TW Backstage

From The Fringe: Fixing the Edinburgh Festival

By | Published on Friday 26 August 2022

In the first of three editions recorded at the 2022 Edinburgh Festival, we consider the key challenges facing the Edinburgh Fringe community. What have been the key talking points at the Festival this month? What are the most pressing issues? What are possible solutions?

ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Co-Editor Chris Cooke sat down at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall venue during the second week of this year’s Festival to chat to five people working, producing, performing and reviewing at the Fringe. We wanted to know: how is this year’s Festival going, are we fully back post-COVID, and what changes need to be made to ensure the long-term future of the biggest cultural festival on the planet.

Hear from…
Charles Pamment, Artistic Director of theSpace
Ines Wurth, producer with Ines Wurth Presents
Comedian Ivor Dembina
Comedian Alistair Barrie
Richard Stamp, co-founder of Fringe Guru and reviewer with The Wee Review

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ThreeWeeks has been covering the Edinburgh Festival every year since 1996, so we know a thing or two about how this big old Festival works – and, why sometimes it doesn’t work.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the Edinburgh Festival doesn’t really exist. It’s an umbrella term that we use to refer to a number of different festivals that all take place in the Scottish capital each August – that includes…

Edinburgh International Festival.
Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Edinburgh Art Festival.
Festival Of Politics.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

It’s actually the Fringe that people most often think off when you talk about the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s mainly the Fringe that we are here to talk about today.

Although, of course, without the International Festival there wouldn’t be a Fringe. The Edinburgh International Festival is a programmed festival presenting a selection of theatre, dance, opera and music over three weeks in Edinburgh. It was first staged 75 years ago in 1947.

It was during that very first year that a small number of theatre groups not involved in the main festival decided to stage some shows in Edinburgh anyway – to capitalise on the big audience expected to attend for the main event.

And so the Edinburgh Fringe was born – and with it the core concept that continues to this day – and that concept is as follows: There are lots of people looking for cultural entertainment in Edinburgh each August, and any performer, group, producer or company that wants to capitalise on that audience is welcome to present a show, providing they can find a room or stage where they can legally perform.

That concept – which has been embraced by other smaller Fringe festivals all over the world – is a brilliant concept. It does mean there’s no quality control – and the quality of shows therefore does vary hugely. But it also means you get the kinds of shows that just wouldn’t get staged anywhere else. Shows that are new – or even still in development. Shows that don’t look good on paper but work really well on stage.

And by employing that concept the Edinburgh Fringe in particular has become a hotbed of creativity. People come here to try out and evolve new shows and new ideas. Or to become better performers and creators simply by performing every day for a whole month.

But they also come here to find an audience – or to find champions within the cultural industries – people who will book their current shows and commission new ones.

And they come here simply to hang out with other performers and creators for a few weeks. People who will inspire them, educate them, and even critique their shows. Not to mention possible future collaborators.

Indeed, for some people, the simple joy of being part of that community for three weeks is the main attraction – in a way, the Edinburgh Fringe is a summer camp for actors, comedians and other performers.

The Edinburgh Fringe is also a hotbed of creative entrepreneurs.

Many early career producers and promoters, and early stage theatre companies, come to the Festival to learn their trade, to build a professional network, and to find opportunities. Indeed, many performers produce their own Edinburgh shows – so they too are part of that vibrant community of cultural entrepreneurs. 

And that’s all possible because of the concept of Fringe – which, as I say, is brilliant.

Although, it has to be said, it can also be a bit confusing and rather challenging – for audience members and performers alike.

For example – while the Edinburgh Festival doesn’t technically exist – the Edinburgh Fringe is also quite hard to properly define. Basically anyone performing in Edinburgh in August who is not part of one of the other festivals is part of the Fringe.

There is a Fringe Society which compiles a programme, runs a box office and supports the Fringe community of performers, promoters and producers in a number of ways, but the Society doesn’t own or programme the Fringe – and you don’t have to be in the Society’s official programme to be a Fringe show. All of which can make navigating the Edinburgh Fringe quite tricky.

Now, most Fringe performers perform at one of a network of independent Fringe venues – and many of those venues curate what shows they host and publish their own programmes – so the venues provide another infrastructure via which to navigate the Festival. However, there are also great Fringe things happening in the city which you won’t find at one of the well known venue complexes.

As for the challenges – well, they are widely discussed every August.

Many of the challenges come down to money. It can be expensive staging a show at the Fringe – and many of the producers, promoters and theatre companies at the Festival are taking a big financial risk. And remember, many performers are their own producers, so they are risk takers too.

There are different approaches to performing at the Festival, and some are more expensive and more risky than others. Different venues work in different ways. And the rise of the free Fringe movement in the 2000s provided an alternative approach which, for some stand-up comedians in particular, was much more viable.

It’s often said that it’s impossible to make money performing at the Fringe, but that’s not true, depending on the kind of show you present and the model you adopt.

But plenty of people do lose money in Edinburgh. Those who see the Fringe experience as basically a kind of summer holiday may just write off the loss as the cost of the experience. Others see it as an investment – hoping to unlock opportunities, whether for a specific project or for their cultural business or creative career.

But that means there is a lot of risk taking every August in Edinburgh – and inevitably there will be winners and losers when it comes to capturing audience and making money at the box office. With so much risk being taken – commercially as well as creatively – it’s no wonder the economics of the Fringe are in the spotlight every single August.

Every year people will tell you that the Fringe isn’t working any more – that it’s not viable for performers any more – that it’s become too expensive, too competitive, too commercial. That things just aren’t as good as they used to be.

Some of that criticism is valid. But some it – less so…

People have been saying all those things every summer since I first attended the Fringe in 1994. And yet the Fringe has continued to evolve and to grow ever since – and so many great performers have found an audience and progressed their careers here, so many great shows and companies have emerged from the Edinburgh Fringe, and the Festival continues to be a hotbed of creativity and creative entrepreneurialism.

And yet, it is right that we continue to acknowledge and discuss the challenges – economic and otherwise. And to seek to identify the criticism that is most valid and the issues that are most pressing. And to ask how individual performers, producers, promoters and companies – and the entire Fringe community at large – can meet those challenges in an effective way, ensuring the long term future of the Fringe, and enabling a Festival that is more vibrant, more diverse and more productive than ever before.

In the last couple of years, of course, the Edinburgh Fringe community has faced some very unusual and very specific challenges stemming from the COVID pandemic – which forced the Fringe to cancel completely in 2020 and run in a much more streamlined form in 2021.

As the Festival seemed to return in full effect at the start of this month – I was interested to know to what extent those COVID specific challenges were still having an impact. And, as the wider full Fringe community returned to Edinburgh en masse for the first time since 2019, I wanted to know what the real issues are for the Festival right now.

In terms of those already challenging economics, it’s no secret that accommodation costs in Edinburgh have surged this year – in part due to measures introduced by the Scottish government and Edinburgh City Council in relation to things like student leases and Airbnb lets. Measures that might have been entirely justified, but which have had a negative impact on the supply of Edinburgh flats and apartments and rooms and houses available for the Fringe community to rent in August.

The Fringe Society has also come under increased criticism of late, for example over its failure to operate an app this year – and about the way it received and distributed COVID funding made available by the Scottish government.

Some also say that the Society has become increasingly disconnected from parts of the Fringe community – something that has been said plenty of times in the past, but maybe the unusual circumstances of the last two years have increased the disconnect.

Then there’s the reviews challenge. Reviews continue to play a big role here at the Fringe, but challenges within cultural journalism in general mean there are fewer reviewers reviewing.

That’s been a growing issue for many years – though one solution pursued by the Fringe Society – covering accommodation costs for some reviewers but not others – has actually resulted in the Fringe organisation being further criticised by parts of the Fringe community.

Others continue to express concerns about the dominance of the big venues and the big name comedians and theatre companies – and the perceived continued commercialisation of the Fringe – and that the ever growing number of festival bars and street food stands might be taking people way from the actual shows.

And, of course, once the 2022 Festival got underway, we even have an active cancel culture debate, when the Pleasance cancelled the second of two scheduled performances by Fringe veteran Jerry Sadowitz because of the content of his current show.

Sadowitz has spent 40 years courting controversy of course – his shows are entirely marketed on the basis that he will do and say controversial things – but this year the Pleasance decided that that controversial content was, well, too controversial.

So, plenty of challenges to discuss.

To get a sense of what the real issues and talking points are this year, I sat down at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall venue in the middle of the Festival, with shows occurring all around me, and chatted to people working, producing, performing and reviewing at this year’s Festival.

I asked my guests whether they thought COVID was still having an impact – what they considered to the biggest challenges for the Festival right now – and what changes they would make if they were put in charge of the Edinburgh Fringe.

They had lots of interesting things to say – do check out their insights, opinions and key concerns in the podcast itself.  

Of course, we don’t really fix the Edinburgh Festival in a single podcast – and nor did we expect to. But hopefully we have given everyone who listens lots of food for thought about the challenges the Fringe faces – and which of are those challenges are particularly pressing – while possibly also proposing a few solutions to consider along the way.

Edinburgh City Council, the Scottish government, and the Fringe Society obviously have an important role to play in dealing with at least some of these challenges – though doing so will require all three of them to fully connect with and talk to the wider Fringe community. Which is no small task, but clearly incredibly important.

Though, I suspect, some of the solutions will come from within the Fringe community itself. This is, as I alluded to earlier, as much a festival of cultural entrepreneurialism as it is a festival of culture. And I reckon somewhere in that community there are rising entrepreneurial talents who will address some of these challenges through innovative new approaches and business ventures.

I hope the Fringe community will spot those talents, and embrace and support them.