Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Phoebe Waller-Bridge heralds 'new dawn' in major shake-up to win over locals and 'red card' rogue venue operators

Actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge has hailed a “new dawn” for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as the biggest ever shake-up of the event aims to crack down on exploitation, reduce its impact on the environment and win over more local people.

Rogue operators face being “red-carded” from the Fringe under the major transformation.

The Fringe Society, which oversees the 75-year-old festival, has unveiled a wide-ranging series of commitments and pledges, including becoming more of “a force for good in and for the city”, protecting the city’s green spaces and staging an annual free family event in a different part of Edinburgh each August.

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The charity has set official targets of becoming a carbon net zero event by 2030 and “90 per cent print free” by 2027.

Phoebe Waller Bridge, who won a Scotsman Fringe First Award, for her show Fleabag in 2013, was appointed honorary president of the Fringe Society last year. Picture: Esme Allen
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The rethink was revealed as the Fringe Society revealed that 3,131 shows are now due to be staged this year – with some 1047 registered in the space of a month. The last full-scale Fringe in 2019 saw 3841 shows staged.

Waller-Bridge, the Fringe’s honorary president who brought Fleabag to the event in 2013, said: “So much has changed in our culture and this new vision of the festival reflects that with heart and sincerity, while fiercely maintaining the wild spontaneity and creative freedom it has provided artists and audiences with for the past 75 years.

"This is a new dawn for an iconic cultural event that's going to be more inclusive, more accessible and more outrageously spectacular than ever before.”

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will mark its 75th anniversary this summer. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Fringe Society has pledged to “eradicate” exploitative, unsafe and unfair work practices by introducing a new three-stage system, which will see event organisers banned from using the official programme, website and box office if they fall foul of official guidelines for a third time.

A new target of ensuring 95 per cent of all “paid employees” working at the event are paid the Real Living Wage by 2027 has been set, with a new kitemark system for recognising “best practice” venues, companies and promoters expected to be in place by next year.

However the Fringe Society will allow venues to use volunteers in future as long as they are not seen as “a replacement for what should be paid work.”

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy, who launched the new long-term vision with Waller-Bridge today, said the festival’s “open to all” ethos was being reimagined for a 21st-century context, but insisted the event would be underpinned by a key aim of “giving anyone a stage and everyone a seat”.

Claire Willoughby, Daniel Padden, Rory Haye and Sita Pieraccini launched the Made in Scotland showcase at this year's Fringe last week. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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The society, which wants to recruit another five Fringe alumni to work alongside the Fleabag star, has committed to work with venues to ensure artists are offered “the best deals possible” to take part in future.

A pledge to “manage the scale” of the festival in future years will be focused on helping artists, performers and companies to decide when a show is “Fringe ready”.

Efforts to reduce the Fringe’s carbon footprint this year include becoming a fully e-ticketed festival, a new toolkit to help venues reduce their carbon footprint, paying for 75,000 trees to be planted around Scotland, and cutting the print run of its programme by 50 per cent.

Talks are to be held with venue operators and local communities as part of a drive to spread the festival across the city more and a commitment to ensure that “everyone who lives and works here feels like the Fringe is for them”.

The Fringe will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2022. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The society has also committed to work with venues to guarantee local residents get access to discounted tickets and jobs.

Ms McCarthy, who admitted the Fringe’s growth had impacted on its accessibility, said: “We want the Fringe to stop being judged by its scale – and for its scale not to be a barometer of success anymore.

"It should really be judged on the quality of experience, whether you’re a worker, artist or audience member.

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"To get to this point, we've been through the most comprehensive consultation, and listening and learning, process involving everybody that we consider to be part of the Fringe community, from residents and community organisations to venues, artists and companies.

“Out of that enormous gathering of views, ideas and insights we now have an agreed vision and a shared values that will underpin everything the Fringe is about and all of us are going to have to live by.

“The role of the society is going to change. It’s always been seen as the glue which holds the whole festival together. We used to be talked about as a custodian of the guiding principles of the Fringe. We’re going to become a more active participant now.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy.

“We're going to uphold those values and hold ourselves collectively – the whole Fringe community, not just the Fringe Society – to account. There’s no point in having values if you’re not actually going to uphold them in some way.”

The society has come under fire from unions in recent years for not taking firmer action against venues accused of exploitation and bad practice.

The nine-page blueprint for the Fringe’s future states: “Working and volunteering at the Fringe should be rewarding for all involved.

"It is important that employees receive fair pay, are contracted for reasonable working hours, and work in safe conditions.”

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Ms McCarthy said: “The Fringe Society and the majority of venues are already paying the Real Living Wage this year. There have already been huge shifts, but we are determined to eradicate exploitation and unsafe or unfair work or volunteering practices.

"We've been working with the unions and Volunteer Edinburgh to create a set of really clear guidance on fair work and volunteering at the Fringe.

"We’re now going to have a new three-step system. You will get a warning, then a yellow card, then the Fringe Society will remove all of its services.

“We would never not want to have opportunities for volunteering at the Fringe. It would rule out smaller organisations and collectives who could not operate without volunteering.

“But we will now have really clear standards around what volunteering and what is expected. Mission-critical jobs are not volunteering opportunities.”

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy. Picture: Lisa Ferguson



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