Thousands of Cinderellas are skivvying away beneath the cultural veneer of the world’s largest arts festival, writes Tommy Sheppard.
As I write, we pass the halfway point on the most sodden Edinburgh Festival in many years – and the usual controversies rage.
For many locals there’s an increasing feeling that the Festival is something done to Edinburgh rather than for it. There are many parts of this city where the balance sheet of Festival pros and cons is negative. There have always been curmudgeons annoyed by the impossible enthusiasm and exuberance of the bright young things staging their annual artistic invasion. But this is a different criticism. This is a claim that the organisation of the festivals contributes to a structural inequality, taking wealth from the city’s masses and depositing it into the hands of rich producers from elsewhere.
It’s true that this can happen. When multi-millionaire London theatre owners rail against regulations that seek to impose conditions on venue operators, they don’t court public sympathy. But what do we do about it? Turn our backs and spit the dummy? I’d argue not. Instead, we should use this unparalleled opportunity to the benefit of the city and those who live in it all year round. Let’s take advantage of the Festival rather than let it take advantage of us.
Many have been fighting this fight for a long time. Whilst some of the biggest venues on the Fringe do descend on the city from London, plenty are homegrown and work here, with local communities, all year round. But there is much still to be done. We should start with the workers. The Edinburgh festivals, and the Fringe in particular, create many thousands of jobs – running venues, selling tickets, promoting shows and keeping three million punters fed and watered. Historically, many of these jobs have been low paid, sometimes not paid at all. Thousands of Cinderellas skivvying away beneath the cultural veneer of the world’s largest arts festival.
But it’s 2019 and, rightly, people aren’t putting up with it any more. Workers are demanding proper contracts and proper pay. The Fair Fringe campaign is succeeding in getting venues to sign up to its charter. If you work on the Fringe, or know someone who does, find out more about the campaign from email@example.com As city residents we can help these moves. Our council could start by asking temporary venues to adopt the Fair Fringe charter as a condition of getting a licence. The next time you choose a show, ask if the venue pays the real living wage.
Next we should harness the incredible cultural opportunities the Festival offers for the city’s education system. Throughout the year our secondary schools could be working in partnership with major venues to develop and stage performances, giving real experience in writing, directing, performing, producing and promoting, not just in theatre, but in comedy, music and dance too. Of course, it would help if the Fringe dates aligned with the Scottish school holidays.
Most of all, we need to expand the Festival into parts of the city it does not reach. It is ridiculous that the northern and southern boundaries of the Festival are pretty much Queen Street and the Meadows, whilst 90 per cent of the city doesn’t have a venue at all. It’s up to festival organisers to drive this dispersal of talent – it won’t happen by osmosis. We need our city council to be proactive and have a strategy to make sure the festivals benefit the parts they currently don’t.
Perhaps we can use a slice of a new tourist tax to make that happen.
None of this is rocket science, and none of it new. But it will require planning and determination – without that the chaos of overcrowding and over provision will continue. And that will continue to aggravate many in the city who are excluded from the festivals.
Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East.