Features Published 17 June 2021

The Edinburgh Fringe is in limbo: who’s going to secure its future?

It’s still unclear what form 2021’s Edinburgh Fringe is going to take. Alice Saville argues that for the festival to survive, deeper conversation and decisive change is needed.

Alice Saville

A street performer at the Edinburgh fringe in summers gone by

The Edinburgh Fringe is now less than two months away. Normally, by this point, my inbox would be flooded with press releases. My blood pressure would be rising. The programme would be sitting on my desk, and Natasha Tripney would have duly written her fringe programme cut-up poem. Accommodation and trains and time off work would be booked.

None of this has happened this year, although I did get sent a survey asking me what media coverage I would provide – one that was totally impossible to answer, given that the fringe society has offered us no idea of what’s actually running at the festival this year. The official line has been that 2021’s Edinburgh fringe is happening either online, or in-person, or both. There will be no printed fringe programme, and registrations will be open right up until the end of August. But no acts have yet been announced – we’ll have to wait until 1st July for that.

I guess on one level, this is fine. We’ll all just… wait and see. Be chill about it. But although that approach is decent enough for, say, a three-year-old packet of lettuce seed that may or may not germinate, is it really enough for the world’s biggest arts festival? One with millions of pounds riding on it, one where emerging artists make their careers, one that indie companies structure their whole years and business models around? How did we get here? And more importantly, why do the people who actually make the fringe – people who bring shows there – know so little, and get so little say in it all?

I spoke to artists and producers from all kinds of different disciplines, and one thing that shone through was that the fringe (or at least ‘a’ fringe) is something that’s too important to be lost, or left to chance.

For Linda Crooks, chief executive of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, “the cultural identity of the City of Edinburgh is so wrapped around its festivals, so this is symbolic – it’s a kind of step towards recovery.” And for early-career artist, Emma Rogerson, it’s the ideal anecdote to a year-and-a-half of pandemic-induced mundanity: “There’s been a lot of division and hopelessness this last year, and being able to come together and do the thing we like would be wonderful. I don’t think there’s anyone working in this industry that wouldn’t love that, in its simplest form.”

A fractured timeline

Whereas in England, the one metre plus rule means that many theatres have opened with social distancing in place, Scottish venues have overwhelmingly been unable to. Scotland has localised, tiered restrictions: currently, Edinburgh is in Tier Two, which means that theatres are subject to the two metre rule and capacity restrictions that make opening all but financially impossible. Fringe producers have been anxiously waiting for a government change in guidance. There is the will for a festival to go ahead. But time’s running out for it to happen in any coherent form.

Kev F. Sutherland is an Edinburgh fringe institution – he’s taken his show, The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, to the festival every year since 2007. But after last year’s cancellation, he’s spent 2021 so far anxiously watching for signs of whether the festival will go ahead, and wondering how to respond. “You get into a pattern that’s the same each year”, he explains, “starting with early bird registration in March, but this year that timeline has been disrupted from the start. Everybody’s been having discussions trying to find out from everybody else what’s going on…”

The 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Guide to Doing a Show sets out a clear timeline for bringing a show to the fringe; one that successive years have pushed earlier and earlier, as the fringe’s ever increasing size meant that the cheapest accommodation deals and the best trains got snapped up in advance. You make your budget and shortlist venues in January, and by April, you should have submitted your registration form, found accommodation and finalised your marketing campaign. Anyone still planning to stage an in-person show at this year’s fringe must be sweating – for reasons entirely unrelated to the June heatwave.

“I imagine that we will be announcing what we’re doing as close to August as we possibly can,” says Linda Crooks, who’s battling to reopen Traverse Theatre against strict social distancing regulations that currently mean the theatre’s main house can only seat 40, rather than its usual 270. If a large, year-round, funded venue like Traverse is struggling, what hope is there for smaller indie spaces? One of the few currently-confirmed performances is Grid Iron’s scheduled Doppler, an outdoor work from a company with decades of experience. I tried in vain to track down small self-funded companies with viable plans to bring shows to the 2021 fringe, but they all seemed to shelve their plans within weeks of making their show-specific Twitter account. Without early-career companies, is it even a fringe at all?

A problem of infrastructure

Currently, the dwindling handful of shows hoping to perform at this year’s fringe are waiting for a rule change. But even if the Scottish government does relax social distancing restrictions to one metre (or nothing at all), there are plenty more built in problems – ones that it will take more than six weeks to solve.

Kev F Sutherland says that “Last year made us put a magnifying glass on the Edinburgh fringe experience. The small venues which the audience complain about enough in normal years are these rooms where you can’t breathe, you come out sweating. And then there’s the Edinburgh cold, that notorious thing where volunteers and particularly entertainers would all get ill – some comedians would even bring their own microphones for that very reason. It feels incontemplatable, inconceivable that we could do that again!”

Flyering’s also a nightmare: performers like Sutherland rely on hours on the Royal Mile, but approaching strangers is likely to make them uncomfortable even after the pandemic ends.

And what about the capitalist bunfight for accommodation that packs performers and audiences into every spare corner of the city, at vastly inflated prices? This year, AirBnB is looking unrecognisable: only 26% of properties are booked up for the first week of August, and the prices are as low as I’ve ever seen them, with plenty of options for under £50 per night. Still, although it probably won’t be six-to-a-bed this year, the idea of travelling full stop right now feels somewhere between unwise and morally compromised. As Emma Rogerson puts it, “How ethical is it for me, as an unvaccinated 22 year old, to look for the cheapest accommodation I can find in Edinburgh? That means living in someone else’s space, if people are in financial situations where they need the money, they could potentially be making decisions that compromise their health or safety.”

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that Edinburgh fringe’s infrastructure typically mushrooms up overnight, in a way that doesn’t leave much room for the kind of troubleshooting and test runs you need to run a venue safely. This year, there will only be a month between shows being announced and the fringe starting. That means that hiring will have to happen at warp speed, with little time for training, sourcing safe accommodation, working out safe backstage protocols for the turnarounds between shows.

To make things even tougher, venues are overwhelmingly run by young, undertrained, and potentially unvaccinated employees working in close proximity with each other. Emma Rogerson says that “volunteering at the fringe is often one of the only real routes for young people to work in theatre – but I don’t know how responsible it is to put the pressure to keep the public safe on them.” Ramshackle management of the fringe has often been an issue – in normal years, you smile and shrug when the box office system breaks down and you get handed a raffle ticket instead, or when a performer’s toaster sets off the fire alarm mid show. When it’s health, it feels different.

A hunt for new spaces?
Deep under the city, Edinburgh’s cramped basement venues are asleep – many spaces like Underbelly are left empty until they come alive in August, because they can make more in one hyper-profitable month than they can as a regular year-round business. What monsters (or at least, gnarly damp problems) are brewing down there, as they face a potential three years of emptiness? And what new venues could spring up to accommodate an audience that’s newly wary of cramped, damp spaces?

Sutherland thinks the solution for the fringe lies with temporary tents, modelled on Adelaide Festival’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. “If I was an Edinburgh-based promoter, I’d be having fist fights over pitches on Holyrood Park, because you can spread out for miles! People will be seeking them out because they’ll be the only places where you can get enough punters in to cover the cost of the show.”

Edinburgh International Festival has taken the wise step of planning ahead for this year: they’ve built temporary outdoor structures, that are custom-designed for live performance, in Edinburgh Park and Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad, as well as staging socially-distanced indoor shows in Edinburgh’s larger theatres.

One of the temporary performance venues for the 2021 Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh fringe might have seemed ideally placed to do likewise this summer, especially so many of its venues are temporary or tented. But instead, its Big Four operators (Pleasance, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon and Assembly) have been notably cautious, shifting their operations beyond Scotland to places with less strict rules – Underbelly has moved its famous big purple cow tent to London, for example. Although within the fringe’s cash-starved infrastructure, they seem like big players, their cash reserves aren’t deep. Only subsidised theatre companies like Traverse can hope to open a full programme of social-distancing shows at a loss – but the fringe is built around venues run on a shoestring, and companies that rely on crowdfunding and small ACE grants – and are little able to absorb big financial shocks.

Does the Fringe Society need to step up?
Given the vast amount of money and the huge number of careers at stake, it’s bizarre to think how rarely the different groups – residents, landlords, venues, and artists – involved in the Edinburgh fringe actually talk to each other. And it’s extra bizarre this year, when there are so many extra questions to be resolved.

Briana Pegado says that “As a creative manager and creative practitioner, I love the fringe. But as a local resident, I don’t have the most positive feelings about it – it dominates the city landscape, it’s often inaccessible to local residents, people are getting priced out of homeownership in the city centre because of it, and the city council doesn’t make certain buildings available for use except for during the festival period because they’ll make more in one month than they would for a whole year. I don’t think the fringe should continue on its current trajectory: the fringe, the venues and the local residents need to have some serious conversations. Perhaps a more hybrid model would be beneficial for everyone.”

On top of these longstanding concerns, this year has also been marked by more direct issues around Covid-19 safety. Emma Rogerson said that “there should be a lot more dialogue and support as opposed to the fringe society making a blanket statement that the fringe is happening and leaving the details up to individuals.”

But is it the Fringe Society’s job to do more? From its very beginnings as an on-the-fly sideshow to the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival, when eight uninvited theatre companies turned up to perform their shows too, the fringe has been something organic and unstructured. It has evolved, instead of being built. And the Fringe Society has traditionally seen itself as facilitating it, not organising it. It doesn’t have a say in who performs, or how they do so, and that’s a point of principle. Theoretically, this is an open access, gatekeeper-free festival where anyone can find a platform. And a lot of people are happy with that stance. Simon Paris is a theatre producer who’s considered bringing an improv show up to the fringe. He argues that “from a producer mindset. I think they take about 3% of ticket sales. So I feel like they should take about 3% of responsibility.”

But there is another argument, which suggests that the economic difficulties of taking a show up to the fringe are in themselves a form of gatekeeping. And in a time of crisis, perhaps Fringe Society’s laissez-faire approach just isn’t compatible with the demands of steering what has become the world’s biggest arts festival through a global pandemic. When so many people are risking both their careers and their health, shouldn’t someone be in the driving seat?

Fringe Festival Society chief executive Shona McCarthy has started making some modest changes to the fringe model, including making a £75,000 recovery fund available to 15 shows and five venues, and bringing Phoebe Waller-Bridge on board as Fringe President. In a recent interview with Lyn Gardner, she echoed the industry feeling that this has been “time to rethink and reset”. But her responses to Lyn Gardner’s questions nonetheless shifted the responsibility for that thinking onto the other bodies involved in the fringe. When asked about the unaffordability of the fringe, she argued that “I think there’s an onus on the arts councils across the UK and the bodies that are there to fund and support artists”. She also argued that “I also would tell people to use the Fringe Society more, because we are as likely to tell a company: Look, don’t come, you’re not ready, your work’s not ready, you haven’t thought this through.'” But what does it say about the fringe, that it’s now telling emerging companies it’s not the place for them? And would that spirit of “telling people not to come” have been better exercised by telling the fringe companies who’ve spent the past few months in the dark that actually, this is a year to stay home?”

“I see the fringe as a capitalism mechanism, and the risk that’s taken by individuals becomes really exposed when it doesn’t all operate as normal,”says Linda Crooks. Last year, people were badly financially burnt by the fringe’s cancellation: producer Simon Paris explains that “we booked our accommodation early, and they didn’t give us a refund, so that made us lose quite a bit of money,” and many others were affected too, both by AirBnB landlords and agencies. This year, the loss is more one of opportunity. If the Fringe Society had made a tough call in January, March or even May, and decided on an online-only fringe, they could have mobilised artists, audiences, critics and potential sponsors around the idea. Fringe companies could have been offered technical support and encouragement to go for a hybrid model, whereby they performed an in-person show in a small venue in their hometown, as well as recording it for the fringe’s online platform.

This year’s uncertainty has also been a blow to audience and artists’ collective mental investment in the Edinburgh fringe. As Linda Crooks says, “There’s being quick out the traps, opening registration or getting a programme out there, and that’s all fine and dandy, but you can’t keep doing that because [if the event is cancelled] people lose confidence.”

By insisting that there will be in-person events this year, but with next-to-no support or guidance on the fine details, the Fringe Society hasn’t preserved the fringe’s pioneering spirit – instead, it’s limited the pool to acts that either have massive institutional backing, or indie producers wealthy and credulous enough to take completely batshit financial risks. To Emma Rogerson, “unless something dramatically changes, the shows will be incredibly well financed, or commercially and critically safe. Which is just going to perpetuate a lot of power imbalances that already exist.” In particular, it’ll wipe out the fringe’s modest progress towards improved diversity.

Fringe of Colour festival directors Jess Brough and Briana Pegado acted early to make the decision that 2021’s edition would be online only: “The whole purpose of Fringe of Colour is to create opportunities, create work, and to get it in front of audiences that have the lived experience to understand it,” says Briana Pegado. “Quite a large number of our filmmakers and artists are based internationally. But we also know that black and PoC people have been really negatively impacted by Covid-19, and are at higher risk. Financially, and health-wise, it was the right decision.”

What will 2022’s fringe look like?

Until 2020 abruptly slammed down the brakes on its growth, each edition of the Edinburgh Fringe was trumpeted in press releases as the “biggest ever”. Even if the vaccine rollout covers the full population of the UK by next Spring, even if there are no troubling variants, even if the barriers lift to overseas travel, it looks likely that the 2022 fringe will be a fraction of the size of its predecessors. The unstoppable growth momentum will be lost, many artists’ financial resources will be depleted, and many more will have had time to develop ways of working that don’t rely on it.

As Shona McCarthy sees it, “I have tried to shift the whole narrative of the festival from being about ‘how many shows this year?’ and ‘how many tickets sold?’ to the important stuff, which is the art and the creatives behind it…The recovery challenges [from the pandemic] are absolutely enormous because people’s livelihoods have been shattered in the past 18 months, so I think scale is going to be less of an issue as we move forward.”

But should we let market forces be the thing that scales down the Edinburgh Fringe? If it’s just a place for a dwindling number of companies that can afford it, who does it really serve? Shona McCarthy argues that to mitigate the stark economic inequalities that could be in store, “There also needs to be greater public investment to support artists to come and avail themselves of this incredible platform, which is there for all of the UK and can yield incredible results for artists.”

But before we start pouring public funds into propping up this expensive, flawed and sharp-toothed sifting mechanism for new talent, maybe it’s time to start fixing it. There needs to be a more persuasive logic for why everyone goes to the Edinburgh Fringe than “because it’s there”. When I asked artists and producers why they did the fringe, the reasons were hugely varied: to build a fan base, for a sense of community with other artists, to get reviews, to get booked by venues, and more. All those needs can be satisfied in other ways that don’t involve converging on one single city, and stretching its resources to breaking points.

No one planned or designed the Edinburgh fringe, but this enforced two-year break could and should be a chance to question everything: including its anti-curation ethos, including its lack of structure, including how it can be more responsive to the needs of local residents. As Briana Pegado puts it, “I really think that we have an incredible opportunity to vision what the arts could look like in the next 10 years; better governance, more accountability, more transparency. And I think it’s going to take people in power, really taking a step back and thinking about how they approach their work and whether or not they feel it’s still working. It will be a real shame if we don’t act.”

You can book a festival pass for 2021’s Fringe of Colour Films here

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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