Edinburgh Festival Fringe organisers admit 2021 comeback hopes are in ‘limbo’

Organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have admitted the fate of this year’s event is in “limbo” as they called for clarity over how live events will be allowed to return in Scotland this year.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy has pleaded for an end to uncertainty over this year's event. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy has suggested the event could play a huge part in the country’s recovery from the pandemic if performers are able to be reunited with audiences in August.

But she said Edinburgh faced suffering “absolutely enormous” damage to its reputation as a culture capital and festival city if its festivals were not given help to stage a full recovery in time for their 75th anniversary in 2022.Ms McCarthy has called for the event to be “trusted with clear guidance” as she warned that some venues and companies would go to the wall if a live festival was unable to go ahead this summer.

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She also stressed the importance of international performers being able to perform at the event, which featured acts from 63 countries in 2019.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile in 2019.

However, she insisted the Fringe Society was committed to tackling wide-ranging criticism of the event in recent years, saying she wanted the event to be part of the solution to overtourism and sustainability concerns “rather than always being identified as part of the problem”.

Festival and event organisers across Scotland are still waiting for the Scottish Government to set out how and when live culture and sporting events will be able to resume this year, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement they will be able to resume from May, with social distancing restrictions hoped to be lifted the following month.

Speaking at an Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce event, Ms McCarthy said: “The picture is uncertain just now. The position that we are in and that many of our companies and venues are in is that we are absolutely ready to put on a live festival.

“But we don't have the clarity, or the guidance, or the understanding about what this pandemic is going to do to say for certain that that can happen.“The reality is if we can't put on a live event this year then we really are going to lose some of our companies and venues.“These festivals just don't happen out of nowhere. They need support. When they happen they bring such massive economic, social and cultural benefit to the city. They will need support to be able to come back, especially if we're really not looking at live events this year.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy.

"Clarity we can work with, but this limbo we find ourselves in at the moment means we can't give anyone any answers at the moment.

“For the part we can play in the recovery, we should be part of the solution. We've got to be trusted that we can run our events safely. I absolutely believe that we can.

“None of us want to put anybody at risk. We just need clear guidance about what we would need to put in place to keep the public safe, but at the moment we just don't know.”

Ms McCathy said she was “damn sure” some of the Fringe’s biggest critics in the past would be “crying out’ for its return this year.

She added: “Cultural activity, engagement and coming together as audiences are going to be a massive part of the recovery.

"It's why the Edinburgh Festival was set up in the first place to help Europe emerge out of the horrors of the Second World War. It's why city of culture titles have been given to cities like Glasgow, Derry and Liverpool to enable them to emerge from hard times and to blossom and to flower. It's not going to be any different coming out of Covid.

"Everybody is going to look to our sector as part of the recovery."You can be damn sure that some of those people and businesses who were complaining about how over-populated the city was and how hard it was to get to work and everything else are going to be crying out for us to get back into the city centre and activate it and encourage people back in."We also need the recognition that if 2021 is going to be limited and possibly not live then we are going to need support to be back at our best in 2022.“Given the global position of Edinburgh in the world the risk of what we have to lose cannot be over-stated. It's absolutely enormous.

“We have a cultural capital, we have a festival city, we have a city that is recognised all over the world as being exceptional in this arena. We all want to be part of making sure it continues to be.”

Ms McCarthy also responded to the Fringe’s critics, who have called for the growth of the event, which attracted a record audience of more than three million for the first time in 2019, to be curbed to help tackle concerns about the impact of overtourism in Edinburgh and help efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the city’s cultural events.

She said: “We’re not oblivious to the fact that the Fringe has been very much part of the conversation about overtourism and sustainability. We’re deeply sensitive to that. I have an entire team who are also residents of the city. Sometimes that can be forgotten.“All of us under the Festivals Edinburgh umbrella are absolutely signed up to a sustainability agenda that helps to manage our events in a safe and forward-thinking way.“For me, it is an absolute balance between the extraordinary opening up of international connections and perspectives, balanced with the needs of the city's own people. All of us are absolutely signed up to a sustainability agenda. The invitation has always been there to work together, to manage our events in a way so that they sit comfortably in the city.

"It shouldn't be forgotten that we had 900 Scottish shows in 2019 that had a platform to be seen and heard by international audiences, and a chance to have their work toured overseas. For artists, that can be another five years of life for that work and another five years of income for the artists who make it.“I have no interest in returning to a Fringe in 2021 or 2022 where these same arguments are there. I would much rather be engaged in working with people positively to look at how we can be part of the solution rather than always being identified as part of the problem.

“Sometimes I think that the festivals get caught in a catch-all mix. We forget that Edinburgh is a medieval city with a castle which is the thing that attracts most visitors from all over the world to come here throughout the year.“There is a kind of perfect storm that happens here every summer.

“But the reality is that the international audience for the Fringe is only seven or eight per cent.Can we operate with a largely local audience or without huge amounts of international travel this year? Of course we can. Our audience is largely based in Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK.“But the really big issue for me is I want to be able to see artists from all over the world perform on our stages."It is less for me about international audiences and more about our access to stories from around the world.”

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