Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

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COMMENT: It’s right that arts organisations and arts media speak out on the huge costs are risks borne on artists at the Edinburgh Fringe – but they helped create this problem, and they need to undo it.

There can few success stories bigger than the Edinburgh Fringe. In their founding year of 1947, they were massively the underdogs against the brand new Edinburgh International Festival – after all, who’d want to see eight acts nobody invited and weren’t good enough to be in a proper festival? But people liked the idea of a festival where anyone can take part, and in a stunning turnaround of Davids and Goliaths, by the 1960s the fringe has already overtaken the international festival for comedy. Not even Beyond the Fringe could turn things round. (Although they should have chosen a different name as everyone thought they were part of the fringe. Fools.) Not long after, the prestige of the Fringe had overtaken the international festival in every discipline. The Edinburgh Fringe became the place to be discovered. They inspired fringes all over the world, some embracing Edinburgh’s spirit of openness, others sadly not. But the Edinburgh Fringe dominates not only Edinburgh festivals but arts festivals worldwide. It’s viewed as a rite of passage for performers, and a successful run at Edinburgh is the arts world equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

But, as well as a great success story, there can be few bigger examples of being a victim of your own success than the Edinburgh Fringe. Now the fringe is at the phenomenal size of 3,500 – and this comes at a price. Edinburgh isn’t a huge city, and there’s only a finite number of places that can be used as performance spaces, and only a finite amount of accommodation. In line with the basic laws of supply and demand, the price has rocketed. The increased competition has also normalised the month-long run – any less than that any you don’t have a realistic chance to stand out from the crowd. This, combined with all your other expenses, places a huge financial liability on performers – and with ticket sales far from guaranteed, it’s a huge risk. A bad run elsewhere could leave you a debt that takes months to clear. A bad run in Edinburgh could cost you your home. I cannot imagine the founding acts of the Fringe saw that coming.

Needless to say, people have been questioning this for some time, and this year The Stage chose to make this issue their lead editorial at the opening of the fringe – calling for, if not a reduction of the costs, a reduction of the risks. It’s not just The Stage – virtually every arts media publication and arts organisation has spoken out on this at some point, and their hearts are in the right place. What is almost always lacking, though, is any idea of how to achieve it. I suppose that Northern Stage had a reasonable stab at the low-risk model, but that ate up a lot of public subsidy for the benefit of eight shows – even if Northern Stage comes back, there seem to be little hope of scaling this up at all 3,500. A £1 million subsidy for the fringe would work out at £285 per act – only a small dent in the expenses. Even if we did find a way to reduce expense or risk, supply and demand still thwarts you. Plenty of people are deterred from Edinburgh by the cost and risk (myself included). Reduce either, and more people will decide it’s worth it. More people after venues and accommodation, prices go up, and you’re back to square one.

The harsh reality is that we will never get expenses and risk under control without tackling the problem of supply and demand at the source. And since we’ve run out option for increasing supply, we need to look at what’s pushing up demand. Some things can’t be helped. People love taking part in these festivals, and willingly put up with high outgoings and poor returns simply for the buzz of taking part. The August timing also makes is a very popular destination for student productions – a month of work and huge expense isn’t such a big deal if you can share the costs between ten of you and you would be working anyway. And, of course, if you’re serious about making a name for yourself, the Edinburgh Fringe is often your only option to get noticed or taken seriously. You may perpetuate the “Edinburgh or bust” attitude by doing this, but you don’t get much choice.

But what about all the other people who perpetuate the “Edinburgh or bust” attitude? No-one forces them to do that. It’s fair to say that one of the proponents of this mindset is the Festival Fringe Society itself, but it’s only natural they should want to promote their own festival any way they can. No-one else has that excuse. With the honourable exception of some of the fringe-specific publications, the arts media bangs on about the Edinburgh Fringe to the exclusion – often total exclusion – of all the other ways a fringe company could be noticed. Arts organisations are little better. They may not actively promote the idea that you have to do Edinburgh to be taken seriously, but that’s what a lot of people believe and few of them do anything to counter this impression. One experience I had a few years ago was asking people at a  networking event about getting started with fringes other than Edinburgh. To my astonishment, I discovered that barely anyone knew they even existed, let alone how to do it Admittedly this was before Brighton Fringe’s recent spurt of growth, but even then it was staggering that so little thought was given to alternatives.

The arts media and arts industry created this. They are part of the problem. And if they want something to be done about the expense of Edinburgh, it’s no use telling other people what to do. They have to be part of the solution. The “Holy Grail” mentality of the Edinburgh Fringe has to end. We have to give serious credence to routes other than Edinburgh. And if that means that fewer groups go to Edinburgh once they have viable alternatives, so be it.

The obvious alternative to Edinburgh is the Brighton Fringe. In terms of size, this festival is where Edinburgh was 30-40 years ago. But whilst the Edinburgh Fringe was legendary 30-40 years ago, Brighton Fringe is still a footnote in fringe theatre circles, especially north of Watford Gap. That makes no sense. The quality of acts at Brighton Fringe is comparable to Edinburgh, and it shares the same open-access model as Edinburgh –  except that as this actually affordable to do (at least compared to Edinburgh), it’s arguably even more open-access. Brighton is not perfect; we need to ask some questions over promotion of popular acts, something that Edinburgh mostly refrains from. And yes, the increasing popularity of Brighton makes this fringe less attractive for the minnows, just like what happened in Edinburgh 30-40 years ago, but there are other smaller fringes to go to. If you want something just like Edinburgh but doesn’t carry the huge financial risks – it exists, right now. Why are you giving Brighton acts so little attention if the financial burden to performers is so important to you?

Beyond that, the choices are less clear-cut. Buxton is the #3 fringe, but it’s a fringe that enjoys is small, friendly stress-free status. There is the possibility of Greater Manchester Fringe becoming like Brighton Fringe, but it’s way too early to say whether that will ever happen. We do need to pay attention to these so-called “curated fringes” which could deprive groups of the means to get started, but the open-access culture embraced by Manchester has got me less worried about this than I was a year ago.

You don’t have to religiously stick to open-access festivals.  There is the Vault festival in London – that’s getting a lot of attention already especially if you can’t be arsed to look outside London September-July, although it must be remembered that this festival is (unavoidably) very unlike Edinburgh in deciding who takes part. Perhaps this should be counter-balanced with the rest of what London has to offers – to some extent, London can be considered a year-round fringe. Then there’s what’s going on in the rest of the country all year – why should groups be ignored just because they’ve not done a fringe? – although this has the issue of a handful of artistic and programming directors directors wielding a huge amount of power over who gets noticed. Don’t expect an easy solution.

There is some progress being made. The Stage is better than most publications in balancing coverage away from Edinburgh. They give a fair amount of coverage to Brighton Fringe, as they do for the Vault – it would be even better if they weren’t so London-centric, but it’s still a big improvement on other publications. And some theatres are now sending their programming directors to the smaller fringes to see what’s out there. This helps, because the better the opportunities are outside of Edinburgh, the less pressure there is to take part in a fringe you’re not financially ready to take on.

But small changes are not enough here. We need revolutionary changes if we are to solve the problem of affordability. Theatre has changed radically in the last decade – fringe theatre is on the rise, digital media is taking over from paper media, but we have still not adjusted to this, and piling on more and more acts into Edinburgh makes a bad problem worse. Focus has got to change. It may be chaotic as the fringe scene rebalances, but if Edinburgh Fringe shrinks, at least it will become more affordable for the acts still going there there.

I don’t claim to have a straightforward solution to the affordability problem. Expect any change to be difficult and complicated, with the arts media and organisations making it up as they go along. All I know is that as long as they continue to draw people towards the grail-shaped beacon that’s the Edinburgh Fringe, there will never be a solution.

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