Joyce McMillan: Kath Mainland will be hard act to follow

Kath Mainland has overseen a surge in popularity for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Toby Williams
Kath Mainland has overseen a surge in popularity for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Toby Williams
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IN all its history of almost 70 years, I doubt whether the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has ever found itself in the hands of a leader who understood it more thoroughly, or nurtured it more carefully and effectively, through what could have been difficult times, than Kath Mainland.

When she took over the job, early in 2009, the Fringe was struggling to recover from the box office meltdown which almost destroyed the most vital of all the support services the Fringe Society offers to companies.

Yet during her time in the job she has not only stabilised the operation in practical and administrative terms. She has also, despite the deepest recession in recent economic history, presided over yet another period of sustained growth, both in the number of shows presented in the Fringe and in the number of tickets sold.

She has also been a strong supporter of initiatives such as Made In Scotland, which have provided strategic support for companies facing the ever-increasing costs of presenting work in Edinburgh in August.

Questions always remain about the Fringe, of course, notably around the issue of those high costs. As the co-ordinating body of an open, unprogrammed festival, though, the Fringe organisation cannot begin to try to dictate the size of the event, or the detail of who takes part, without totally destroying its special and often anarchic atmosphere.

Kath Mainland perfectly understands that essential truth about the Fringe; she sought to support, to co-ordinate, to inform, to publicise, to encourage, but never to direct - indeed the very difficulty of giving a name to the job of running the Fringe, which has morphed over the years from “administrator”, to “director”, to “chief executive” - highlights the sheer uniqueness of the job.

And the most significant danger, in replacing Kath Mainland, will be the temptation to appoint a figure with impressive experience as a festival director, perhaps of one of the world’s many programmed “Fringe” festivals, who does not fully grasp that the Edinburgh Fringe demands a completely different and more self-effacing range of skills.

For that reason, this is a festival that often responds well to the appointment of an experienced Fringe figure; Kath Mainland worked for Assembly Productions for many years before she became Fringe chief executive.

And whoever takes over the job, it’s as well to remember that directing has nothing to with it. It’s all about responding, nurturing, helping and facilitating. If that’s not your style, then this job is definitely not for you.