Edinburgh Festival Fringe urged to abandon 'open access' ethos to improve event ahead of 75th anniversary

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is being urged to abandon its world-renowned "open access" ethos to try to ensure it is better regulated and provides more protection for people taking part.

A shake-up of the way the world’s biggest arts festival is overseen is being urged to help tackle long-standing concerns over what is described as its “pay-to-perform landscape”.

Independent research into the future of the Fringe, led by grassroots companies, organisations and producers, recommends official standards or “best practice” guidelines are put in place for the first time for all shows registering for the programme.

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The "Future Fringe” research, published ahead of the event’s 75th-anniversary season, found having a clear set of rules for the first time would help ensure the festival becomes “better, fairer and more sustainable”.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society believes this year will see a 'renaissance' of the event. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The research, which was promoted by the Fringe Society, found there was a lack of "accountability" over key aspects of the event, as well as a lack of clarity over who should lead efforts to improve it.

The Edinburgh University-funded research suggests the event has been damaged by a “growth mindset” that has exacerbated problems and recommends that stakeholders, including the Fringe Society, the city council, Edinburgh University and venues commit to make changes over the next year

The 2019 Fringe featured a record 3,841 shows in 323 venues and attracted an attendance of more than three million for the first time.

However, the Future Fringe research claims there has been pressure to keep expanding the event “no matter the cost”, while the festival’s open access ethos had led to a lack of regulation.

The research suggests it has become more financially difficult to take part in the Fringe, which has historically been open to anyone who can secure a venue, than events elsewhere in the UK.

It raises concerns that a tendency for the Fringe Society to “remove itself from decision-making”, despite overseeing the festival, as well as an insistence of maintaining a “position of neutrality” was contributing to the high costs of participating.

Groups and companies who led the research included Staging Change, The Greenhouse Theatre, Fringe of Colour, Birds of Paradise and Power Play.

The research states: “The Fringe has a growth mindset. Bigger is not always better, and an emphasis on growth exacerbates already existing issues in the Fringe ecology.

“The idea of an ‘open access’ festival sounds great on paper. In practice, it limits the accessibility of the festival, creating a ‘pay-to-perform’ landscape that is financially and emotionally taxing.

“A common set of standards could help ensure it is better, fairer and more sustainable.

“This moment is a unique opportunity to establish an intention for the Fringe articulated and created by stakeholders at every level.”

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “The pandemic had a devastating impact on the Fringe and the thousands of artists and organisations that bring it to life. But it also offered a chance to pause and to reflect on the kind of future we want to build together.

“The Fringe Society has been undertaking a wide-ranging research project with ScotInform to explore what that looks like, speaking to a wide range of individuals and organisations about the kind of festival they want to see. The Future Fringe report will certainly feed into that.”

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