Brian Ferguson: Breath of fresh air blowing through the Fringe

Chief Executive Shona McCarthy.
 Picture: Jane Barlow
Chief Executive Shona McCarthy. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT may have taken the best part of five months, but the wait to speak to the new figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was certainly worth it.

I can’t have been the only journalist to speak to Shona McCarthy last week to leave with the impression of a blast of fresh air blowing through the city. Her willingness to not just enter, but lead, debates about the challenges facing the Fringe, its relationship to the city and the country, and its current international standing was hugely refreshing.

If anyone had urged her to tread carefully or dodge questions about recent cuts to funding for festivals and arts venues in the city, or the never-ending saga over an Edinburgh tourist tax, she clearly had other ideas.

I had some sympathy for Ms McCarthy when she was appointed chief executive of the Fringe society, the governing body for the “open access” event.

It must have been a slightly daunting prospect following in the footsteps of Kath Mainland, her much-admired predecessor. Her seven-year tenure saw the event break the two million ticket sales barrier and the number of shows soar by around 60 per cent.

More importantly, she restored much-needed stability to and confidence in the event following a disastrous box office failure in 2008.

There is no question Ms McCarthy has inherited an event in much better shape now than it was when Ms Mainland took the helm.

She was adamant last week that it was the only job that would have persuaded her to relocate from Northern Ireland, where she has made her name as a leading arts administrator over more than two decades.

She was equally keen to underline the position of global strength she believes Edinburgh’s festivals can boast - and the crucial government backing, locally and nationally, which has been built up over the last 70 years.

But her main message could not have been clearer - now is not the time to tamper with the levels of public “investment” in these events.

She was speaking against a backdrop of cuts already imposed by on Creative Scotland, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Traverse Theatre, the Lyceum, the Queen’s Hall and the Festival Theatre.

But echoing the kind of language used the previous week by David Greig, new artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Ms McCarthy warned of the risk “chipping away” at budgets and allowing gradual decline to set in.

Just like Mr Greig, whose expanded Lyceum programme has gone down a storm, the new Fringe chief executive believes the city can generate an event greater return from its festivals by being “brave and ambitious.”

Realising the ambitions of Ms McCarthy to extend their impact and influence way beyond the city centre would be a start.

Her views may have already ruffled a few feathers among the “bureaucrats and civil servants,” as she described them.

But she has helpful allies out there in the form of Fergus Linehan, who has just unveiled his second programme as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, and his counterpart at the book festival, Nick Barley.

In very different ways, their events have recently reached out to new audiences, in Edinburgh and much further afield, are showing no signs of standing still, far less declining. With audience numbers booming in recent years, there is absolutely no reason for the Fringe to do so either.