The Edinburgh Festival Fringe needs to tackle the dominating presence of stand-up comedy at the event, its chief executive has admitted.
Shona McCarthy, who took over as chief executive of the Fringe Society last year, wants to “rebalance and refocus” the event’s reputation as part of a drive to “future proof” it.
At a debate on the future of the Fringe, Ms McCarthy said she had been struck in her first year and a half in the job by how many people believed the Fringe was a comedy festival.
She insisted she did not want to “devalue” comedy’s contribution to the Fringe but wanted to ensure there was more focus on other art forms such as theatre, music and cabaret in future.
Ms McCarthy also raised concerns that the BBC’s coverage of the Fringe was dominated by comedians.
Comedy makes up 35 per cent of the 3,398 shows in this year’s Fringe programme, compared with 28 per cent for theatre and 14 per cent for music. Comedy makes up the vast majority of the 686 free shows on the Fringe.
Ms McCarthy spoke out after concerns were raised by the organiser of the main comedy award at the Fringe that it was seen as an inferior art form at the Festival.
Nica Burns said it was unfair that comedy was not treated seriously enough when performers were tackling hard-hitting and unfashionable issues and going on to make their names in London’s West End and in Hollywood.
Ms McCarthy, who hosted the Fringe debate, said: “One of the things that has struck me was how many people still think the Fringe is a comedy festival.
“I was reminded last year of just what an extraordinary array of professional theatre, new writing and amazing work that comes through at the Fringe. But does this work get the kind of attention it deserves?
“One of my questions going forward, and one of the biggest challenges for the Fringe Society going forward, is about recalibration of the reputation of the Fringe from comedy, which is just so ginormous, and also a kind of reminder that 65 per cent of the programme is completely different.” She went on to point out that the BBC coverage concentrated almost exclusively on comedy.
“I’m coming at this from a fairly new perspective… But it’s really struck me, I have been watching the BBC’s representation of the Fringe. It does present it as a comedy festival all the time. I just wonder if there is the need for some sort of refocusing or rebalancing.
“This isn’t about the Fringe having an anti-comedy agenda. The Fringe has done so much for that medium over the years. I don’t want to devalue it.
“But I just think the idea that comedy is all we are now needs to be looked at.”
William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Theatre, said: “I completely sympathise with Shona, I think she’s making the right argument. I would agree that there are a lot of people out there who think the Fringe is a comedy festival but equally there are a lot of people who don’t.
“To my mind, comedy has been a bit diminished at the Festival. It doesn’t have as much presence as it did ten years ago. I don’t think that’s true at all now as the growth of other art forms has had a great impact.
“Personally, I carry a concern that there is great theatre going on in Edinburgh that doesn’t get enough recognition. One needs to make a PR argument for it.
“There is a very real danger in terms of sustain-ing the quality of theatre at the Festival. We have a big programme of really brilliant South African theatre but they have a limited audience.
“I do agree with her comments about the BBC. Their coverage is very simplistic. It tends to go for new comedy and big names. It hides itself away in a ghetto on its own site as opposed to being out and about around the Festival.”
Karen Koren, founder of the Gilded Balloon, said: “Comedy has managed to bring the Fringe more to the fore over the years. It is very popular and helps support everything else.
“The people who are involved with theatre think of the Fringe as more of a theatre festival. The people who are involved with comedy think of it is a comedy festival. I think we should just accept that and not dispute it.”
Concerns about the dominance of comedy at the Fringe were aired earlier in the week at an event organised to help secure better support for live music in Edinburgh.
Organiser Olaf Furniss, founder of the Born To Be Wide conventions, said: “Ten years ago we had T on the Fringe which packed venues with touring acts and gave loads of opportunities to emerging Scottish talent in smaller gigs or with support slots.
“Fast forward to now and nearly all the grassroots music venues which have not closed are now renting out their spaces for comedy and cabaret during August.
“If you were to come to Edinburgh now, your opportunities to see emerging Scottish music talent have really shrunk compared to ten years ago.”