Edinburgh International Book Festival chief urges city to reclaim global culture crown as new venue is revealed
Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, called on the Scottish capital to send a new message to the rest of the world that it was “the place to be” in summer.
He hopes the book festival’s comeback plans this year, after a tentative comeback in 2021 under tight Covid restrictions, would play a key part in rebuilding the “buzz” of Edinburgh in August.
Barley said a long-term relocation to a new Edinburgh University complex being created at the former Royal Infirmary building, would give the festival crucial “breathing space” to plot its long-term expansion and development.
However he said his own event was already well on its way to returning to its previous scale, when it regularly attracted 250,000 attendees, as he reported an “incredible appetite” from international writers to travel to Edinburgh for the event.
The festival will be based at Edinburgh College of Art for the second year in a row in August, when eight theatres and venues will be created. However the biggest events will be staged in a new festival venue, the nearby Central Hall in Tollcross, which Barley has described as “one of Edinburgh's hidden gems”.
Up to 750 book lovers will be able to attend each event in the two-storey church building, which dates back to 1901 and has previously hosted the festival’s programme launches and the Saltire Literary Awards.
Anticipation is mounting over the revival of Edinburgh’s sprawling cultural celebration, following the cancellation of all major events in the city in the face of the pandemic in 2020 and a scaled-down version emerging last summer after months of uncertainty over what Covid restrictions would be in place.
The International Festival, the Fringe and the International Film Festival all mark their 75th anniversary this summer, with the latter moving back to an August slot for the first time in 15 years.
Speaking ahead of the book festival’s programme launch next month, Barley said: "Before the pandemic, we were expanding naturally year after year. It’s impossible to say at this stage whether that’s going to continue.
“But we’re already on a very quick journey back towards the scale of festival we had in 2019.
“Out there in the world, people want to come to Edinburgh. There’s an incredible appetite from authors all over the world to come here to speak about their work.
"They know that even though it’s been three years since the last full-scale festival that Edinburgh really matters. That counts for a lot.”
Barley said the book festival would be bringing back its giant TV screen to the art college’s courtyard for broadcasts of events to allow people to watch them from the festival’s pop-up cafes and bars.
He said: "I’ve got absolutely no doubt that with our big screen and our enhanced hospitality offer, the college of art is going to be a fantastic public space for people to visit, whether or not they have a ticket for an event or not.”
"What really makes a festival is the buzz and that feeling you get when you’re not in an event.
"That’s what we’ve got to recreate this year, and that’s not just about the book festival.
"This is our opportunity as a city to build back that buzz and a real sense that Edinburgh is a “festival city” in August.
"The reason why so many people choose to live here is because of the incredible joy of being in a “festival city”. Our message, as festivals and as a city, has to be that this is one of the places to be in the world in August.
"We’ve got to really demonstrate that Edinburgh is the place to be in August.”
Barley said although the festival was planning to live-streaming many of its events this year he and his team had been keen to find a bigger venue than the spaces at the art college.
"It’s a great site, but it’s not quite big enough for the full-scale festival that we used to have in Charlotte Square.
“We will have a lot more venues inside this year, but our biggest space will be a 380-seater room at the Sculpture Court.
“We will have three theatres on the ground floor, another in the lecture theatre upstairs, we’ll be using the Wee Red Bar as a 100-seater venue, where we’ll have spoken word events and some quite unusual stuff going on, a storytelling yurt for children in the courtyard, and two workshop spaces.
"However our biggest venue in Charlotte Square had a capacity of 750 and we needed a space of that size for the festival coming back this year.
"We’ve launched the festival programme previously in the Central Hall, so it’s been on our radar, and it is big enough for events of that capacity this year.
"It’s one of Edinburgh's hidden gems, right in the middle of Lothian Road, which you wouldn’t even notice if you walked past it.“Its entrance is tucked away around a corner, but inside it opens up into a beautiful grand theatre space. It’s got great acoustics, it’s one of the best auditoriums in town and it’s only a four-minute walk away from the college of art site.”
Barley said the festival planned to keep broadcasting most of its events online, with exceptions for authors who would prefer their appearances were not filmed.
He added: “We will be using a pay-what-you-can system for our online events again. We found that 50 per cent of people chose to pay last year. Of those, on average they paid £8.20 for each event. If that stays at that level this year then it will more than cover the cost of all the cameras that we use and our studio set-up.”
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