The figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has warned that the arts are becoming increasingly dominated by the “upper reaches of society”.
Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, has admitted the festival needed to be more proactive to ensure marginalised voices were properly heard at the event in future.
She said the Fringe needed to “constantly” question whether it lived up to its long-standing mantra of being a completely open access event.
Ms McCarthy described Edinburgh in August as “the world’s biggest, collective manifestation of how art is political” and “a deep, creative delve into the burning issues of our time”.
But she said poor representation of actors, writers, directors, producers and critics from working-class backgrounds was creating a “distorted reflection of the world we live in”.
Speaking at the launch of the Fringe World Congress, a five-day gathering of festival organisers, Ms McCarthy said: “We believe everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves through creativity and experience the thrill of live performance.
“No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone’s welcome. No individual or committee determines who can or can’t appear. But it’s not something we say lightly or believe is fully realised. It can only ever be if we’re constantly questioning the truth of it.
“Unless we play a proactive part in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity and encouragement to be creative as an entitlement, from nursery to nursing home, then we will never be able to fully say this vision is a reality.”
Ms McCarthy was speaking two months after the Fringe Society published a five-year blueprint for the future, including a commitment to remove barriers to participation in the event and ensure “anyone with a story to tell can find a home to perform regardless of their gender, race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation or background”.
New proposals to open up access include drawing up an expert panel to support artists from black, minority ethnic, working class, disabled and LGBT backgrounds, creating new projects in parts of Edinburgh that have low participation in the Fringe, and giving away up to £100,000 worth of free tickets to charities.
She added: “Surveys and studies that tell us women are underrepresented, or that working-class people are less involved in the arts than ever before, or that non-white people don’t see themselves on stages or on the governance structures of arts organisations, can only tell us so much. We need to do something about it.
“There are not only fewer actors from working-class backgrounds – there are fewer working-class writers, directors, commissioning editors, producers and critics too.
“This results in a decreasing circle of influence, so the perspective that dominates the stories we tell comes from the upper reaches of society. No matter how well-meaning or socially progressive they try to be, it’s a distorted reflection of the world we live in.
“But the problem goes deeper than that. Access to drama and performance training is an invaluable tool in encouraging young people to express themselves with coherence and articulacy. It stimulates self-awareness and empathy.”
Ms McCarthy said it was not good enough for artists to “sit above the carnage around us and simply observe and provide commentary through art”.
She said: “If we truly believe that engaging in creativity and art-making contributes to our capacity for mutual understanding and empathy, then we need to be integrated and fully see and connect with what is going on around us and be a force for positive change.
“We can only do that by properly listening to those who are currently not in the conversation, by hearing their stories and working to have a different response.
“It’s through listening to each other’s stories, through exploring each other’s perspectives that we will learn to transcend the fixed idea of ourselves and come together.
“For the wellbeing of the country as a whole it’s essential that our main institutions – the law, the arts, medicine and the government – reflect our diversity, not our inequality.”