As life begins to return to an approximation of normality following the UK government’s decision to downgrade the pandemic to equivalent of a minor cold, the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe are looking at an opportunity to re-establish themselves this August.
As a reminder, both were literally closed down in 2020, while they presented shadows of their former selves last year. This proved to be strategically and financially disastrous for the Fringe in particular. Immediately after the last 2021 shows packed up and left, the Fringe Society was forced to issue a desperate plea for £7.5 million to make up the deficit. Therefore, everyone involved, whether it be organisers, performers, backstage crew or visitors has been looking forward to something special this year.
Once again, external factors could prove very damaging. At the latest count, an estimated one in 15 of the Scottish population was suffering from COVID. Given the nature of the Festival and Fringe, this presents a real danger.
People spend all day every day cramp together in crowded, usually badly ventilated theatres, while part of the fun of being a performer is the opportunity to share a house with what start the month as friends, often many packed into each room. That is without even considering the joys of clubbing the night away with hot, sweaty potentially unvaccinated people from around the world.
Additionally, combining the COVID threat with both planned and unplanned flight cancellations in the UK and beyond might put a significant proportion of potential visitors off travelling to Edinburgh this August.
However, the catalyst for this article was a series of concerns expressed by a group of acts, agents, producers, PRs and other active participants under the umbrella of the Live Comedy Association.
They have issued an open letter to Fringe Society Chief Executive Shona McCarthy. While such a pre-emptive step is probably relatively common and could normally be brushed off as little more than minor whingeing by a handful of disenchanted luvvies, this letter has already been signed by almost 1,700 interested parties, many at the top of their respective professions.
Therefore, to quote Linda Loman, “Attention must be paid”.
The issues that the letter addresses are varied but several demonstrate deep concern both about this year’s Fringe and the general direction of travel.
Given the financial disaster last year, it is surely reasonable to ask why no accounts have been prepared to demonstrate where all of the funding has gone.
The app, which was popular with some, has also disappeared. According to Shona McCarthy, this was only used by about one person in 15, so quite reasonably has been put on the backburner with costs already a major concern, even before the cost-of-living crisis made the position so much worse.
Almost anyone who has ever run a web site will be familiar with complaints, some more serious than others. In this case, while the points raised in the letter might be valid, the issues seem relatively inconsequential in the overall scheme of things.
Far more serious is the question of affordable accommodation. The question has been asked, “what is being done to help prevent the vastly inflated cost of accommodation during the Fringe?”
Everyone who has ever enjoyed themselves in Edinburgh during August knows that the price of accommodation typically multiplies by a factor of around four. Sadly, this has been a fact of life for decades and reflects the kind of market forces that the current UK government advocates and promotes.
Having said that, there is little doubt that many prospective festival-goers are persuaded to stay at home in the knowledge that they can save several thousand pounds on travel and accommodation by doing so.
On the transport front, concern is expressed regarding the reduced train timetable for journeys between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Realistically, this will affect a very small proportion of potential visitors to the festival and is wholly outside the control of anyone at the Fringe or the International Festival. Indeed, since the Scottish government, the employers and the unions are struggling to come to an accommodation, it is a bit rich to point this one at poor Shona McCarthy and her team.
There is a plea for additional funding to enable press to attend, ideally with subsidised accommodation and possibly other financial support. While it would help performance, this is hardly realistic, given the Fringe’s parlous financial position.
Last and assuredly not least, there is a plea to maintain the half-price ticket hut. However, the concern about its demise is only based on “rumours” that it may not be in situ.
Having been obliged to ask for £7.5 million in donations in 2021, there has to be a realistic possibility that if this year leads to another significant monetary black hole, the Fringe may have no future. Therefore, while the issues raised by the Live Comedy Association are worth airing, those involved need to take care to ensure that they do not inadvertently kill the goose that has been laying their golden egg for the last 75 years.