Assembly Rooms to return to its Fringe roots as digital experiment is ditched

One of the longest-running Edinburgh Festival Fringe venues is to go back to its roots after ditching a controversial digital event derided as 'somewhere between pointless and insulting.'

The Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival will not be returning to the Assembly Rooms this year.
The Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival will not be returning to the Assembly Rooms this year.

The founders of the Assembly Rooms will be back staging traditional shows there for the first time since 2010 in August after attempting to run it as a venue without any live performers last year.

Theatre, opera and dance productions from around the world were screened in the venue, where the latest virtual reality experiences were also showcased during the Fringe, but only a few dozen people were said to be in the building at peak times.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

However the fledgling Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival was branded a flop by rival promoters who had previously staged shows in the venue amid claims it was killing business for other venues in the New Town.

Fringe shows were first staged in the Assembly Rooms in 1981.

William Burdett-Coutts, the impresario who first staged Fringe shows at the venue in 1981, was also behind the digital festival, which he admitted would not be returning.

However he insisted the digital concept would be taken forward in special events which were planned outside the venue, in a section of George Street expected to be closed to traffic.

Promoters Salt ‘n’ Sauce were handed a contract to run the Assembly Rooms as a Fringe venue when it reopened after a £10 million makeover which Mr Burdett-Coutts had opposed.

However he won back the right to use the venue last year after the city council, which owns the building, decided to open it up to other operators.

Fringe shows were first staged in the Assembly Rooms in 1981.

In an open letter published during last year’s Fringe, director Kenny O’Brien told Mr Burdett-Coutts: “Encouraging people to come to Edinburgh during the world’s biggest arts festival just so they can watch theatre from London and Stratford or operas from Glyndebourne on a cinema screen is certainly not adding to the Fringe, and may in fact be quite the opposite: why bother coming here to see live arts when you could just sit at home and watch it on your phone? It is heart-warming the public have rejected it so completely.”

Mr Burdett-Coutts said: “We’re looking at changing the nature and direction of the digital event. We’ll be running traditional live shows in the Assembly Rooms this year and we’ll be doing digital stuff outside.

"We’ll be trying to activate the whole area outside the venue on George Street. We’re looking at another title for the digital event, which I’m not ready to announce just yet.

“The Stand were the only people I am aware of that criticised us last year. What we’re going to be doing this year is nothing at all to do with that. I thought that we did a very good job with the digital work we did last year, but there wasn’t enough connection with the live work that was going on.

"It is quite appropriate that we’re putting live shows back in for the Fringe’s 70th anniversary. We obviously ran live programmes there for 30 years and we’ll try to make a success of it again this year.”

Mr O’Brien said yesterday: “I don’t particularly mind what the Assembly Rooms is used for during the Fringe. Our concern is that whatever is going on should be good enough and interesting enough to draw people into this part of the city.”