Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief warns event may take five years to fully recover

The chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has warned that the event may take five years for it to recover from the pandemic - as she pleaded for more public funding to help it bounce back.

Speaking as more than 100 venues reopened across the city, Shona McCarthy called for more help to be offered to artists, performers, promoters, producers and the Fringe Society itself to stabilise the world-famous festival.

She said they faced a “massive challenge” to return to the Fringe in the wake of its cancellation, the prolonged shutdown of live entertainment in the face of Covid, and global restrictions.

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Ms McCarthy insisted she did not envisage or want to see the Fringe return to its previous scale, which was said to be second only to the Olympic Games in terms of its audience in modern times.

Arthur Parsons and Adam Fullick from experimental acrobatic circus company Barely Methodical Troupe limber up at George Square Gardens. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

She also pledged to work to ensure that the event “sits comfortably within Edinburgh” in future, following growing criticism over its impact on the city centre in particular as its audiences grew year on year.

Ms McCarthy defended the against against claims it had become over-commercialised in recent years, pointing out that the event does not receive core funding, unlike the city’s other major festivals, which are also rebooting.

A record 3841 shows were staged across 323 venues at the 2019 Fringe, which attracted an audience of more than three million for the first time.

As the first performances got underway, the official line-up of the Fringe now features 755 shows across 118 venues.

The Fringe has returned after a Covid-enforced cancellation in 2020.

Ms McCarthy said it was unrealistic for anyone to expect the event to return to its previous scale by next year.

Ms McCarthy said: “The Fringe is not publicly funded and the Fringe Society has had to depend on a loan for our survival. We’re not just going to bounce through this unscathed. We're talking about a three-five year recovery.

“The Fringe is completely dependent on earned income. The Fringe has to be commercial at its heart as that is the only way to cover costs – whether you’re an artist, a venue or the Fringe Society, the entire ecosystem is dependent on washing its own face.

“The majority of those involved have had to take out loans or have fallen though the cracks of public funding.

Shona McCarthy is chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

“Not only do we have to sell enough tickets and register enough shows to pay for our services, as always, but we’re also going to have to repay loans.

“I can’t possibly see – and I don’t think it's particularly desirable – for the festival to be back at the scale it was before at all.

“It’s not just about what the Fringe Society wants. We have been listening over the last few years.

“There is so much opinion and so much rhetoric and so much that is said about the festivals.

“But they have to sit comfortably within the city that has generated them. The Fringe has to sit comfortably within Edinburgh.

“We’d like to get back to a position of feeling it is supported, enjoyed and celebrated within its own city.

"Therefore we’ve got to listen to all voices, even those that seem irrationally critical.”

The Fringe, which dates back to 1947, the year the International Festival was launched, has received significant financial help from the Scottish Government to return this year.

Leading promoters, producers and venues, including Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Zoo, Traverse Theatre, Dancebase, Summerhall, Pleasance, Space and Underbelly were awarded £1 million in total.

The Fringe Society received more than £1.3 million worth of support from the government, however £1m of this came in the form of an interest-free loan.

However Ms McCarthy said she wanted to see the Fringe Society, which normally has a turnover of around £5 million, secure around a third of this from public funding sources in future.

She added: “I’d like to see more support for freelancers and emerging artist and new talent – the people at the very heart of the making process.

"I’d like to see some level of support and understanding for the producers and operators across the Fringe, who hit the wall last year and are going to have a massive challenge to recover.

"I would also like to see some level of support for the Fringe Society in future. We’re a small charitable organisation. If we’re going to come out of this and see a healthier Fringe eco-system then we need to be less-dependent on the Fringe itself for the income that we get.

"I’d like to see a third of our income come from public investment, a third come from sponsorship and a third come from ticket sales in future.

“We are still the only organisation across the whole cultural sector who got a loan rather than a grant.

“It’s interesting to me that everybody wants the Fringe to be less commercial and scaled back. The other festivals sell tickets too. Why is it deemed to be commercial when it’s the Fringe, but when it is everybody else it’s completely acceptable?

“We are almost being doubly-punished. We are not getting core public-sector funding and then having to sell more tickets to cover all the costs involved in the Fringe.”

Ms McCarty suggested the Fringe Society would be trying to help companies ensure they were better prepared to launch a show in the city in future and continuing to give overseas acts the chance to take part via online shows.

She added: “We are absolutely not going to undermine the open access ethos of the Fringe. It's the unique selling point and driving principle of the Fringe.

“But the digital platform we’ve invested in is not just a stop-gap. We want it to be a really positive legacy that comes out of this whole experience.

"It gives people the option of being part of the Fringe without necessarily have to be in Edinburgh. That’s going to be really interesting.”

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