Brian Ferguson: New era approaching for Edinburgh Fringe

Long-time promoter and MP Tommy Sheppard wants the Fringe to run even earlier to ensure it coincides with the school holidays. Picture: Jane Barlow
Long-time promoter and MP Tommy Sheppard wants the Fringe to run even earlier to ensure it coincides with the school holidays. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It feels odd to be already looking ahead to the summer in this column when there are still Christmas trees littering the pavements. But for those with an interest in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a new era is about to dawn. The event will very shortly have a new figurehead for the first time in seven years.

As countless people involved with the event have pointed out, the new chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society – the event’s governing body – will have an extremely hard act to follow. The growth of the Fringe under the stewardship of Kath Mainland, who announced her depature in November for a new job with one of Australia’s leading festivals, has been nothing short of staggering.

There were 1200 more shows in the 2015 programme than in Ms Mainland’s first festival, which shifted 1,859,000 tickets. That figure reached almost 2.9 million by the time her final Fringe ended, despite the additional challenge of a clash of dates with the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time since 1997.

The only box office blemish came was a dip in 2012, when the first 10 days of the Fringe were in direct competition with the London Olympics. The Fringe did extremely well to emerge with a drop at the box office of one per cent, when 
1.85 million tickets sold were still sold.

Since then the Fringe has been on a seemingly-unstoppable march to ever greater heights, with the two million ticket barrier broken in 2014 and a five per cent increase last summer.

However, as Ms Mainland repeated to journalists at every programme launch, it was not just about the numbers, no matter how impressive.

I can vividly recall the tough task that appeared to be awaiting her when she was appointed in the wake of the box office fiasco that took to the festival to the brink of financial ruin in 2008.

The total failure of the ticketing system that summer is still a painful memory for all those who were working at the Fringe at the time and the many venues who were affected by it.

It was no easy task steadying the Fringe ship and restoring the confidence of companies, promoters and performers in the society, which has been responsible for the event since 1958.

But the reputation of the event was largely restored by the end of her first Fringe and she has done much to extend its global reach, build relationships with other festivals and make things much easier for the thousands of performers and companies who arrive in Edinburgh each summer, many for the first time.

There is little doubt she is handing over the Fringe in much better condition than she inherited in 2009. But that is not to say there are not huge challenges ahead for her successor.

The soaring costs of bringing shows to the Fringe is an issue that has become more acute during Ms Mainland’s tenure. The impact of public spending cuts on not only the Fringe society, but on venues and companies who put on shows could be serious and wide-ranging.

Another long-time challenge facing the Fringe is somehow expanding the event out of the city centre and into areas all but ignored in August.

Long-time promoter Tommy Sheppard, now a Westminster MP, wants the Fringe to run even earlier to ensure it coincides with the school holidays. And a strong working relationship with the city’s other events will be essential, particularly the EIF, which has been making serious inroads into the traditional Fringe audience under new director Fergus Linehan.

Tackling that lot while ensuring the growth trajectory continues will mean a hefty in-tray lies in wait for the new chief executive.