ONE of Edinburgh’s finest Georgian squares will be transformed into a major Fringe arena for the first time to coincide with the arrival of trams in the city centre.
Competition for festival-goers between the New Town and the south side of the capital is to be dramatically stepped up over plans to stage dozens of shows in St Andrew Square Garden.
Three separate performance areas will be created in the area, which is also home to the Jenners and Harvey Nichols department stores, and will have its own tram stop.
It will become home to one of the most popular Fringe venues, the Famous Spiegeltent, an intimate yurt-style tent and a world-music stage around its towering monument, with the site expected to be open until at least midnight.
The move will move the two squares designed by architect James Craig in the late 18th century - as centrepieces for his New Town masterplan - will play a full part in the world’s biggest arts festival for the first time.
Charlotte Square Garden, at the west end of George Street, has been used for the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the last 30 years.
It is hoped the St Andrew Square site will become one of the main arenas for tackling the independence debate on the Fringe this summer, with related shows expected to be staged throughout the day. A string of events and debates on the future of the nation are also expected to part of the book festival line-up.
Tommy Sheppard, the founder of the Stand Comedy Club, has won permission from city council chiefs and business group Essential Edinburgh, which is responsible for the site throughout the year, to take over the square. Built from 1772, it was closed to the public until it underwent a £2.7 million makeover in 2008.
The move to open it up for the Fringe will coincide with the transformation of the entire length of George Street into a new “al fresco” culture quarter, with restaurants and bars allowed to extend their pavement cafe areas and stages set up for performances.
It will part of a year-long pilot to reduce traffic levels on George Street and hand over more space to pedestrians when the tram system finally starts running.
The Famous Spiegeltent has been based recently outside the Assembly Rooms, the George Street venue which Mr Sheppard will be running for the third consecutive Fringe this August.
Part of the thinking behind relocating it is to try to reduce the prospect of upheaval for businesses this summer when the tram system is still bedding in.
Although some bus services will be allowed to run on George Street during the festival, large swathes will be out of bounds to vehicles and given over to pedestrians and businesses.
Mr Sheppard said: “The grand plan is to have Charlotte Square and St Andrew Square bookending a whole boulevard of creativity all along George Street, with the Assembly Rooms right in the middle.
“A few years ago almost everybody who came to Edinburgh for the Fringe would immediately head to the south side of the city.
“I think within two years pretty much everybody will be heading in this direction.
“The whole objective is to work with the natural amenity and beauty of St Andrew Square, which is already a very well used public space, and use the backdrop of the landscape. It should be a relaxed environment for comedy, variety, music and cabaret in the park.”
Mr Sheppard had resisted moves to move the Famous Spiegeltent into St Andrew Square Garden last summer, but said the prospect of being the first venue with its own tram stop and being able to create a major new arena between the existing Stand Comedy Club on York Place and the Assembly Rooms on George Street were major positives.
He added: “It was our experience of running a major outdoor event in George Street over the last couple of years which proved to ourselves and others that we know how to do it well.”
Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said the city council had been keen to avoid redirecting traffic in August so soon after starting the year-long pilot on George Street, but wanted to ensure the area was still a hub for festival activity.
He added: “We are delighted that we have been able to reach this agreement.
“It marks the next stage in our ambition to ensure a great festival experience in the city centre, and will provide a balancing hub to the book festival in Charlotte Square, connected by the pedestrian friendly, cafe society of George St.”
The Famous Spiegeltent was lured to George Street by Mr Sheppard two years ago, having previously been run in George Square Garden, at the heart of Edinburgh University’s main campus, for years, where the number of Fringe venues has hugely expanded in recent years.
David Bates, the Australian impresario behind the Famous Siegeltent, said: “We are thrilled to be part of this new initiative.
“It is our fifth festival site in Edinburgh since 1996 and will become, without doubt, the sparkling jewel amongst the many temporary festival sites that mushroom around the city every August.
“The much-loved Famous Spiegeltent is the original fringe trailblazer and we are delighted to be part of the development of another magical garden destination.”
Steve Cardownie, festivals and events champion at the city council, said: “I very much welcome initiatives of this nature, which should enhance and spread the festival offering throughout the city centre.
“August is such an important time in Edinburgh, both culturally and economically, and this is another exciting promotion to look forward to. The Famous Spiegeltent has proven to be a fantastic venue in the past and promises to look even better in its new home in St Andrew Square.”