And they talk a good talk. – EdFringe.com is vibrant with on-point mission statements, visions and values. However, in the words of the society’s chief executive, “there’s no point in having values if you’re not actually going to uphold them in some way”.
Some of its 'headline' development goals take disingenuity beyond the point of an accepted PR tool to where it effectively becomes a strategic lie by omission.
In particular, to boast “who you are and where you are from is not a barrier to attending or performing at the Edinburgh Fringe” (number three) seems to me to be deliberately spitting in the eye of every Fringe there has been since 1947. For the sake of a soundbite.
The Fringe began with and for the uninvited, the random, the passionate performers. It grew as a genuinely free-access, artistic joyfest.
Who you are and where you are from has never been a barrier. But now, more than ever, and above everything, money is a real problem. Lack of money – and a lot of it – is a huge barrier to doing anything at the Fringe.
Now – after the Big Boys get the big Resilience Fund money, and so they are fine with who they are (which is nice) – that barrier has been built just a little bit higher for the unknowns, the unsupported, the newbies, those, you might say, on the ‘fringes’.
However, this Fringe Society did one great thing – the Fringe app, which was a uniquely equalising force within the programme. In the whole history of the Fringe Society, it was arguably the most democratising introduction to August.
But especially in recent, more commercialised years, it was transformative. It offered support for many of the small shows, the free shows, the unknown performers and the strange and glorious adventurers who epitomise the very idea of a Fringe. Some performers say they got up to 50 per cent of their audience from it. The established, commercial Behemoths did not need it.
It might be argued that the axing of the app makes it exponentially more difficult for the Fringe to… ooh, how could I put it..."be the best place in the world for emerging artists to perform and the best platform for talent to emerge” (development goal number four).
No number of Fringe Society workshops and handholding sessions can make up for actually having an audience in your show. As an audience, having the facility to find shows in real time with the app and its “near me” function meant that you could turn a day into a cultural adventure into the unknown. A genuine Fringe experience.
When the sheer weight of numbers demanding an answer reached a critical (some very critical) mass, including dozens of written complaints to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (given the Fringe Society’s charitable status), an announcement was made. “We share everyone’s disappointment about the absence of the Fringe app in 2022,” said chief executive Shona McCarthy. “We simply did not have the budget required to build and maintain the app this year.”
Hundreds of those who risk their financial all to come to Edinburgh in August carefully factor the benefits of the app into the daunting costs of Fringe registration. Because (as yet) not registering is not a barrier to performing in the city in August.
Finding out, at the last minute, that the app will not be operational is a devastating blow to performers already up against financially crippling costs for accommodation and, in some cases, venue charges that mean performers making a profit are a less likely sight than a pink unicorn.
By the way, fans of deforestation will be delighted to hear that, despite the axing of the app and fluttering in the face of development goal number three, climate action, the printed, many-paged brochure is back, after a year finding shows really quite easily without its help. The Fringe Society's road to carbon neutral is, it would seem, still paved with paper… But I digress.
Amidst all the talk, all the PR, all the mission statements and the celebrity figureheads, the Fringe is being fenced in. For the rich. For the Big Boys. For the Industry. The axing of the app is symbolic. It is the first cut. A stab, you might think, in the back.
Perhaps this is just the opener for the Fringe Society's announcement that the festival’s “open to all” ethos was being reimagined for “a 21st-century context”.
Perhaps, we need to accept that, and I quote, “the role of the society is going to change… We’re going to become a more active participant now”. These are the words of the chief executive officer of a limited company who has made, we read, a pledge to “manage the scale” of the festival in future years which will be focused on helping artists, performers and companies to decide when a show is “Fringe ready”.
Perhaps, if you relied on the Fringe app so heavily to get audiences into your shows, your show is simply not “Fringe ready”.
There is some good news, however. Some 'appy news, one might say.
The Laughing Horse Free Festival has just launched its own app (sadly for me and my Nokia, iPhone only), an existing, and rather brilliant, app called PlanMyFringe has been created by two Fringegoers themselves and, of course, for years, PBH's Free Fringe, who have never insisted on their acts registering with the Fringe at all, has had a very friendly app for both Android and iPhone. The demise of the Fringe app shines a much deserved light on them.
So, hopefully, audiences who really enjoy an app-assisted Fringe will still find themselves with a fabulous, and even 'free', August experience.
Kate Copstick is an actress, writer and comedy critic