THE Fringe impresario elected to Westminster earlier this year has urged the event to consider moving its dates forward by up to a fortnight to coincide with the school holidays in Scotland.
Tommy Sheppard, the new MP for Edinburgh East, wants the idea be looked at as part of a wide-ranging review of the world’s biggest arts festival to remove long-standing barriers and open up access to people living in the capital.
The Fringe, which traditionally finishes on the English bank holiday at the end of August, had been running for just 10 days this year when the school holidays drew to a close.
Mr Sheppard, one of the most influential figures on the Fringe for the last two decades, was speaking at the annual meeting of the Fringe Society, from which he has just stepped down as a director.
Mr Sheppard said there was a danger of the Fringe becoming a “cultural playground” from which “poor people” were excluded unless action was taken over the high cost of taking part in the festival.
He has also called for an overhaul of the public funding of the various summer festivals in Edinburgh - just months after an official report warned they faced losing their “premier division status” if levels of backing cannot be maintained.
He suggested the Fringe create an accommodation agency to tackle the soaring costs of staying in the city in August, rather than leave it to the “chaos” of the open market.
Mr Sheppard, who urged the Fringe to pay more attention to its “relationship with the city,” has advocated a change at a time when it is being staged on the same dates as the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time in 18 years.
Mr Sheppard, founder of The Stand comedy club, said there was no good reason why the Fringe could not be held earlier, claiming there was a marked drop in audiences after the holidays. He said a change would allow it to “properly exploit the local market.”
Mr Sheppard said: “We have practically doubled in size over the last 10 years. We are selling a million more tickets this year than we did a decade ago. There aren’t a million more bed nights being sold.
“My contention would be that the biggest growth in ticket sales is in the local market. If a higher proportion of our expanding numbers are locals we should be more mindful of things like school holiday dates. We need to understand what’s going to have a major effect on the ability of locals to see shows.
“When I started out the final week of the Fringe was always the busiest. In the last few years it has been a lot busier at the beginning and has tailed off. I cannot see how that cannot be connected with the schools going back. I just don’t see any downside to a change of dates. I just think nobody has really thought about it.”
Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland said: “We review everything at the end of the Fringe as we always do. What he’s talking about would be the Fringe not being pinned to the August bank holiday, which it always is. That would be a fairly significant thing to consider. There is a whole piece of research needing to be done. We can’t make decisions based on anecdotal evidence.”
Richard Lewis, culture leader at the city council, said: “Festivals are often programmed and design to fit into particular slots so they don’t clash with other events across the world.
“This is not something that anyone has come to me about. Anything like this could be discussed.
“Obviously once you establish a festival its dates are established in a lot of minds. That is one argument for the status quo.
“But increasing participation and getting more young people involved is another argument.
“One alternative argument is that of families actually go away when the holidays are on. That is the flipside.”
Meanwhile Mr Sheppard said the Fringe needed to encourage venues to shoulder more of the financial risk of putting on shows, rather than performers or companies, to avoid a drift towards the Fringe becoming more commercial and concerned with money-making shows.
He added: “Much has been said about the fact this is an open access festival. On paper, that is the case. But we need to look what barriers there are to participation and constantly be aware of the need to overcome them. We have to guard against the danger this becomes a cultural playground where the poor people are not able to take part, , because they don’t have the resources to do so, where the amount of money you need to participate in this festival is such that it is simply a barrier for many people in society.
“We have for a tremendous and untapped ability to influence markets. If we are able to harness the people who participate and use that wisely.
“We are looking at a need to house 10,000 performers in order for this festival to take place. At the minute that is pretty much left to chaos and the market and people finding their own accommodation.
“We could try to form an accommodation agency which matches the need for people to be accommodated with the ability of locals to provide that on a temporary basis.
“A deal could be struck where even if people were not getting the maximum money that they might be able to get from elsewhere they have the security of knowing that they are part of an approved register.”