Comedy chief says Fringe must stay international post-Brexit

Nica Burns says everyone is welcome at the Festival. Picture: Contributed
Nica Burns says everyone is welcome at the Festival. Picture: Contributed
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The figurehead of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards has expressed fears for the future of the Fringe if the Brexit leads to a change in the rules affecting overseas performers appearing in the city.

Nica Burns said lobbying of the government needed to begin immediately to ensure there was no change to current arrangements which mean international acts do not need a work permit to appear at the Fringe.

Ms Burns, who has produced and directed the awards since 1984, pointed out that three of the last four best newcomers – Sofie Hagen, Alex Edelman and Daniel Simonsen – have been overseas performers.

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And 14 of the 36 winners of the main award have come from outwith the UK, including Sean Hughes, Dylan Moran, Rich Hall, Demetri Martin, Brendon Burns and Sam Simmons.

Several of Edinburgh’s festivals have “permit free” status under current Home Office rules, along with T in the Park, in Perthshire and the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Others around the UK include Aldeburgh, Glastonbury, Glyndebourne, Latitude Womad and Download.

According to the official Fringe website, permits are not required for performers or their “legitimate entourages”, including directors, producers, technicians, stage managers and publicists.

Its website states: “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has a long tradition of welcoming international companies.

“We work with the authorities in the UK to ensure our international visitors are informed about the immigration requirements and the process is as smooth as ­possible.”

Ms Burns, who also co-owns six London theatres, said it was crucially important to protect the international nature of the Fringe.

Speaking at the launch of this year’s comedy awards, Ms Burns said: “From day one, this has been called the Edinburgh International Festival. The Fringe has always been international.

“One of the reasons we can welcome so many performers to Edinburgh is because of a deal done some time ago by the Festival Fringe Society which is effectively a work permit waiver.

“Whatever government we happen to end up with we need to preserve that waiver, because talent has no borders and everyone is welcome as performers at this festival.

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“I’m coming at it this from an a-political way. There’s no need to be panicking at the moment, but it’s important that we start talking to the politicians so that they understand the importance of the waiver.

“Performance has been influenced and changed in this country by having international performers come here with a very different style and ethos. There’s a whole exchange of ideas with them.

“We’ve had theatre companies come here with a very different ethos and we’ve learnt so much from them. It’s that interplay that creates something special. Next year is the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe. People need to be able to plan ahead and they also need certainty.”

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Festival Fringe Society, said: “We’ve already been speaking to the Home Office about this.

“There’s no question mark about this at all at the moment, but as the government works through the Brexit, who knows what is might happen?
It’s really important for us that the Fringe remains a permit free festival.

“We are going to want to redouble our efforts to ensure the Fringe is open and globally-connected, particularly during the 70th anniversary year, when we look at all the potential barriers to participation, at both a local and international level.

“[First Minister] Nicola Sturgeon has already been very public about wanting to ensure that Scotland remains open and welcoming, and that the festivals remain part of that, but it’s not within her gift.

“There’s no real hint or indication at all that the current work permit rules for festivals are going to be in jeopardy or under any kind of threat.

“The whole open access thing is what makes the Fringe extraordinary. If anybody has any kind of problem with getting to Edinburgh then we will very proactively step in.

“I’ve written letters and emails to British Council colleagues and embassies across the world saying: ‘It is absolutely crucial that they are allowed to come’.”

Meanwhile it has emerged that more than 600 comedy shows will be eligible for this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Acts are ruled out if they have starred in a major television series or regularly perform in venues with a capacity over 500. Shortlists for the best comedy and best newcomer categories are due to be unveiled on 24 August, with the winners announced on 27 August. Judges include Claire Smith, one of The Scotsman’s team of critics.

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