Fringe chiefs face backlash from street performers over pop-up bar plans for The Mound

Street entertainers have attacked organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for striking a deal with a leading sponsor to take over one of their main performances spaces this year.

Free Fringe shows have been staged on The Mound precinct by performers for decades.

A pop-up Johnnie Walker bar will be created as part of a temporary open-air venue on the Mound precinct, where free shows have been staged for decades.

Access to the all-seater arena, which has a dedicated space for buskers and entertainers, will be strictly controlled throughout the Fringe to ensure social distancing is maintained.

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However the plans have upset more the 130 performers who have written an open letter to the Fringe Society who claim the changes on The Mound will turn it into an “unworkable space” for most performers.

The new Johnnie Walker visitor centre on Princes Street is due to open within the next few months

They say they are “outraged and uncomfortable" that the Fringe Society has agreed proposals that would allow a multi-national company to “enclose a family performance space within a bar.”

It is understood that audience numbers in new seating area on The Mound will be pegged at around 100 at a time.

The plans for the Johnnie Walker Club Bar have emerged days after the Fringe Society revealed it had received £170,000 in funding from the Scottish Government and the city council to help ensure that the traditional street theatre areas on and around the Royal Mile and The Mound returned next month.

However there was no mention of the bar which will be run by Johnnie Walker, one of the biggest financial backers of Edinburgh’s festivals.

Edinburgh-based company Unique Events is being brought in to help manage the main performance spaces at Parliament Square and The Mound, which will run from around 11.30am till 8.30pm throughout the Fringe.

Street artists, buskers and companies keen to appear are being urged to register in advance to get timed slots to help manage the number of performers on the street at the same time.

The Fringe Society was called in by the city council to help manage the growing numbers of street performers performing on The Mound and the Royal Mile in the 1990s.

It is understood that the new public funding will largely help pay for the public safety, crowd control and hygiene measures on the High Street, while Johnnie Walker’s involvement will ensure that they will also be in place on The Mound.

The plans to create official street theatre performance spaces next month have been signed off by the city council.

When the funding announcement was made at the weekend, culture convener Donald Wilson said: “Live performance and street theatre are part of the Capital’s cultural DNA and we’re very proud to support the safe return of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month. It will be fantastic to see the city’s streets hosting exciting entertainment again, and a real tonic for all of us who’ve sorely missed the fun and variety of Edinburgh at festival time due to this dreadful pandemic.

However the open letter from the street performers to the Fringe Society states: “We appreciate that this year is unique and difficult and that you are working with very few resources.

"We support genuine measures to ensure the health of staff, audiences and performers at this year’s Fringe, and we support moves that the Fringe Society can make to ensure the future of street performing at the Fringe.

"The solution from the Fringe Society to Covid compliance, licensing and funding problems for street events is to place a Johnnie Walker Fringe Club bar on a historic pitch on The Mound.

"We are outraged and really uncomfortable that the solution was to enclose a family performance space within a bar.

"The justification that without Johnnie Walker’s sponsorship street events could not take place misses the irony that this is now going to be an unworkable space for most performers.

"The Fringe Society is not offering a performance space on the Mound, but essentially giving a large multi-national company a venue on an historic performance space that it is expecting performers to work in, for free.

"When infrastructure such as stages, arenas, bars and seating are placed on the spaces we perform, the very nature of a ‘street’ show is lost, along with the ability to deliver our art form to our audiences.”

A spokeswoman for the Fringe Society said: “We know how hard this last year has been on performers, and we’re incredibly sympathetic to the concerns raised.

"Street performance is part of the beating heart of the Fringe, and we have explored every avenue to ensure it can safely happen this year. But with the wider Fringe happening on a much-reduced scale, and with restrictions on distancing and live entertainment still in place across the city, Covid mitigation plans have had to be put in place to ensure the safety of residents and audiences.

"Two performance spaces will be managed by the Fringe Society, the High street and the Mound, the latter of which has had a bar presence for the last 10 years.

"This year, we have allocated it as the home of the Johnnie Walker Fringe Club. Due to Covid restrictions, this space would otherwise not be in operation as a performance area.

"We’re grateful to Johnnie Walker for facilitating an area for buskers, who will now be able to operate in this space, and can collect payment through tap-to- pay or hat collection as they usually would.”

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “The iconic street events are part of what makes this festival so special, and we’ve done everything we can with partners across the city to enable it to take place in some form.”

A spokeswoman for Johnnie Walker said: “The Johnnie Walker Fringe Club will be a fully Covid compliant outdoor space serving whisky highballs, other alcoholic refreshments and soft drinks.

"The seated-only space will have 25 tables, all with a maximum of four per table. There will also be a performance space coordinated by the Fringe Society.

"To ensure we are fully covid compliant the only area available for performances on the Mound will be within the bar.”

Street performer Matthew Keys said: "This year street performers have recognised that organising a Covid-safe event must be a first priority for audiences, staff and performers.

"We believe the Fringe will listen to our legitimate concerns about giving away historic performance spaces to a corporate sponsor. Despite the problems we've raised in the letter, we will be returning to the street events to bring spectacle, laughter and joy to people of all ages during August.”

Fellow performer Amelia Cadwallader added: “Our fear that more historic performance spots would be taken away has come true this year, but we believe the Fringe Society still values street performers as the heart of the festival and will respond to our concerns as we move towards 2022 and beyond.”

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