Edinburgh Festival Fringe needs to spread out to accommodate social distancing and that could make it a better event – Stephen Jardine

This week Scotland’s politicians were asked if education should return to how it was pre-pandemic.

Giving crowds and performers more space could make Edinburgh Festival Fringe even better (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

Across the political divide, the resounding answer was “no”. From opposition parties committed to widescale change to John Swinney who has been in charge of Scotland’s schools for five years, there was absolute agreement that lessons need to be learned from the past year.

So it is with Scotland’s biggest cultural event. “Edinburgh Festival Fringe given the green light to go ahead in August” was the headline this week. The reality is a little different.

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After the International Festival announced a slimmed down event for 2021 on three outdoor stages around the city, all eyes shifted to the Fringe.

It’s sprawling, chaotic nature has been harder and harder to manage in recent years and so it proves in the time of Covid. With performers and venues desperate for income, the decision has been taken to open show registration from next month.

So does that mean the Fringe as we know it will go ahead this year? Probably not.

“A range of scenarios are being prepared for, from socially distanced events to digital offerings,” said the Fringe Society announcement.

At this moment, so much is uncertain. The vaccine is taking us out of the darkness but is anyone really ready to sit in a windowless basement with strangers in just 16 weeks’ time?

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While the structure of the International Festival is easier to adapt to these uncertain times, organising half a Fringe is a nightmare. After the leanest of years, performers will want to be sure their registration fees will lead to a return in August but that couldn’t be less certain.

The final decisions on what is allowed will be made not by the Fringe Society but by the Scottish government based on Covid transmission rates much nearer the time.

That is what led the organisers of Belladrum Festival to cancel their event this August.

“We feel there are still too many uncertainties surrounding the potential restrictions that may be in place,” they said.

With the Edinburgh Fringe, other forces are at play. Behind the performance, there is the vast corporate machine of vested interests, all desperate for the great cash cow to start up again as soon as possible.

The worry this year is that only the big promoters will have the resources to take a punt on the Fringe happening and the small performers that actually make it interesting will be squeezed out.

As the Fringe Society says, keeping people safe is the number one priority.

Inevitably that means this Fringe won’t be like any other. We are on a journey out of the pandemic but it is still small steps so the idea of Edinburgh being flooded with performers and visitors this summer is simply a non-starter.

Instead this August should be the long-awaited opportunity to reimagine the Fringe, embracing the digital technology that will allow performances and Edinburgh to be beamed around the world, but also utilising space around the capital, not just the busy city centre, and addressing the long-term structural issues that have left the Fringe creaking at the seams.

This year the Fringe will be different but that doesn’t mean it will be worse, especially if we take this chance to make it fitter for the future.

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