Edinburgh Festival Fringe venues get public funding rescue to ensure they can return this year

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is to get a public funding lifeline to help the event reboot if social distancing rules are still in place in the city over the summer.

George Square is normally one of the most popular outdoor areas during the Fringe. Picture: William Burdett-Coutts
George Square is normally one of the most popular outdoor areas during the Fringe. Picture: William Burdett-Coutts

The Scottish Government and the city council have joined forces to offer £1.3 million worth of support to leading venue operators to help offset the impact of possible restrictions and extra health measures.

It would see the Fringe, which has been running since 1947, given official recognition as a “gateway” event by the Scottish Government due to its international profile, the same status it awarded the European Football Championship matches at Hampden and an official “fanzone” on Glasgow Green.

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The Fringe funding is aimed at helping to pay for the costs of creating temporary outdoor venues, which public health experts say are much less risky for major events.

The Pleasance Courtyard is one of the most popular venues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Edinburgh International Festival, which receives more than £5 million in public funding every year, has already announced plans to use pop-up pavilions at three new temporary outdoor sites, at Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad and Edinburgh Academy Junior School. Other performances will be staged in theatres for audiences significantly smaller than their usual capacities.

The city’s book and film festivals, which are also funded by the government and the city council, are planning to stage indoor and outdoor events in August.

The deal to support the Fringe’s recovery is expected to be officially announced over the next few days after a review of Scotland's social distancing restrictions is announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The event, which was forced to go entirely online last year in the face of the pandemic, attracted an overall audience of more than three million in 2019, when it was staged across 323 venues and featured 59,000 performers from 63 countries.

Although registration for this year’s Fringe opened in May, the event is expected to be a fraction of its usual size due to uncertainty over what Covid restrictions will be in place at the time.

It is understood the rescue package will help ensure that the key players at the Fringe, including Gilded Balloon, Assembly, Pleasance and Underbelly are able to return to the event. Other year-round venues in the city, such as The Stand Comedy Club, the Traverse Theatre, Summerhall and DanceBase, are also expected to be offered financial help.

However the Fringe Society has made it clear that the Scottish Government will still need to relax the current social distancing restriction on live events for the Fringe to return in significant form in August.

Chief executive Shona McCarthy said a change in the rules to bring performing arts venues in Scotland into line with pubs and restaurants, which are currently able to open at one one metre distancing, would ensure that Fringe shows could be staged indoors this summer.

Ms McCarthy said: “This funding is very good news, as it will gives us the go-ahead to do something live in August within the current restrictions.

“It will be at the very best a break even scenario for venues this year. Everybody is going to be taking their own risks on it. People forget that it is not a funded festival.

"It’s been such a big worry for all of us that the Fringe would not be able to come back this year. It would have been a massive loss.

"It’s hard to call Edinburgh a ‘festival city’ without the Fringe. It’s been a real cornerstone over the last 75 years.

"It's been a real access point for people to experience culture. Everybody has their own Fringe story and we have proved that the event has the vast majority of local residents as its audience.”

William Burdett-Coutts, founder of the Assembly venues, said: "What this funding will mean is that a small amount will definitely be able to happen at the Fringe this year.

“But the two-metre rule is still a major headache for everyone involved in the Fringe.

"The really absurd thing is the number of conversations I hear where people think you can just turn the whole thing on and the whole Fringe will be there. It actually takes a whole year to plan and here we are with next to no time at all. This year will be very small-scale.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government is also working closely with EventScotland, the City of Edinburgh Council and clinicians to allow certain exemptions to the existing guidance for a small number of outdoor cultural events at the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe.

“We are currently reviewing physical distancing, which has been an important tool for controlling the virus, and the outcome of that review will be published next week.”

An official council report on the Fringe rescue package states: “This funding, in partnership with the Scottish Government financial support, is vital to supporting the recovery of the city’s creative economy for performers, production support and the wider sector supply chain.

"Covid-19 has had a significant detrimental impact on this sector, with many people unable to work for the past 12 months, so bringing forward plans for the summer festivals in 2021 not only supports individuals and small businesses but also the wider local and city economy.

"Alongside their digital programming and promotion, by having events on the ground, this will also support the wider city economy, especially the hospitality and retail sectors. In addition, the festivals will be targeting local and regional audiences, prioritising accessibility and engaging with local residents and communities."

Council leader Adam McVey added: “After the challenging year we’ve all had and the disappointment of not being able to enjoy the festivals in the usual way last year, it’s fantastic we’re now on the cusp of another festival summer – albeit one with a difference.

"Festival organisers have really stepped up to make sure they’re putting public safety and Covid guidance at the heart of their plans.”

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