As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.
Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead is, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.
So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but its legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:
1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better
[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]
It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.
In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose.
Some quick wins emerged – bad employers cleaned up their act and extortionate landlord were clamped down on. The issue of expense was harder to solve, but somehow they did it, through a series of little reforms. Edinburgh University agreed to keep its rents down – in return, the Scottish Government funded the shortfall and tenant venues signed a strict code of conduct. Expectations were managed, fewer wouldn’t-be thespians wasted thousands on doomed ventures, and the Fringe’s big gamble – creating a new circus hub in the west of the city – turned out to be a great success. Who’d have thought that the worst thing to hit theatre for a fifty years could turn out to be the best?
2: The naysayers make peace with the Edinburgh Fringe
It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,902 acts. And things haven’t really improved on the 2019 Fringe where so many people said something must be done. Some things got better, some things got worse, but the root problem of too many people and not enough city haven’t gone away. However, few people complain – no-one wants a repeat of the year without.
For all the good intentions, the much-promised reform of Edinburgh 2021 never happened – there were just too many differences to form a consensus. But by September 2020 events had overtaken this anyway. It turned out the big losers of a festival-free August were not the actors or venues – honestly, it was never a money-spinner in the first place – but thousands of small businesses throughout the city who ran at a steady-loss September-July and survived on the August trade. Already weakened by the March/April lockdown, without their annual windfall, they went bust by the hundreds.
Supporters of the fringe in Edinburgh had always argued how important the festivals are to Edinburgh’s economy, and now they were been proven right, albeit in a way no-one wanted. Most of the fringe critics dropped their opposition quietly. A few hardcore haters still carry on, but no-one listens to them any more. However much there are problems with the fringe, Edinburgh has learned the hard way how much it needs it.
3: Edinburgh Fringe hits breaking point in 2021
It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe’s registrations are up 12% to 2,150. They are allowed back on the Royal Mile for the first time since the disastrous fringe of 2021. Still people look back and ask: how could such a momentous occasion go so wrong?
The shutdown of 2020 hit the venues hard. Sure, the fringe never made a huge profit, but they’d already invested large sums of money they were desperate to get back. Meanwhile, most of the performers who’d lost their slots in 2020 were determined to perform in 2021, on top of all the performers who were planning to go to Edinburgh in 2021 anyway. The Big Four snapped up every space they could get their hands on. The pleas from the Festival Fringe Society to not do this fell of deaf ears – the stakes were too high. Meanwhile, the media hype built up to fever pitch so more acts dived in, thinking they’d strike whilst the iron is hot. By March, the registration numbers had already broken 2019’s record. The number surpassed 4,000, then 4,500, then 5,000, ending up with 5,377.
In hindsight, it was easy to predict how this would end. City Centre business raked up their prices so much the locals stayed away. Stories emerged of employees being overworked whilst the profits were squirrelled away to owners in London. Landlords aggressively evicted tenants to rent out their properties for sky-high rates in August. But the final straw was a tragedy where a patient died in an ambulance brought to a standstill on South Bridge by a sea of people. Two months later, Edinburgh City Council pressed the nuclear button, banning street flyering, setting a strict limit on performance licenses and imposes a massive tourist tax for the month of August, and it was all the Festival Fringe Society could do talk them out of shutting down the fringe completely. It’s taken a lot of hard work to pull the fringe back from the brink, but nowadays everyone is wary of putting a foot out of line.
4: The Edinburgh Festivals spread over the summer
It is September 2025 and the Edinburgh International Festival has just had its most successful year. It was a controversial decision to move their festival to September, but it has been thoroughly vindicated.
It wasn’t just the Edinburgh Fringe who used the vacated summer of 2020 to look at where it was going; the other festivals did the same. But however much they tried to find a way forwards, it all came down to the same problem: too many people in too small a city over too short a period. And in the absence of anything else to do, some questions started being asked: why put all the festivals in August anyway? Part of the answer, it emerged, is that everyone wanted to sitck with the month they know gets the business. But the Military Tattoo took a chance first. Tired of the logistics of ushering in a crowd of 8,800 through a crowded city and the expense of accommodating hundreds of musicians at peak prices, they tried holding the 2022 Tattoo in July. The gamble paid off: tickets continued to sell out, the festival atmosphere stayed the same, and a lot of money was saved.
Noting this success, other August festivals moved to dates between June and September, with generally successful results, until the Fringe and International Festival remained head-to-head in August. Neither had any intention of going anywhere: the Fringe because the whole fringe circuit calendar was built around this, and the International Festival because they were there first. It would take a huge amount of pride-swallowing to hand August to what many in EIF considered the upstarts, but the success of the other festivals who moved was too tempting. The International Festival relented, and 2025 is rescheduled for September, and it worked: free of direct competition with the Fringe, the arts media give this festival the attention it always wanted. Running six festivals in the same month seems like an absurd idea now – why did no-one think of this before?
5: Open access is pushed out of the fringe scene
[Full disclosure: Anyone who knows my blog knows I am a strong advocate of open access. Anyone who wishes to paint a more positive picture on another blog is welcome to do so.]
It is August 2025, and the Edinburgh Fringe is underway with 2,132 entries. Less than the peak of six years ago, but it’s a better 3,132 entries, so supporters of the great reform say. Thank goodness we got rid of all the crap.
The fallow year of 2020 was a chance to step back and ask how the fringe could be done better. Early efforts were futile – there was no getting round supply and demand: too many performers, not enough accommodation and spaces to perform. “So invite less performers”, said some, and the Festival Fringe Society said it wasn’t their decision, but they retort “Make it your decision”. The ongoing gripe about capitalism ruining the fringe gained traction and an early target was the commercial comedians, but the Big Four pushed back – that’s where they get their most money. And so the finger pointed instead at all the silly student productions with nothing to offer. What are they doing here? Come on, letting just anyone take part is soooo 1947. The FFS remained adamantly opposed but it was no use. The Big Four had already discussed a vetted festival with the City Council, who made it clear they would back a Big Four vetted festival over the remainder of the Fringe. Also under pressure from many of their veteran performers, the FFS relented. Forget about the ideal of being open to all, it’s about being fresh, new, exciting – that’s fringe. Even if that means the powers that be deciding for us what’s new, fresh and exciting.
It wasn’t quite the end of the open festival model. The Free Fringe broke away from the Edinburgh Fringe completely and continues providing opportunities for comedians, but it stays a niche pursuit. Brighton and Buxton continue on the open model, but instead of being welcomed as a refuge from vetted Edinburgh, they are pooh-poohed as the places you go to if you’re not good enough for the proper fringe. The gatekeepers have won – you can no longer have a successful run in theatre without their permission.
But the price is much higher than most people realise. Far from new fresh and exciting, that’s fringe, the new-style Edinburgh Fringe is dominated by commercially safe bets. Summerhall and Traverse keep their niches as something different from the commercial fringe, but it soon becomes clear that they have exact ideas of what kind of different they want. Many of the performers who supported curation have come to regret it, after finding themselves on the losing end. Risk-taking only happens with the backing of the people upstairs. People quietly ask why the fringe theatre of the 2020s seems so bland compared to the 2000s and 2010s, soon to be looked on as a golden age. I mean, the Fringe is supposed to guarantee new, fresh, and exciting work, how are they getting it wrong? But few make the connection.
6: Brighton Fringe starts being taken seriously
Is is May 2025, and Brighton Fringe is underway with a record-breaking 1,622 entries. What’s more, fortnight-long runs are becoming commonplace and some Edinburgh veterans are even running the entire festival. It’s now clear that holding their nerve and pressing on in the fateful year of the virus was the best decision Brighton Fringe ever made.
It was far more than they bargained for. In 2020, they were playing for pride – they were resigned to many of the acts signed up from May declining a slot in the autumn, but a small fringe was better than none at all. And indeed, many acts did pull out, but this was was offset by Edinburgh registrants settling for the next best thing. The two effects roughly cancelled out and they went ahead with a respectable 1,047 entries. But what no-one factored in was the upturn in interest from the national media. Denied their annual foray to “the fringe”, the BBC and the broadsheets wondered what else to do, until it crossed their mind that there’s another fringe that’s temporarily the biggest. Oh well, they thought, let’s give it a try. To their surprise, they discovered the best acts in Brighton are just as good as the best acts in Edinburgh.
It’s the amazing discovery of 2020, claimed the arts media. This rubbed up the wrong way with those at The Stage, FringeReview and FringeGuru and elsewhere who’d been saying this for years, but quietly they were delighted they’d been proven right. The rest is history: the media vowed to be back in May, and hundreds of performers who’d previously never considered Brighton realised how good an option it is for a fraction of the cost of Edinburgh. Brighton’s success does come at a modest expense to Edinburgh, and some people, in hindsight, wish they’d struggled on in 2020, but most people are appreciate that Brighton is relieving some of the pressure. Now, when people say they are going to the Fringe, the answer is “Which one?”
7: Political theatre moves online
It is October 2025, and politics is back in turmoil after the inconclusive election of 2024. But in a small footnote to the history books, the #1 trending British political video on Youtube – praised for its hilarious yet brutal satire on Boris Johnson’s embarrassing episode with the bike pump – comes from a fringe theatre company. It was a bumpy journey to get here, but here we are.
One bit of light relief during the lockdown was thousands of actors making videos in their own homes, with the best ones going viral and gaining fans who otherwise ignored theatre. It was this success that inspired hundreds of aspiring political theatre companies to do this same – at first in their homes, later outside and in rehearsal rooms as the lockdown eased. Why reach out to a few dozen in the auditorium when you could be reaching out to millions online? Why did no-one think of this before? Answer: because most of these Ken Loach-wannabes had terrible arguments. Away from studio theatres with a supportive like-minded audience, their strawman tactics and pretentious analysis were ripped to pieces. The worst offenders were passed round and dunked on by everyone, a bit like Rebecca Black (except that Rebecca Black also got a lot of sympathy, unlike these people who’d insulted all their potential supporters). The groups burnt by this soon abandoned the experiment. We were right the first time, they said, let’s leave that cess-pit Youtube to the alt-right Nazi trolls.
But not everyone went. The laws of Darwin apply online and the groups left standing were the ones who’d learnt how to win people over. The ones who did the best were the ones who were not only persuasive but also entertaining. They learned from their own successes and mistakes (and learn a lot more from the misfortunes of their peers), and get better at it. Now the Titania McGraths of the internet have suddenly have some credible opposition. These aren’t the first political channels to grow and grow, but what is new is the crossover between the stage and the cyber-world. Turns out the lockdown of 2020 was the shot in the arm needed, to change political theatre from an irrelevance into a formidable force.
8: The government abuses its power over the arts
It’s October 2025 and not only is politics is back in turmoil after the inconclusive election of 2024 but there’s a general election every bit as bitter as 2019’s. For anyone involved in the arts, however, there’s a big difference. In years gone by, it was a given that the arts world would overwhelmingly side with the left. This time, however, the arts world is very bitterly divided. How did it come to this?
By July 2020, it became clear that the cultural sector was going to need a lot more support beyond what had already been announced. The government promised help would be coming, but when it finally arrived, it wasn’t what most people expected. It came in the form of support for new programmes and festivals that bypassed Arts Council England. Alarm bells started ringing amongst some, claiming it was all a ploy for the government to control the arts – suspicions fuelled by Ed Vaizey’s notorious 2016 “left wing groupthink” remarks, and the 2019 announcement of the “Festival of Brexit”. Unfortunately, the accusations of Government propaganda were somewhat undermined by the people saying this – many of them were advocates of “curatorial activism” (which is a nice-sounding way of saying that only people who share their politics should be given platforms or funding). As a result, most of the arts world was blase about this suggestion. Okay, this government was the authoritarian in living memory when it came to the judiciary, legislature, media, devolved administrations etc., but surely no-one would stoop so low as to try to control the output of the arts? Not even Boris Johnson?
But the doom-mongers were right. There were a lot of closet right-wingers and Brexiteers in the arts who eagerly applied for this help. Other artists held their nose and went along with it. Some arts groups stuck by their principles and refused to have anything to do with it – and went bust. By the time people wised to what was going on, it was too late – there were a lot of lot people in powerful pro-government positions engaging in their own “curatorial activism” for the other team. This year it’s got really nasty. Now people on both sides openly badmouth people on the other, and some even actively conspire to scupper arts projects on the other side. Worst hit are the artists who want to stay out of this and simply make art, as both sides treat them as the enemy and punish them accordingly. Maybe things will calm down when one side wins and the other loses. But there’s few things more depressing than looking back at how united and supportive the arts community was in 2020.
9: The West End goes into meltdown
It’s July 2025 and it’s time for the Oliviers again, the annual awards of the best of London Theatre – or at least what’s left of it. There’s an in-joke that there should be an “in memoriam” section for all the theatres that are no longer with us. But that’s the darkest of gallows humour. Truly, the last five years has been horrific for the West End.
Looking back, it’s plain to see it was the perfect storm. Government support announced at the start of the lockdown wasn’t enough. The Arts Council propped up the NPOs, but the West End theatres aren’t NPOs. Councils up and down the country propped up their local theatres, but there were far too many for Westminster and Camden to support. The generosity of donors saved many a theatre, but it turned out venue loyalty decided a lot – Regional and Fringe theatres had many a loyal patron, but in the West End loyalty went to the shows and not the theatre. And sadly, the shows concentrated on saving themselves – and when West End went belly-up, they just reinvented themselves as lower-budget lower-resource shows. The last problem was the astronomical running costs – unlike most other theatres, the maintenance of the West End buildings was eye-watering.
The final nail in the coffin was the patronage. Even after every lockdown restriction was eased, audiences weren’t coming back in the numbers needed – down, perhaps, to fear of Coronavirus Round 2. When it became clear how dire the situation was, the Government promised to come to the rescue, but already over-stretched in support to other industries, it was too little, too late. A handful were saved by some very rich donors, with the fate of many a theatre decided by how much sentimental attachment A-list celebrities had to theatres they once performed in. The only consolation – if it could be called that – is that Broadway got it even worse. Five years on, it now seems like the fate of all 39 West End theatres has been decided one way or the other, and the survivors can move on. But the London Theatre community always shudders to recall the catastrophic events of the early 2020s.
10: The spotlight falls on rural theatre
It is April 2025 and the management of Theatre By The Lake can hardly believe the news: their entire summer season has sold out within three weeks of going on sale. But it’s come as little surprise to those who’ve been following this. Rural theatres such as the Minnack and this one have been the big winners of the great shutdown.
Towards the end of April, pressure was growing to start getting life to normal, but with infection rates still stubbornly high in London, no-one dared drop their guard in the capital. The compromise agreed was to relax the rules in rural areas to begin with and see how it went. And so, the rural theatres were back in business first. The wiser theatres had plans in place to hit the ground running, with shows that could be ready in a matter of days. It was a good move – the London-based media, still denied the easy route to only look at London – took a look at the only theatres running in the country. It comes (again) as a surprise that rural theatre could be so good, which (again) annoys the locals who’ve known this all along, but whatever the motives, this is where the spotlight has fallen.
When theatre outside of London re-opened in July, they hoped they might get the same spotlight from the London media, but they were out of luck: the craze remained with rural theatre. Nothing lasts forever and when the West End finally re-opened in late autumn, the national press reverted to type, but by then some rural theatre didn’t need the extra publicity any more. The ones who had the best relaunch seasons earned themselves new fans, and just like the Stephen Joseph Theatre achieved four decades earlier, they now come back every year for a summer pilgrimage. The balance of power between London and the regions has changed in a way no-one saw coming.
11: NPOs are released off their short leashes
It is June 2025, and time once again for UK Theatre’s annual conference. It used to be a time dreaded by the arts council, hearing endless complaints from theatre-makers about tying their hands. But that’s a battle the Arts Council has long since conceded on.
When the shutdown happened in March 2020, the Arts Councils responded the only way they could: it released all the NPOs from its conditions of funding. The decision was universally supported – when every theatre in the country is threatened with closure, it is not the time to insist of money only being spend to promote excellent, a sustainable workforce, or anything else in the long-term strategy. What they never clearly decided, however, was how long this would go on for. The danger of closures did not stop with the end of the lockdown, but those theatres who were past this threat enjoyed their financial freedom too much to give it up easily. The Arts Councils had come under enough criticism for micromanaging theatres before this whole business started and there was little appetite to go back. Anyone who suggested it was maybe time to revert to normal funding arrangements had their head bitten off.
So the Arts Councils chose the path of least resistance. Officially the release from the conditions of funding is still temporary, but the decision to change things back has been deferred so much it’s for all intents and purposes permanent. Is it a good thing? The NPOs certainly think so, delighted to be freed from what they see as red tape. But resentment is building amongst other theatres, who question why the NPOs deserve money to do what they like but they don’t. A long-standing bugbear has been ended, but it’s been replaced with a new one.
12: Fringe Theatre ups sticks from London
It is July 2025, and Greater Manchester Fringe is underway. This year, some people are asking if we need a Greater Manchester Fringe. Not because it’s declining in popularity – on the contrary, for the last ten years it’s gone up and up and up – but because it’s not clear when the fringe actually begins and ends. That, some argue, means it’s a year-round event like London Fringe is. Or London Fringe was. That will be missed.
Perhaps the fate of London Fringe was inevitable, but Coronavirus brought it forwards. London rents had been out of control for twenty years, with aspiring Thespians only tolerating this in the belief you could only be discovered in London. They put up with menial day jobs to meet the cost of living, and they put up with the March 2020 lockdown, but the second lockdown during the December resurgence was too much for many artists. Already plagued with random cancellations as people randomly went to self-isolation, and watching enviously as the rest of the country got back to normal, the loss on pantomime season income convinced many it wasn’t worth it any more.
Manchester was an early beneficiary – with the most obviously established fringe theatre scene after London, that was seen by many as plan B. Other artists, however, opted for the comfort of their home cities. And as a result, lots of fringe-scale venues began popping up in cities all over the country. In Newcastle, there are now five Alphabetti-sized theatres. But for every fringe venue that’s opened outside London, one’s closed in London. The Vault festival continues with more acts from outside London, and few London venues survive, enough to cater for the remaining fringe artists, but it’s a far cry from the days where there were a dozens of acts to choose from any day of the year. Everyone’s sorry to see it go.
13: Freelancers desert in droves
It is February 2025. UK Theatre and SOLT have finally finished a marathon negotiation with BECTU over fair employment for workers once taken on as casual freelancers. It’s been far from easy with agreement needed on all sorts of ethical issues. But one thing is certain: theatre can never go back to the gig economy.
It turned out the model of theatres running with a few salaried employees and most creatives on self-employed contracts was more fragile than anyone thought, and the Coronavirus crises broke it beyond repair. From the start of the shutdown there were complaints about freelancers being hung out to dry, and although help was finally announced, it wasn’t enough. The process was too slow and too complex, countless sole traders went bust waiting for money, and subsequent intermittent cancellations over the next two years went uncompensated. Patience ran out with tens of thousands of freelance workers – even if it was the job they love, the security of a job that always paid was more important.
With not enough freelancers to go round, theatres were left with two options. One was bring on additional salaried staff to do what the freelancers used to do; as a result, a lot more permanent backstage staff and directors come on the books, and many theatres even revert to the old model of repertory companies. The other option was taking on casual workers who didn’t need the security because they did it on top of full-time day jobs. In fact, the day jobbers did well out of this – previously dismissed by most of the theatre world as not proper theatre-makers, suddenly they were indispensable. But it was far from simple. Complaints soon emerged of people with full-time jobs undercutting the few freelancers left in the business, and many of the new salaried posts had loopholes that make them casual work in everything but name. Finally a consensus has been reach on what is fair – but there is a price. The flexibility theatres used to have to take on who they need when they need it is long gone. And a lot of great freelancers have been lost from theatre completely.
14: The big venues get too powerful
It is March 2025, and the Vault Festival closes with an exciting announcement: they name five small London theatres as “partner venues”. It’s great news for those five small theatres – without it they probably would have gone to the wall. This announcement isn’t new: theatres all over the country are doing this. But there is one thing that has been kept quiet: those were the last five independent venues in London of any standing.
It’s not fair to blame the big theatres too much – without them, most of the small theatres would have gone to the wall. In the year of the lockdown and the years that followed, most theatres owed their survival to the generosity of their donors. But there’s only a finite amount of money and generosity to go round and it was the bigger theatres that took the lion’s share of it. Not wishing to stand by, they came to the rescue of the smaller theatres. To start with it was emergency donations – when it was clear a longer-term solution was needed, they looked for a more sustainable solutions. The favoured solution that emerged was collaborations, where the big theatres paid the smaller ones to take on projects in the artistic vision of the bigger theatre.
Unfortunately, there’s a bad habit amongst artistic directors of bigger theatres the soured this. With a few honourable exceptions, most of them had very exact idea of what theatre programmes should look like. They didn’t value the fact that smaller venues can produce their own programmes and small companies can have their own vision. As they small venues grew more dependent on the big one for support, they increasingly ended up taking the big venues’ over-spill: projects they didn’t have space for in their own buildings. Gatekeeping became a much bigger problem than it already is – there used to be hundreds of organisations you could approach in London to get your project off the ground; now they are all answerable to a powerful few. Some people still bypass all the gatekeepers by going straight to the fringe, but without any support along the way they are the rare exceptions.
No-one suggests the big theatres should have stood back and done nothing – but for the small theatres, survival comes at a high price.
15: London fringe takes to the West End
It’s July 2025 and it’s time for the Oliviers again, the annual awards of the best of London Theatre. It’s a happy event, celebrating the full recovery of the theatre scene as much as the award winners themselves. One of the awards most talked about is Best Set Designer. Normally this would be a footnote in the proceedings, but the winner’s speech is remembered for her quip about her first West End job five years ago. It is true that her set was up at the Dominion theatre in late 2020 – but it was for a solo play that was supposed to be performed in the Pleasance Studio.
When the lockdown was first eased in London, public events of up to 50 people were allowed, but only if social distancing was maintained. That seemed like a Catch-22 situation for theatre: running full-scale productions with an audience limit of 50 was out of the question, but running small productions in little studio theatres was also off the table. So the big theatres decide – partly to keep things ticking over, and partly as an easy good will gesture – to turn their biggest stages over to the smallest productions. They open up applications, and they are inundated – who’s going to pass up this opportunity? Largely picked on a whim based on whatever the theatre manager liked to sound of, a lucky few get a 3-day run in a huge theatre. It’s quite a surreal experience, seeing 50 people dotted about in an auditorium that takes 2,000, but who’s going to say no?
For most people, this is a just a novelty, but for a lucky few it’s life-changing. In the absence of anything else on offer, theatre top brass turns up to these studio productions, and very occasionally, performers are noticed and gets the break they deserve. Our aforementioned set-designer, for example, impressed a visiting Bill Kenwright with her impromptu set for a stage thirty times bigger than the one she was hired for. That success story is the rare exception; most fringe performers go back to fringe theatre when things go back to normal. But the day you performed on the West End stage remains a experience that no-one forgets.