Edinburgh Festival Fringe set for radical overhaul when it returns in 2021

A radical vision for the return of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe could see its programme cut in size by more than half, audiences encouraged to watch shows from the other side of the world and an end to performers being “priced out” of being able to afford to take part in the event.

Shona McCarthy has been chief executive of the Fringe Society for the last four years. Picture: Greg Macvean

The chief executive of the Fringe Society suggested the event had changed forever as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and revealed that the 2021 event was likely to be a “hybrid” with a mix of live and digital shows in its programme.

Shona McCarthy said a key aim for the future was to ensure there was no return to artists and companies having to hire “overpriced accommodation” to take part in the event, by working with the city council to ensure that affordable options were available for Fringe participants.

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As well as ensuring that arts industry workers and audiences are able to view performances overseas, efforts to reduce the event’s carbon footprint could see an end to the publication of an official Fringe programme and companies urged to promote shows online rather than traditional methods, such as posters and flyers.

She said the Fringe Society was working with council officials to ensure people were able to move easier around the city centre as part of a drive to ensure that the event “work better for this city and all of its citizens.”

However Ms McCarthy has hit back at critics of the Fringe over suggestions that local artists and companies are excluded from the world-famous cultural extravaganza, which attracted an audience of more than three million for the first time in 2019.

The Fringe, which dates back to 1947, when it was instigated by companies excluded from the first Edinburgh International Festival, was officially called off in April due to the spread of coronavirus.

With live events still banned in Scotland under the Scottish Government’s current lockdown restrictions, it is far from certain what form next year’s Fringe may take, but Ms McCarthy said she wanted to see it return as “not just the biggest festival in the world but the best festival in the world.”

She added: “Nobody wants to go back to a situation where overpriced accommodation is pricing people out of the open access nature of the Fringe. It is a fundamental guiding principle that people hold dear.

“We are also working with the city council on whether there are ways to regulate the cost of accommodation. It’s been an issue of huge consternation to artists. If accommodation is so expensive that it prices people out it’s just not acceptable.

“We’ve already been asking residents to provide a spare room for Fringe artists, but do it in a king of ethical way. We want to have a better understanding of what accommodation there is around the city.

“If international tourism is down next year there may be less demand on accommodation around the city.”

The Fringe has rebooted this month with an online-only programme to help companies and artists return in 2021.

Ms McCarthy suggested the technological innovations explored over recent months could help the Fringe realise its ambitions of reducing its impact on the environment.

Ms McCarthy said: “Digital broadcasting of some elements of the Fringe is here to stay. I think this year has forced us into experimentation that is very likely to be the legacy out of all of this.

“The flipside is that if you just try to dump everything into digital spaces people can get streaming fatigue. I don’t foresee and wouldn’t want to see digital output in any way taking away from or casting a shadow over live performance. That’s always going to be the mecca for me.

“This year has allowed us to reach people who may never have travelled to Edinburgh in the past. They’re now part of our global audience.

“A hybrid model could be an opportunity to extend our global audience in a way that negates the need to travel. We’ve already created an online marketplace this year for tour-ready shows. We’d normally have around 1600 programmers and curators here.

“There is a whole question about printed materials, whether we need to do a programme the next same and whether flyering is the best way for people to market their shows.

“All these things should be up for a real conversation and whether moving everything into the digital space is better for the environment.”

Ms McCarthy admitted it was “really challenging” trying to plan ahead for the 2021 when there was so much uncertainty over the resumption of live events and what form they will be able to take next summer.

She said: “Some of it we’re plucking out of thin air. If live performances do come back in a socially distanced model we might be looking at a Fringe 30 or 40 per cent the capacity it was in 2019.

"We’re almost having to have a plan A, B, C and D, ranging from a miracle happening and some sort of normality being restored – although I don’t think anybody is projecting to have anything like the capacity that we had - to a hybrid model, where some things can be done live but we continue the best of what we’ve learned in the digital space.

"We’ve got to listen to what artists, venues and companies are telling us, but we’ve also got to listen to the city.”

Meanwhile Ms McCarthy described suggestions that the Fringe and the other festivals had little or no relevance to Edinburgh or Scotland as “madness.”

She added: “You can say what you want about the Fringe, but make sure it is rooted in fact, reality and actual data.

"We know for a fact that 850,000 tickets were sold in the city last year. We know for a fact that there were more than 900 shows from across Scotland last year. I meet the artists, I meet the companies, I go to the shows.

"In the last week I’ve been so struck by just how much people seem to be missing the Fringe and in the year it’s not there you get a much stronger sense of those who really love it, have got loads from it, and see it as their annual commitment to showcase new work.

“This city owns this festival. To me, it is blatantly clear and obvious. It as much a part of the fabric of the city as the castle.

"There’s a lot wrong with the world at the moment, that all of us see, whether it is climate change, unemployment and the increasing gap between rich and poor. They are all things that cause all of frustration and concern. Sometimes I think the festivals get drawn into a wider malaise and being part of that.

"I see culture as a driver for change and something that can be part of a solution and the positive output of a place.

"The invitation is there to people to come and talk to us and help us to make the Fringe the best it can be.

"I’m not really up for people who broadcast or transmit from the sidelines, but then when you invite them in to a constructive dialogue on how to make things better they are nowhere to be seen.

“All of the people I work with are also Edinburgh residents who want to live in, and love, this city as much as anybody else.

"It’s in the interests of all of us to come back in 2021 having learned from the experience of the year that didn’t happen and bring the best of that forward, and try to use our time, creative thinking and energies to make it the best thing that it can possibly be.”

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