Interview: Fergus Linehan on his plans for the Edinburgh International Festival in 2020 and beyond

Fergus Linehan has spent lockdown thinking about the EIF’s future. He tells Joyce McMillan why outreach and climate change are on his mind

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan
Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan

It’s hard to imagine how many years must have passed – at least half a century, and probably more – since an Edinburgh International Festival director last spent four months at home, without boarding a plane or even a long-distance train; but that has been the story of Fergus Linehan’s life since the start of the UK’s lockdown back in March. Working from home in Edinburgh, and sharing the care of his two young children, Linehan has also been spending long days at his desk, working online with the EIF team – first to take apart the festival that had been planned for this August, and, as far as possible, to reassure the artists and companies involved that contractual obligations will be met, and then to look forward, both to a 2021 festival that will take place under conditions no-one can yet predict, and to a series of events in Edinburgh this month that will signal the EIF’s continuing presence, although in ways that might have seemed unimaginable before March of this year.

“One thing of which I’ve become even more aware,” says Linehan, “is of how much easier this has been for us than for some others. If you are running a year-round venue, then every change in what happens with the pandemic can affect your plans, from month to month. For us, it’s a single annual event; and when lockdown happened, it became clear almost immediately that this year’s August festival simply couldn’t happen.

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“In that sense, if a disaster like this had to occur, the timing – just before the planned launch of this year’s programme – was just about optimal for us. If it had come much later, we would have had a massively more complicated situation to handle, in terms of tickets sold, and travel already booked; if it had come much earlier, we would have been under more pressure to stage the event this year, or to delay the decision. So we’ve had maximum clarity, and a chance to think about what comes next; and that’s something to be grateful for.”

The Harmonium Project in 2015 saw the Edinburgh International Festival open with a massive sound and light show PIC: Ian Rutherford

Linehan is also grateful for the EIF’s relatively secure funding position with both public funders and sponsors, as the linchpin of Edinburgh’s annual August festival offering. He has therefore spent much of his time since March working out how he can use the EIF’s resources to make a difference in this frighteningly difficult time for many arts organisations and workers. When the EIF’s special 2020 programme is announced on Monday – with opening events on Saturday 8 August, which would have been the first day of this year’s EIF – he hopes that the results of that effort will be obvious.

He says: “One of my main priorities was to commission some new work, and get some money out there to artists and arts organisations, rather than just falling back on our archive of past events, wonderful though it is. We will be making some archive material available online during what would have been the festival period; but next week’s opening events all involve a substantial element of new commissioning, and we hope people will enjoy that.

“We were also keen to celebrate the buildings and spaces that the festival traditionally inhabits – not just our own spaces, but the Tattoo, the Book Festival, the Fringe. I find I miss those Edinburgh spaces so much, at the moment – their special atmosphere and personality; so we wanted to capture some of that, in our opening events, and I hope we’ve succeeded.

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“Then finally, we’ve been continuing to work on our learning and engagement programme, particularly among young people in the city. As someone who started working in the arts 30 years ago, I feel very much aware of how the scene has changed in that time. Now, it seems increasingly hard to make a career in the arts if you can’t afford to pay hefty university fees and then work for nothing for a while; you’re talking about people who are not just middle-class, but really quite wealthy. And that can’t be good.

“So we’re working with schools in Edinburgh and the SQA on a performing arts qualification that encourages kids from all backgrounds to understand all the different skills that are involved in putting a show together, and to feel that it’s something they might be able to do.

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“And of course, the fact the work is continuing this year means that we can involve some of the great team who would normally be building the festival venues for us, and helping to run them – which is another priority, at such a tough time for theatre workers.”

Linehan is not one of those, though, whose idea of recovery after the pandemic is simply to go back to producing festivals on the old pattern: bigger, noisier and more unsustainable than ever.

“In terms of the questions we were already facing about the environmental footprint of the arts,” says Linehan, “there’s clearly been a five-year jump in awareness during these months. When I look back at the last 20 years, it’s obvious how much things had accelerated, how much constant travel had become the norm, and that’s something we now have to rethink.

“That’s hard for my generation, who lived through the opening up of travel to so much of the world, and almost became defined by that experience; it will be hard for leading artists and ensembles, who have become used to running fast-moving global careers.

“And it’s certainly not the end of internationalism. But it is a time for beginning to rethink what internationalism means, in a low-carbon age; and I hope the Edinburgh festivals will be able to play a major part in that new thinking, and in creating that change.”

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The Edinburgh International Festival’s programme for 2020 will be announced on Monday. Details can be found online at: www.eif.co.uk/whats-on

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