought maybe the city would slough off the festival overnight, like a snake shedding its skin. It’s a longer, messier process than that. Of course. The next day, it feels like the festival is still on. A week later, there are traces everywhere – posterboards, stickers, and workmen dismantling its brittle chipboard infrastructure.
As people mutter ominously about the advent of a paperless society, the fringe blocks off its ears. A forest of trees are turned into the huge boards that turn a church, community centre, university into a theatre space. Coated in plastic and high quality gloss, this paper doesn’t turn into the kind of washed away pulp I imagined. Each poster has to be taken down and disposed off – rarely by the same hands that put it up.
The empty spaces
These flimsy physical traces aside, it feels like the legacy of the fringe is defined by absent, not present, things. As Steve Greer explained, in a talk to the artists at CoLab, the fringe has warped Edinburgh’s theatre scene to the extent that there are hardly any year round producing theatres: there’s Traverse, the Lyceum, and not much else (Summerhall’s year-round line-up is mostly visual arts and gigs). Scottish artists at the CoLab also pointed out that many theatre spaces are simply left empty for the rest of the year. Underbelly’s dark rooms are locked up, and landlords often don’t go to the trouble to find tenants with year-round uses for spaces when they can make a full year’s rent in one, hugely profitable, month.
The missing voices
It’s a bleak thought, that there are venues locked up, gathering only dust and gloom, in a city where space is at a premium. And it’s made worse by the fact that once the crowds have cleared, Edinburgh’s art scene hardly benefits from this month-long onslaught. Yes, Traverse gets a buzz of international attention. But otherwise, Scottish artists always feel strangely absent from a festival that could be the ideal international platform for their work. In part, this is because of a lack of support. Creative Scotland doesn’t offer funding for companies to perform at the fringe, and only 12 shows are funded as part of the Made in Scotland showcase. But there’s also something deliberately un-Scottish embedded in the fringe’s history. As Steve Greer’s talk also explained, Edinburgh was chosen as Britain’s Festival City (not Scotland’s) because of its beauty, lack of post-war bomb damage and transport links, not its local arts scene. The festivals are in, not for, the city.
An undented London scene
Back in London (finally) there’s a strange gap, too. It’s surreal to return from a festival of live art and devised work to a London scene that’s making theatre much as it did 100 years ago – playwright, director, actor and designers – at every level, with very little space for work made in different ways. The fringe’s big mainstream hits are still the stuff of short CPT runs or rural tours, even though they’ve proved they can reach huge wide audiences. And it’s sort of expected that the people who made them should be happy slogging up and down the country, putting on short runs in small spaces, pretty much indefinitely.
London doesn’t need more venues like Park Theatre, which lands huge private donations and the fundraising mite of Ian McKellen, just to put on an endless stream of turgid new writing. It badly needs theatres that are willing to support and put money behind artists and companies who are making work in new ways, and to help them expand beyond the one-hour, DIY-aesthetic format that the fringe imposes.
I could go on and on naming the downsides of the fringe. The way it enriches Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and hotel chains, and impoverishes pretty much everyone else. The strain on everyone’s mental health. The way it skews access to the arts towards people who are deep-pocketed and mobile enough to participate. The way it pits artists against each other, and funnels their energy into marketing and envy and away from making work. But I do (obviously) think there’s a huge positive to the fringe, and I can still feel it no matter how much time I spend staring into its many, yawning voids.
I think it’s something about participation, and togetherness, and the way that it breaks down the rules and structures that define theatre for the other 11 months. The DIY spirit which stops the fringe from leaving a tangible legacy is also one of the greatest things about it. Maybe the best route for the future would be to embrace that spirit, and to fight against everyone who’s trying to profit from it. For me, the ideal is free-to-use, artist-run spaces that are embedded into the Scottish arts scene, and that use the fringe as a catalyst for work that happens all year round. There are other models, like The Stand’s commitment to running a professional venue that pays its performers and staff decently. To get more venues of either kind, we’d need a huge change of attitude.
Every year, the Fringe Society seems to judge the success of the festival by size. The Biggest Ever Fringe, its press releases trumpet. Maybe it’s time to measure the success of the fringe by what it leaves behind. Instead of chasing bigger numbers, bigger names, bigger spaces, we could finally let the fringe shrink – and see what grows, in the debris that’s left.