Will Coronavirus clobber the fringe season?

Update 29/03/20: As you are probably aware, pretty much every prediction I have made so far with a resolution one way or the other turned out to be wrong. I will write an update once we have a better idea what’s happening – in the meantime, here’s the original for you to laugh and point at.

It’s not often I do stand-alone news articles. Normally I wait until the end of the month and put it in odds and sods. However, this is a fast-moving situation and what was idle speculation a few days ago is already a serious possibility. So, it turns out that, unlike Sars, Swine Flue, Bird Flu and pretty much every other lurgi where the panic was way out of proportion, with Coronavirus there actually is something to worry about. There’s been lockdowns of various degrees going on all over Europe, and this morning the Scottish Government has announced what appears to be a ban on events with more than 500 people. It’s not clear exactly how that’s going to work, and one important detail is that the reason for the ban is to free up emergency services to deal with Coronavirus cases, rather than preventing the spread. Even as I write this, the English football leagues have announced a one-month delay of their matches.

So amongst all of the fallout are questions over what happens to the upcoming festival fringes. Conventional theatres stand to be affected too. However, the difference is that if the worst comes to the worst at theatres such as Live Theatre or Northern Stage, they can convecialy push their affected projects back a few months. But for an event of the complexity of Edinburgh or Brighton Fringes – not just the performances themselves but the surrounding logistics of policing, accommodation, temporary employment and so on – it is inconceivable you could delay it. Either it goes ahead in 2020 or it doesn’t.

Before anything else happens, here’s a run-down where we’re at with festivals.

Vault festival:

Barring a disaster in the next ten days, the Vault Festival is probably okay. The news yesterday was they’d been advised it was fine to go ahead until further notice, and we’re already in the second last week.

Had the outbreak happened a month earlier, or the festival had run a month later, this could have been a disaster – an underground venue with hundreds of people inside a peak demand in a confined space would surely have been near the top of the list of events to suspend. Looks like the Vault Festival may have had a narrow escape.

Brighton Fringe:

Brighton Fringe has also announced its plans for the fringe remain in place as things stand. However, it’s in a precarious situation. The current mood is that the virus is likely to peak in a few months’ time, round about when Brighton Fringe is on. As far as time goes, it seems that Brighton has drawn the short straw.

On the plus side, Brighton Fringe is, as far as I can tell, less vulnerable to impromptu lockdowns than other festivals. Nothing that happens at Brighton is as tight and crowded as anything at the Vault Festival or Edinburgh Fringe. Venues such as Sweet and Junkyard dogs might be prominent venues of the fringe circuit but come nowhere near a mass gathering. The only thing that might be big enough to get some attention is The Warren, which has hundreds of people in at one time if you add together all the spaces and all the bars in their giant pop-up venue. As far as emergency services resources go, Brighton Fringe is negligible compared to all the hispters and trustafarians that descend on Brighton  every Friday night.

My guess is that no-one will be forced to cancel anything at Brighton, but there’s a chance The Warren will be made to break up its supervenue into smaller sites. We could live with that, and who knows, we might even decide we prefer it that way. But unless things get unexpectedly worse, my money’s on the fringe going ahead.

Buxton Fringe:

Buxton Fringe is possibly the safest of all. Most people expect the peak to have come and gone long before July. Even if it hasn’t, Buxon Fringe is tiny compared to everything else listed here. Unless we go into full lockdown like Italy, Buxton has little to worry about.

Edinburgh Fringe:

Edinburgh Fringe faces a different problem. Although the possibility of cancelling the Edinburgh Fringe has been floated – indeed, the size of the biggest supervenues and the amount of policing required in festival season means this has to be considered – the worst will almost certainly be over by August. So I’d say that the chance of any kind of lockdown is low.

But the problem here is how prospective participants react to this risk. A low chance of cancellation is still a chance. It’s risky enough taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe as it is, with huge upfront costs, no guarantee of an audience or good reviews, and even higher bills if things go wrong. The last thing you want adding to your list of things that go wrong is discovering after sinking all your money into this that the festival’s not going ahead. Now, it might be that there is insurance you can get to cover this, but by far the easiest thing to do is decide it’s not worth it. And this is where timing is unkind. With the registration deadlines looming, now is when lots of would-be performers will be ponder over whether to take the plunge. If there’s any time this would put people off, it’s now.

Of course, would a scaled-down Edinburgh Fringe, even an involuntary one, be entirely a bad thing? The grumblings over the size of the Fringe have grown louder in the last few years, and who knows, maybe people will decide they prefer it that way. Maybe lazy London journalists will be forced to acknowledge the existence of culture in cities other than Edinburgh in months other than August. Maybe, just maybe, this would be the push needed to re-arrange the fringe scene to something more sustainable.

But … we’ve been here before. Every time something happens that causes people to say surely the Fringe bubble is going to burst, it keeps on growing. This could be another one of those times. Coronavirus could change the fringe theatre scene for good – but it could just as easily carry off exactly as it was before.

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