Cashless donation system added to Edinburgh Fringe for first time

D'ancers Emma Hamilton and Claricia Kruithof'' at the official launch of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 programme.'' Picture: Lisa Ferguson
D'ancers Emma Hamilton and Claricia Kruithof'' at the official launch of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 programme.'' Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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A new cashless donations system and bigger stages for performers will be introduced on the Royal Mile as part of the biggest shake-up of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s street theatre arenas for 20 years.

Audiences will be encouraged to use electronic card readers to help tackle fears from artists about a slump in donations as growing numbers of people shun carrying cash around with them.

Street performers are also expected to get the chance to go “on tour” to new pop-up sites around the city in future.

This initiative is thanks to the advent of new portable stages being introduced for this year’s Fringe – which will break a number of records for shows, performances and venues – as part of a drive to “revitalise” the street theatre element of the event.

Although it attracts tens of thousands of people to the Royal Mile every day, Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, admitted these areas had begun to look “tired” in recent years.

Free excerpts from some of the biggest Fringe shows will be performed for the first time in a revamped arena in Parliament Square, where market stalls are to be relocated from. Daily draws will be retained for buskers, who are also set to get the chance to compete for a new award.

The ideas have been introduced under a five-year “blueprint of ambitions” aimed at transforming the Fringe for performers, producers and audiences by the time of its 75th anniversary in 2022.

Key aims including curbing the cost of accommodation and finding new locations for festivalgoers and artists to stay in, ensuring overseas performers will not need a permit to appear in Edinburgh in the wake of Brexit taking effect and reducing the use of paper at the Fringe by a third.

The event has pledged to create an expert panel on diversity to help attract new artists and producers to the event, freeze programme fees until 2022, and provide a “distinct platform” for Scottish music.

Ms McCarthy said the main street theatre arenas on the Royal Mile and The Mound would “look and feel very different” this August following a full review carried out after last year’s event. She said new showcase elements would echo the hugely popular Fringe Sunday event, which was launched on the High Street in 1982, before relocating to Holyrood Park then the Meadows as its popularity grew. It fell victim to funding pressures a decade ago.

Olly Davies, the Fringe’s head of marketing, said the idea of cashless donations had come from the street entertainers.

He said: “They need to tackle the fact that the amount of cash people carry in their pockets is declining year on year. There will be all kinds of festivals looking at this issue – we’re trying to be at the forefront of it.

“Each stage we have will have a board that says who is performing and alongside it we will have a card-reader. We’re looking at whether we might have different levels of donations, but that might be too complicated. We’re broadly talking about being able to donate a couple of quid.”

Meanwhile, the Fringe has issued an appeal for help to cut the cost of accommodation in August, as well as find a new year-round home for the event in the city centre.

The blueprint was published as it emerged that the Fringe programme has soared in size by more than two-thirds in the space of just ten years.

More than 3,500 shows are set to be staged across the city for the first time in the event’s history, with a record 317 venues in the line-up. An additional 150 shows and more than 3,564 extra performances will be staged compared with the 2017 event, with acts travelling from 51 overseas countries.

Ms McCarthy added: “Last year we celebrated the 70th anniversary, but we also used it as a time to reflect, question, recalibrate and look to the future. Our blueprint identifies new approaches to ensure anyone can participate, regardless of their background. We want the Fringe to be the greatest festival on Earth at which to perform, run a venue, develop a career, see shows and discover talent.

“We cannot do everything in the blueprint by ourselves. There are things in there that require partnership working across the city. It’s a massive call-out for help.

“We have big ambitions, but ensuring the Fringe is affordable for the very artists who make it what it is is something we take very seriously.

“If you go out and consult and people tell you one of the biggest barriers to participating in this festival is cost and you do nothing about it that is just disingenuous. We think there is affordable accommodation out there. Our job is to find it.”