The endless growth of Edinburgh Fringe has provoked a debate on two big issues: the affordability of the Edinburgh Fringe, and the conditions for workers at the venues. But there is a third issue that also needs attention, which is what effect Edinburgh has on the locals of the city. Is it a chance to enjoy the greatest cultural festival in the world on your doorstep and take an annual windfall? Or does it make your own city inhospitable for a month every year? I haven’t commented much on this as I don’t live in Edinburgh and don’t know much about this issue.
So let’s get the perspective of someone who does. Flavia D’Avila lives in Edinburgh. Coincidentally, she is directing a play that is coming to Edinburgh this year (which I happened to see at Buxton and loved), but she is more importantly someone who I’ve seen commentate on contentious issues at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere in a fair and thoughtful manner. So here is the perspective of an Edinburgh Fringe local …
I first moved to Edinburgh in 2006. I arrived the day before the Fireworks Concert that year, so I had just missed the Fringe but that was one of the reasons I decided to move here from Brazil. I had never been to Scotland and had no personal connections here but I had my mind set in Edinburgh as a good place to develop my theatre career after the suggestion of an English friend living in Brazil and reading a short article in a local newspaper about the Edinburgh Festivals.
I skipped 2015 because of issues with the Home Office (that’s another story that you can read on my personal blog here), so 2019 is my 12th Edinburgh Festival Fringe and although I am sadly still not entitled to a Scottish passport, I feel very much like a local here. That said, during the Fringe, I’m not just a local. I’m part of it. So when Chris kindly invited me to write this guest post reflecting on the Fringe impact on the Edinburgh locals, I gladly accepted but I feel the need to warn readers that my experience is that of a local theatremaker who is very much embedded in it all. That part of me absolutely loves the Fringe. Part of me also hates it.
I can’t tell you much about the experience of the other locals, those who just want to be able to get to work in an office or need to pay a bill or go the library and get annoyed because the Fringe keeps getting in the way. I got little insights here and there, like when I was speaking to a bouncer who sometimes works at the venue where I work year-round. He rarely goes to shows that he’s not working at and doesn’t really care much for it. He enjoys some music gigs and has done some private security for Kylie Minogue in the past so he was delighted to see her at Edinburgh Castle last month. He isn’t super keen on how busy the city gets but he also acknowledges that August is his best month for business so he works his ass off and then he takes his family away for a 4-week holiday in some remote beach resort in January. Although he doesn’t engage with the Fringe, it allows him to have some quality family time a few months later.
A few nights ago, I was speaking to a friend’s boyfriend who works in a hotel and had just been to his first ever Fringe show – sketch comedy, of course. He says he’s used to working 14-hour days in August and never seeing anything and not feeling like he’s missing out either, but he had enjoyed that one show and might even try to see something else this year. My friend, his girlfriend, works with me at the same venue and generally only sees that one sketch show every year, plus whatever show I’ve directed and pestered her to come to. Unlike me, who pick my shifts to allow me time to see lots and lots of shows, she signs up for every single hour available (like her boyfriend at the hotel and our bouncer pal) to make the money to allow her a little break later in the year.
Most people in my networks are either artists or people who engage with the arts on a fairly regular basis and therefore quite enjoy having the Fringe on their doorstep but the general notion this year in particular is that the Fringe is an absolutely terrible monster that chews Edinburgh up and spits it out in September, half-digested and broken. The two things that have contributed the most for the negative view of the Fringe and have recently been spoken about in the media a lot are the soaring cost of living (we have all heard about the £20,000 flat by now, yes?) and exploitation of venue workers, but we have to contend with other issues in Edinburgh in August and year-round too.
Overtourism has become an increasing concern and a disruption between September and July as well. We used to have quiet spells and September was for hibernation but it hardly feels like last year’s festival ended. We had a couple of less busy days but largely, the city centre is always busy. But back to the Fringe, it is the third biggest ticket-selling event in the world, just after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. These two sports events, however, tend to be held in big cities like London and Rio. Edinburgh is only a fraction of the size of those cities so it gets tricky to fit that many people in a much smaller space. Traffic is impossibly slow and at the same time, streets get more dangerous because there isn’t enough pavement space. I saw two people being hit by cars last year and there was the case of a wheelchair user being pushed onto the street by one of the Silent Disco Walking Tours. Street performers have taken more and more space – the pavement outside the National Museum of Scotland has been widened and there was simply no room for pedestrians this afternoon, with the entire space taken up by a street performance.
Phone signal crumbles under the pressure of a three-fold population increase overnight, data stops working entirely and it’s hard to even go old school and make and receive calls. Food and drinks prices see a dramatic spike and getting a seat in pubs and cafes becomes the Hunger Games. This year there was also the threat of a bus strike, which would have been utterly disastrous for many people. I was supportive of the strike when I read about the drivers’ reasons but I live in the city centre and don’t actually need to get the bus to work. My partner is a tour guide and had been telling me he felt a weird sense of impending doom for this year. The strike was cancelled as they reached an agreement with the company, but the 2019 Fringe has only just started and there is still three whole weeks for something really bad to happen.
It doesn’t help that Edinburgh has also been a permanent construction site year-round for the past decade or so. It feels like we constantly have to put up with barriers, detours, machinery and never get to enjoy the results of the work. When they finally finished the trams, they decided the lines need to be extended. When they finished renovating Haymarket, they decided to start working on Waverley. The St James Centre and New Waverley developments keep growing. The Edinburgh roadworks are a durational performance.
Fingers are pointed at the Council, the University, the Fringe Society, the Supervenues, but no solutions are ever offered. I don’t actually know what we can do about it. I don’t think it would be a bad thing to reduce its size but there’s no way of doing that without damaging the idea at the core of the Fringe – that the festival is not curated. Yes, it’s outrageously expensive to put a show on at the Fringe, it’s bad enough for those of us who live here, let alone for people who have to budget for travel and accommodation on top of that. Yes, there’s still a strong notion that we have to do it. Perhaps a good model would be that of smaller Fringes like Brighton or Buxton, which don’t programme shows for the full run, but then the idea of career and industry connections may fail if you can’t provide people with 25 opportunities to see your show. I did a short run in Brighton for the first time last year and didn’t manage to get any reviewers or industry folk to see my show when I really needed them to come. The magic of Edinburgh is that it allows for those connections to happen even if you don’t have the budget. The show I’m directing this year, Green Knight, is a repeat offender but we didn’t do a full run in 2017 and are only doing five shows this year. We have press and industry booked in all the same.
I keep referring to the Fringe curve: previews and week 1 are all about the excitement, then there’s a dip in week 2 when you hate everything and everyone (mainly the people working with you), and towards the end of week 3, it goes up again and you start to be sad that it’s all going to be over soon. It would be good to see a better, cheaper, more relaxed and more accessible Fringe but I really don’t know how we can make that happen so my advice is just ride it out, be supportive of each other and make the most of it.
Green Knight opens on the 7th August, with subsequent performances on the 9-10th then 13th-14th. All performances are at 7.30 p.m. at the Scottish Poetry Library.