Edinburgh festivals: City prepares to reclaim its crown as the world's culture capital

Exactly 16 months since the darkest hour of Scotland’s world-famous cultural celebration, it appears to be on the verge of a new dawn.

Liam Rotheram and Hannah Knox were acting out scenes from Titanic at the launch of Film Fest on the Forth, which started this weekend, heralding a month of cultural festivities in the city. Picture: Ian Georgeson Photography

On the stroke of 12 noon on 1 April last year, Edinburgh’s festivals bowed to what by then seemed inevitable and announced they had given up any hope of going ahead in 2020.

The joint decision was taken less than three weeks after the Scottish Government pulled the plug on large-scale events and just over a week after the whole UK was put into a pandemic-enforced lockdown.

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Any hopes of a late revival for the festivals had been dashed by the time August came around. Although a dramatic and symbolic light show, projected from cultural buildings across Edinburgh, was staged at the start of the month to remind the rest of the world that its “festival city” spirit had not been extinguished, only a handful of live events went ahead in the end.

Magician Kevin Quantum has lined up two Fringe shows, at the Army at the Fringe and Gilded Balloon venues. Picture: Matt Turner.

Twelve months on, it is very different story. Temporary venues and stages are being built across the city, and many of the city’s permanent venues are unlocking their doors and reopening for the first time since last March.

Despite constant uncertainty over what restrictions would be in place in Edinburgh in August, the festivals finally look set to bounce back, 74 years on from their inception in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Although familiar venues and performers will be back, there is no doubt the festivals are returning in very different form, on a much smaller scale, with a host of new experiences for audiences.

The 2019 summer season was the biggest in the festivals’ history, with more than 4.4 million people attending more than 5000 performances and events, and some experts putting their combined value to the economy at more than £1 billion for the first time.

Lubna Kerr's one-woman Fringe show is part of the Army at the Fringe's line-up. Picture: David Ho / Sandie Knudsen

So, with just a few days to go until the first performances at the International Festival and Fringe, how is it shaping up this year?

One of the few certainties about this year’s festivals is that they would not be returning on anything like the same scale, due to the restrictions on international travel, the continued presence of Covid in the UK and the cautious easing of restrictions in Scotland.

All of those involved with Edinburgh’s main festivals have had to be plan on the basis of physical distancing being in place in August. Although a further relaxation for indoor and outdoor events may be announced this week, most venues and festivals will be keeping in place the arrangements they had when they started selling tickets, with audience bubbles seated either one or two metres apart.

Yet despite the uncertainty, the festivals, venues and promoters appear to have risen to the challenge, with more than 1100 different shows and events, across wel over 100 different sites and venues, to choose from across the various programmes, at the latest count.

The new Edinburgh International Festival venue at Edinburgh University's Old College Quad. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

The Fringe Society did not open registration for events this year until the beginning of May and when the first shows were revealed at the beginning of July there were just 170 in the line-up, compared to a record 3841 across 329 venues in 2019.

However frantic programming efforts - particularly since a pledge in late June from the Scottish Government to move to one metre distancing for events - have seen the show tally across to 670, with 106 venues now in the official line-up.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “I’m really excited about how things are looking at the moment.

“In some ways, I can’t believe that so many people have managed to put something on with such short notice.

Edinburgh's summer festivals are returning after their cancellation in 2020. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell

"It’s really one a month since the First Minister made a commitment that there would be an easing of restrictions.

"I’ve been blown away by how creative people have responded, even at the last minute and with very little likelihood of making a living out of it. There’s been real commitment to the show going on and giving artists the opportunity to have their work seen and heard.”

Some Edinburgh-based performers admit they can scarcely believe that they are about to return to the stage in the city again after such a lengthy hiatus.

Magician Kevin Quantum, who is perform at the Gilded Balloon and Army at the Fringe venues, said: “Being born here in Edinburgh, living here, I’ve been hankering to get back on stage in the city for months.

"I’d have bit off someone’s hand back in dark, miserable February if they’d dangled the prospect of an ‘in person’ Fringe this summer. But here we are, and the city is buzzing. You can see it everywhere, in shops, venues, performers and audiences. Ticket sales are going well and some days have even sold out already.”

Actress and stand-up Lubna Kerr, whose one-woman show in the Army at the Fringe programme, said: “It's been a long 18 months so when there was a possibility of being on stage again I was very interested.

Edinburgh Academy's junior school will be playing host to International Festival performances. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

“Zoom gigs are great but there is nothing to beat the energy of a live audience.

“I am excited and nervous and that's just about writing the play. There is so much else to think about with Covid restrictions, that's why it's great to be working with the Army as they are doing a great job with their Covid plans, including keeping to one metre social distancing, and the audience having to wear face masks.

“It's interesting talking to people about going to the fringe, as some are really excited about seeing live shows and others are still nervous about being inside, at any show.”

Edinburgh's festivals landscape will be look and feel radically different over the next few weeks.

Part of that will be down to the absence of high-profile events and venues like the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, the Usher Hall, the Summer Sessions concerts in Princes Street Gardens, the Assembly Rooms and the Circus Hub on the Meadows, and hugely-reduced programmes at venues like the Pleasance Courtyard and Gilded Balloon’s long-time Teviot Row home.

Big changes this year include a brand new home for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which says it has vacated Charlotte Square Gardens for good, at Edinburgh College of Art, and a major new venue, MultiStory which is being created on the roof of the Castle Terrace car park to host shows for the Gilded Balloon, the Traverse Theatre, Dance Base and Zoo. The Fringe will also be spreading its wings as far afield as Silverknowes Beach, Tynecastle Park football stadium and East Lothian.

However the Edinburgh International Festival has lined up the most radical change for its audiences by staging most of it programme outdoors, but under cover, in three specially-created pavilion venues at Edinburgh Park, the playing fields at Edinburgh Academy’s junior school and Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad.

The EIF has offered an intriguing indicator of where audiences will be coming from over the next month, 85 per cent of its tickets being sold in Scotland, and two thirds from in and around Edinburgh.

Francesca Hegyi, executive director at the EIF, said: “Our ticket sales have been really good – I’m pretty sure we’re going to get to our targets.

“People have been really considered with what they have been buying – people who have hit the festival hard in previous years have maybe eased off a bit because they don’t quite want to be around people the whole time.

“But we’ve not seen any resistance or reluctance at all to go to Edinburgh Park or Edinburgh Academy. We've got a really loyal audience and following and they’ve stuck with us this year.”

A major challenge for all the festivals and venues has been grappling with Scotland’s physical distancing restrictions, which may change or be lifted completed by 9 August, after the first weekend of events, following the next review due to be announced on Tuesday.

The EIF has insisted it will be running its venues at two metre distancing, while the book and film festivals are committed to running their events with one metre distancing, in line with the current rule in Scotland. Most Fringe venues are also expected to keep enforce physical distancing in place at ticketed shows.

Hegyi added: “We went on sale when two metre distancing was in place and people have bought tickets in good faith on the basis of that. To reduce that down to one metre would be really challenging for us. More than anything else this year, we want people to be safe and comfortable, that’s what we’re prioritising. The response we’ve had so far has been really good.”

Although live events have been allowed to return in Scotland since mid-May, only a handful were staged ahead of the recent relaxation of the distancing rules, with the arrival of Edinburgh’s festivals effectively signalling the reawakening of live entertainment in Scotland.

Julia Amour, director of Festivals Edinburgh, which oversees the city’s main cultural events, said: “From pre-Covid times, Edinburgh has a global reputation has incredibly professional deliverers of major events. I think that will stand the festivals and audiences in very good stead over the next few weeks.

“Live events had had more scrutiny, at both local and national level, in terms of their safety for coming back. Because Edinburgh's festivals are such flagship events for the whole country have had scrutiny every step of the way. People should have a very high degree of confidence about coming back into those environments.

"People can be confident that organisers are really thinking about what the audience appetite is as well as what the national regulations say.”

One of the biggest venues reopening for its first events is the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which was deployed as a vaccination centre, but will be working with the Pleasance to stage shows over the next month.

Chief executive Marshall Dallas said: “We’re absolutely thrilled to be on the cusp of getting back to being a bona fide venue with Fringe shows taking place this month. We've been an important venue for the Fringe for several years now, and the Festivals have really become part of our DNA. It's probably going to be a quite emotional too, having our team back in the building and welcoming audiences back.

“As residents of Edinburgh too, the festival is hugely symbolic to us all. It’s when we laugh, listen and come together. It’s when we explore ideas and observations about the world we live in. The festival defines our city, it makes us international and it lets us bring the world to Scotland for three weeks every year and immerse ourselves in performance.

“All things considered, these first post-lockdown events will no doubt feel very special and we’re excited and invigorated to be part of the Fringe 2021 programme.”

Edinburgh’s business leaders are in in doubt that the return of the festivals is much-needed to help with the recovery of the city centre, which although boosted with the unveiling of the first phase of the St James Quarter, is still suffering badly due to the absence of pre-Covid numbers of office workers and international visitors.

Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: “The festivals play an enormous role in attracting visitors to Edinburgh and businesses benefit greatly from this. Hospitality, venues and tourism businesses will be relived that the festivals have fought hard to deliver live performances this year. Although reduced, it’s a great message that Edinburgh is back in business.

"The vast majority of local people enjoy our festivals. The vibrancy of street performers and the festivals creates the atmosphere Edinburgh is famous for. It makes our city an attractive destination for talent, investment and businesses to locate. This is what creates jobs, grows the economy and enables a quality of life that will support recovery and future success.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “August is always a crucial month for the city centre and the festivals are massively important for the hospitality and retail businesses.

"This year more than ever they are looking forward to a busy August after so many months of reduced or no trading. Their return will bring our residents and domestic tourists back into the city centre, and although this year they are necessarily different and smaller they’re still a massive draw.

“The importance of the festivals can never be underestimated or taken for granted and I admire hugely the operators and organisers who have worked miracles to make this year happen in extraordinary circumstances. They’re fundamentally crucial to the city’s economy.”

A key factor in the festivals returning this year has been the protection of core funding arrangements with the Scottish Government and the city council. Both parties have also provided additional funding, worth £1.47 million in total, to help pay for outdoor events to go ahead with physical distancing in place, and ensure street performers can safely stage shows on the High Street and The Mound.

Amy McNeese-Mechan, vice-convener of culture, said: “We’re incredibly proud to be known as the world’s ‘Festival City’ and of course recognise the extremely positive contribution our festivals make to our lives, bringing the arts to Edinburgh in a way no other city on the planet enjoys.

“The council has a vital role to play in Edinburgh’s festivals and events sector, which has responded to the crisis with determination and innovation. Whilst this year sees a much smaller offering it will be wonderful to see some of the buzz return to the city.

“I firmly believe there is an appetite for a safe form of the festivals this year. There’s no doubt they were greatly missed and it’s going to be fantastic to welcome back audiences.”

The new MultiStory venue is being created on top of the multi-storey car park on Castle Terrace.
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