Brian Ferguson: Barriers still hampering Fringe

THE FRINGE has more to do on access, says Brian Ferguson

The Fringe has more to do on access. Picture: Jane Barlow

I have been covering the Edinburgh Festival Fringe long enough for an overwhelming sense of déjà vu to be present at certain times of the year.

There was no escaping that feeling at the Scottish National Gallery as chief executive Kath Mainland and the chair of her board, Edinburgh University principal Tim O’Shea, presided over the annual programme launch.

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The Fringe has made enormous leaps forward since their double act was formed in the wake of the 2012 festival, the only blip in the event’s growth trajectories since Ms Mainland was appointed in the wake of the 2008 box office fiasco.

The Fringe survived going head to head with the London Olympics to register a drop in box office business of just one per cent.

It is only when you speak to some of those at the centre of the 2008 storm that you recall what a mess the Fringe was in that summer, when ticket sales fell by 10 per cent.

Back then, the Fringe offered around 31,000 performances of more than 2,000 shows in 247 venues.

Incredibly, there are now nearly 20,000 more performances, 1,200 more shows and an extra 66 venues since Ms Mainland’s appointment.

Yet the Fringe, along with the city’s other big events, but especially the Edinburgh International Festival, is arguably facing more questions than at any other time in the modern era.

At least three hefty reports have arrived in my inbox in the last few weeks – raising vital issues for the city about infrastructure, the long-term funding of its year-round venues, and the price and affordability of accommodation.

Perhaps the most interesting were the calls for the festivals to properly tackle those oft-discussed barriers to people actually going to events, including age, wealth and access to basic information.

There is a clear recommendation in the new Thundering Hooves report – which looked at the future of the festivals – that the gaps between the pride the people of Edinburgh are said to feel in them and actual participation “needs to be closed.”

The biggest ever survey of the city’s cultural sector, Desire Lines, found “there was a perception that the festivals are not accessible to a broad range of citizens and do not cater enough for local audiences.”

The same study called for action to ensure it is financially easier for local artists and producers to take part in the festivals – even proposing discounts for them and a dedicated “Made in Edinburgh” strand of the Fringe.

Making progress on all of the above in the next few years is, I suspect, going to prove more testing than delivering another hike in ticket sales and venues.