Edinburgh Fringe Society comes under fire from former board member

A former board member of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has attacked its decision to hand out public funding to the event's biggest venue operators.

Kate Smurthwaite, a stand-up comic, political commentator and activist, said the distribution of more than £1.2 million had done nothing to help performers who have faced higher than ever costs to take part in the event this month.

She said the public funding offered to venues like Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Summerhall and Underbelly was effectively taking money out of the pockets of performers and handing it to “big corporations”.

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Smurthwaite, who served two terms representing performers on the Fringe Society board over the past decade, posted a lengthy video message on social media.

Stand-up comic and activisit Kate Smurthwaite is a former board member of the Fringe Society.Stand-up comic and activisit Kate Smurthwaite is a former board member of the Fringe Society.
Stand-up comic and activisit Kate Smurthwaite is a former board member of the Fringe Society.

She warned performers were on their “last legs” and claimed the festival, which is marking its 75th anniversary this month, was being “run into the ground”.

The launch of this year’s Fringe programme was overshadowed by criticism of the society, particularly over a decision to shelve an official mobile phone app.

An open letter raising concerns about a lack of communication and a failure to tackle key issues in the run-up to this year’s Fringe was instigated by the Live Comedy Association and backed by more than 1,600 signatories.

Other comics who have spoken out in recent weeks have included Nick Kumar and Mark Watson.

In her video message, Smurthwaite said she was staying in the “smallest and most-cramped accommodation” she had ever used for the Fringe after costs went “through the roof” this year.

She said more financial support should have been given to venue operators which do not charge performers for the use of their spaces.

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Smurthwaite said: "This is taxpayers’ money. Effectively, at some level, some of it is my money.

“But the Fringe Society has given it to some of the biggest and most expensive venues around the Fringe. It is not actually helping performers in any way.

"I don’t know any performers at the Fringe who are not saying ‘is it honestly worth it to do it next year, shall we go somewhere else, shall we take our business elsewhere, shall we refuse to participate in this horrific situation?’

“We all know that even performers who go on to win awards where there is a cash prize can still come out of the Fringe having lost money. The only way to come out of the Fringe not having lost money is to get your venue for free.

“I am wondering if it is worth it and if the world’s largest open-access arts festival, the absolute crucible of new ideas and new talent, the place where people get their big break, and all that stuff is being run into the ground and sold off to corporate interests.

"It is an absolute outrage and yet is entirely reflective of what is happening in so many industries around the UK. We need to let people know we are not going to tolerate this.”

A spokeswoman for the Fringe Society said the £1.25m in Government funding was awarded following an “open application process".

She said: “It had a particular emphasis on fair employment, sustainability and inclusion. Every application was considered and scored against the set criteria in a robust and fair process.”

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