Edinburgh Fringe Is Back. Is a Smaller Festival Better?
EDINBURGH – The buzz of bagpipes drifted down the Royal Mile last Saturday, as members of a student theater troupe marched on the cobblestones trying to spark interest in their show.
In a normal year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this central thoroughfare in the city’s Old Town district would have been filled with young performers and street performers, all vying loudly for the attention of passers-by. But late Saturday morning there was only one group around.
“We were also the only ones here yesterday,” said Serena Birch, 22, a member of the Aireborne Theater Company, University of Leeds. “Usually it’s like a fight.”
Ahead of the pandemic, the Edinburgh Fringe, which opened last Friday and runs through August 30, was only overtaken by the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in terms of audience size. In 2019, the Fringe sold more than three million tickets to 3,841 shows in 323 venues, an increase of 31% in five years. Independent researchers have estimated that the event generated around $ 1.4 billion for the Scottish economy.
But after the cancellation of the 2020 event, the Fringe was plunged into financial jeopardy. A tentative comeback this year, backed by a $ 1.4 million government bailout, will see fewer than 850 shows shown, a third of which are online. Uncertainty around easing coronavirus restrictions in Scotland, where audience size limits were in place until Monday, appears to have driven performers and spectators alike.
This year’s slim, but distinctively odd and wonderful program features comics such as Daniel Sloss and Jason Byrne; a choral drama on migration staged on a beach outside of town; and an educational walking tour, led by a pelvic physiotherapist, titled “Viva Your Vulva”.
Created in 1947 as a free alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe is built on the principle of open access for artists, which means that any act paying a registration fee can put on a performance. This is one of the many major festivals that take place in Edinburgh in August, but it is by far the most important.
For some in a town of around 500,000, a break with the Fringe last year, followed by a much smaller festival this year – one that doesn’t clog roads and sidewalks, or push up. soaring short-term rents – was well received.
Home care manager Shulah Stewart, 35, said last year’s cancellation gave residents “a chance to enjoy the city in the summer, in a way they normally can’t “.
And even the organizers of the Fringe say the event had grown too big.
In an interview, Shona McCarthy, chief executive of Fringe’s coordinating body, said it was time to have a “serious conversation” in the coming months on how to rebuild in a smaller, more sustainable way. . She said that a “sort of regulation” of Fringe’s open access policy could be considered for future editions.
While theater and comedy make up the bulk of its program, the Fringe has expanded over the years to encompass a wide range of acting. McCarthy said some elements of the program – like open-air bus tours and wine tastings – have broadened the definition of the performing arts. The Fringe must “be brave” and ask themselves why events like these have become such an important part of the festival, she said.
Still, the owners of Underbelly, an event producer who runs some of Fringe’s busiest sites, said in a joint interview that a move away from the open access policy would hamper the event’s fragile recovery. “As soon as the Fringe became a closed access, a new fringe would fall into place next to it,” said Charlie Wood, an Underbelly director.
“No one can control the festival,” he said. “It’s organic.”
Ed Bartlam, Wood’s business partner, said criticism from many locals about the size of the Fringe was based on an “urban myth” that the event was primarily aimed at people outside of Edinburgh and Scotland.
According to a spokesperson for Fringe, Scots made up more than half of the 2019 event’s spectators, and residents of Edinburgh around 35%. About 7 percent came from outside Britain, she added.
McCarthy said the digital hybrid model of this year’s festival, with a mix of online and in-person events, will remain for future editions so that audiences and artists can participate in the Fringe “without necessarily having to travel here.” .
The owners of Underbelly have said they will not feature any online events in this year’s program. They “can work sometimes,” said Wood, “but you have to spend a lot of money for it, and so it doesn’t work for this festival.”
Out in Edinburgh, the question of whether a bigger Fringe was better sparked a series of responses.
Host Claire Mackie, 41, said the usual “noise and chaos” of the event never bothered her, even when she lived near the Royal Mile. “I liked the buzz,” she said, adding that this year’s Fringe seemed “submissive”.
Jackie Honisz, 70, a retiree, sitting in her garden next to the Pleasance Courtyard site complex, said she didn’t miss the Fringe last year and didn’t want it to come back to her previous scale: “Because of Covid,” she says, and because festival-goers regularly left garbage in the streets around her house.
Comedian Josie Long, 39, made her Fringe debut at 17 and has returned as a performer for 16 of the past 22 years, including this year with an ongoing show for a limited audience and socially distant from the Monkey of 100 places. Barrel comedy. In a phone interview, she said she felt this year’s festival was “pretty much Fringe enough that people can handle psychologically.”
But Long added that she hoped the festival would one day return to its sprawling, pre-pandemic proportions. “Making fewer opportunities does not prevent the arts from being the preserve of privileged people,” she said.
“I can’t wait for him to be in a position where I can say it’s boring again,” she added.
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