7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

The second component of this perfect storm is the serious question marks over how serious the Scottish Government really is about protecting its Edinburgh festivals. Most prominently: how on earth did they arrive at the decision that it’s safe to have a distance of 1 metre for puns but not theatre? This seems rather like the “chicken and pig” fallacy, where a chicken and a pig are tasked with making a ham and egg dinner – and the chicken, hard at work laying eggs, berates the pig for not doing his fair share and checking in to the abattoir. A superficial version of “all in it together” which favours one party at the expense of the other. Westminster’s also guilty for differential treatments of arts and pubs, but not to this ridiculous extent, and inevitably raises the question of whether Edinburgh Fringe is being set up to fail.

This is not to say the Edinburgh Fringe and its venues are blameless in their predicament. There’s now an all-round consensus that the 2019 fringe was too big, and stoked up resentment in a lot of quarters. The Festival Fringe Society backed away from cheering on endless expansion a few years back, but that hasn’t stopped the good will souring. It also doesn’t help that Underbelly made such a PR hash of Hogmanay 2020 where people had access restricted to their own homes. (One could argue that’s Edinburgh City Council’s fault for signing this off, but that didn’t stopped Underbelly being lined up as the fall guy.) A chapter that looked set to be buried in the Covid crisis may be coming back to haunt them at the wrong moment. What this means is that public support is shaky. Some people would just shrug if Edinburgh Fringe collapses. Others think a decimation in 2021 will be the shake-up the Fringe needs.

What is most telling, I think, is how easily the Scottish Government could have settled this is they wanted to. Outdoor performances have been considered a non-starter in Edinburgh for lack of financial viability – but the Scottish Government coukd easily have make this viable with a subsidy that’s tiny compared to things like furlough. Whatever concerns they have about public safety, they could have covered by setting whatever conditions they like, and the venues would have bitten their hand off to sign up. I’d stated last year there’s no way the Scottish Government would allow the Edinbrugh Fringe to collapse on their watch. Now, I’m beginning to wonder.

So, here are seven scenarios I’ve imagine for how this might pan out, ranging from the best to the worst. None of these are predictions – the last six months have been gob-smacking, so who knows where thing go from here. But the possibilities at the end of the list are very sobering.

But let’s start with some optimisim.

1: Phoenix from the ashes

This is the scenario that many proponents of the status quo useem to be banking on. I think this prediction is optimistic to the point of recklessness, but let’s give wild optimism a chance for a moment.

It turns out the alternative festivals over England are nothing to worry about. They do okay, and do the job of keeping many of Edinburgh Fringe’s acts afloat, but it’s just not the same. If anything, they are doing Edinburgh Fringe a favour, by keeping interest up in top-flight theatre in festivals that resemble the fringe the best they can, but without ever seriously emerging as a long-term replacement. The overwhelming mood is that Underbelly Festival and Fringe Futures in London and Assembly Festival Garden in Coventry and Warren on the Beach in Brighton are great as a stop-gap, but everybody can’t wait for the real thing.

Crucially, however, the Big Four’s gigs in England are successful enough to get them financially secure, and give them confidence in returning to their homes. With interest renewed, they launch crowdfunder campaigns for both their own costs and subsidy for many of their acts, and they meet their target twice over. Edinburgh Fringe bounces back in 2022, and to the outside observer, it’s like nothing has happened. To the participants, however, thing have changed for the better, with smarter distribution of venues and better controls on errant landlords bringing costs down to something affordable.

Everybody’s happy. Well, not everybody – some people argue that’s didn’t excuse subjecting performing arts to extra restrictions without a proper reason – but no-one’s listing to them. In the court of public opinion at least, the Scottish Government’s controversial stance is vindicated.

2: Slow but steady recovery

Edinburgh Fringe takes a hit that stretches into 2022 and beyond, but the fundamentals that count in Edinburgh’s favour remain intact, and eventually pushes things back in its favour.

The phoenix does not rise from the ashes. Everybody was already resigned to Edinburgh Fringe 2021 not feeling like a festival, but 2022 didn’t really feel like a festival either. It was clobbered on two levels: venues were not confident of support from their host city and were reluctant to operate at full strength; and performers were reluctant to sign up to venues who were unsure what they could offer. Meanwhile, envious eyes looked southwards to festivals surpassing 2019 levels; it quickly becomes clear that Brighton Fringe, Camden Fringe and the Vault Festival have taken Edinburgh refugees who don’t plan to come back. Even the fringes supposed to work as feeders to Edinburgh such as Durham and Carlisle are running fine as festivals in their own right.

However, Edinburgh City Council, the Festival Fringe Society and the major venues hold their nerve and stay the course. Even after three years, the legendary power of the Edinburgh Fringe has not gone away. Certainly the national arts media who started giving more coverage to other festivals in 2021 switched back to Edinburgh in 2022 once a festival of any standing got going again. The mentality persists that Edinburgh is the place to be discovered, and most promoters continue to send their talent scouts to Edinburgh and nowhere else. The smaller fringes continue playing a bigger role than they have previously for beginners not ready for Edinburgh, but the big acts eventually find their way back.

It takes a few years for Edinburgh Fringe to return to full strength, and during this time Edinburgh takes quite an economic hit. But by the time anyone notices the effect, things are already getting back to normal – and everybody’s happy to settle with that.

3: Shrink to fit

Like scenario 2, but the draw factor of Edinburgh as the uniquely special fringe isn’t powerful enough to bring Edinburgh back to full strength. Instead, Edinburgh Fringe edges to a new equilibrium, at a lower level than before. Some of the demand has gone for good.

One festival’s loss is another festival’s gain through. A lot of entry-level acts realise that there are better places that Edinburgh to get started – as a result, The Space downsizes in Edinburgh and sets up at smaller fringes. Some of the bigger acts also decide they prefer a week-long run in a big venue in London than a month-long run in a small space in Edinburgh. Medium-sized acts learn the alternatives to Edinburgh are good options. As a result, the shrinkage of Edinburgh Fringe happens across the board, but the composition remains about the same. The three-week run also remains as standard, so does the flyering hub at the Royal Mile, as does the locations of the major venues.

The Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-2020s ends up quite similar to the Fringe of the mid-2000s, which, in spite of being notably smaller, doesn’t feel smaller to those who are there. Supply and demand rebalances and the cost of doing Edinburgh becomes a little more sane. The only down-side is the feeling that the fall in demand is down to freelancers who have been forced out of the business completely. Few fringe performers like to think that the easier ride for them comes at the expense of people like them.

4: Reconfiguration

The Edinburgh Fringe makes a partial recovery, but unlike the last scenario, the recovery is uneven, and the fringe we get from the end of it feels different. There are many different kinds of fringe that may emerge, so let’s float one possibility.

The most pronounced damage to the fringe programme are the well-known comedians. These comedians got a lot of flack in pre-2020 times for squeezing out comedians seeking their first break, but the reality is that all but the biggest names found it a financial struggle – and they quickly decide that they prefer all of these alternative summer festivals. First-timers look more closely at other festivals, especially as the prestige earned in 2021 seems to be sticking.With shorter runs the norm outside of Edinburgh, more groups opt for short runs in Edinburgh and it’s no longer looked on as second rate. However, Edinburgh remains the battleground for acts serious about being noticed.

It’s a mixed bag and difficult to pin down. A simplified summary is that the top comedian and entry-level acts are shaved off, but this is complicated by some big names who love the fringe who want to perform no matter what, student productions staying loyal to Edinburgh as no other fringe of any standing takes place in university summer vacation, and the free fringe similarly stays the same as there’s not really any equivalent. The only thing everyone can agree on is that Edinburgh Fringe in the 2020s is different from the 2010s.

5: The rise of curation

The upheaval of the pandemic leads to a very different fringe – but this time, it’s a lot clearer what’s changed. And people who championed the open festival aren’t happy about it.

Most of the major venues stay in Edinburgh, but on a reduced scale. Pleasance retreats to the Courtyard and ditches the Dome. Assembly sticks to Geroge Square and says goodbye to the Assembly Rooms and Assembly Hall. Gilded Balloon no longer needs the Chambers Street building that used to be C Venues. A whole raft of buildings are suddenly empty – and in move the regional theatres who’d previously been on the decline. Northern Stage has a another go at running a venue with Venues North’s backing. National Theatre of Scotland takes on space for a curated programme. Theatre 503 and Chichester Festival Theatre throw their hats into the ring. Even Forest Fringe decide it’s time for a return.

Previously venues such as Traverse and Summerhall, with the heavily curated programmes, were seen as the exceptions, with the commercially safe programme of the Big Four dominating the festival. Now this is increasingly the norm. In previous years the Big Four controversially pooled a “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” programme as if those four chains were the fringe, but now the curated venues are doing the same, and get closer to the International Festival with their own pool of curated work. The open fringe continues, but with most media interest having moved on to the new crowd, it’s a lot harder than it was to get recognition the old route.

There is an advantage: these theatres, many of them heavily subsidised, are able to give groups who could never go to Edinburgh on their own steam a chance to perform with their support. But, to the critics, it feels like a loss. For all its faults, the old Edinbrugh Fringe was a place where anyone could win the crowd. Now, the only people who get Fringe Firsts – or indeed any meaningful recognition – are the ones hand-picked by these venues. And, so the naysayers claim, it all feels sameish. The fringe successes that earned their hit status through popularity alone now feel like a dream that ended in 2019.

6: Dithering and decline

Things go from bad to worse after 2021, and it seems nobody will take responsibility to turn things round. Only when the situation looks dire do the involved parties work together. By then a lot of irreversible – and avoidable – damage has been done.

The problem no-one in Edinburgh takes seriously is breakdown of trust. In 2021, most venues are welcomed with open arms in other cities whilst Edinburgh was being difficult. Covid precautions continue – nothing like the scale of 2021 – but most venues tire of lack of decisions over what they can can’t actually do. However, finances play a part, and the landlord – both venues and digs – try to carry on hiking up rents in the hope of offsetting their losses from 2020 and 2021. Underbelly pulls out first – the combination of Covid nightmare Cowgate, petty objections over the 2021 big top and the fact they have portable venues not tied to Edinburgh made England the better offer. “Good riddance” say some people who haven’t forgotten the fiasco of 2019 Hogmanay. However, when other venues begin radically refocusing their operations over their border with increasingly token presences in Edinburgh, the penny finally drops. Business in Edinburgh take a hit – at first this is shrugged off as an effect on Covid, but by 2023 this excuse is wearing thin.

Edinburgh City Council blinks first. The leader of the council issues a statement that the current situation is untenable and implores everyone to find a solution. The council then tries to rebuild bridges with the venues, who take the opportunity to rant about all the times they were obstructed. By now, the situation is so desperate that the Council has little choice but to go along with it. Edinburgh University and most other landlords realise late in the day if they don’t cut rents, they won’t get any at all. Next year’s fringe is planned as a relaunch/renewal one, and the Scottish Government puts together a rescue package.

“Too little, too late”, say some. That’s not entirely fair – the Fringe’s decline is finally halted – but the consensus is that this should have been done at least 12 months ago. Edinburgh Fringe remains the UK’s largest fringe, but no longer dominates the fringe theatre scene, with all of the other festivals combined forming a big counter-balance. As for world leader – too late, that’s gone. Adelaide has already overtaken Edinburgh.

7: Meltdown

Everyone that can goes wrong does go wrong. But unlike the last scenario, the disaster heading Edinburgh’s way does not bring unity or co-operation. Instead, they turn on each other.

It turns out everybody who could save the fringe is more interested in using it as a political pawn. A bailout for the festival fringe society is easy enough, but neither Westminster nor Holyrood will help the venues: Westminster says it’s a Scottish Government problem, Holyrood says London-dominated venues should be paid for by England. But the final straw is the Scottish Government’s treatment of the landlords. Like the last scenario, Edinburgh University chases its losses in rent, but this time it digs its heels in over rent at 2019 prices – when no-one pays up, the Scottish Government compensates them “in recognition of their vital contribution to Edinburgh culture”. The venues are furious, and within a month, all of the Big Four and most of the second tier pull out. “Get lost then”, say the supporters of the Scottish Government’s position. “It’s not your fringe, we don’t need you.”

However, they are wrong on both counts. It turns out that, in practice, the Big Four do own the fringe. As they up sticks and resettle south, the community they’d built up goes with them. Some local Scottish acts fill in the vacuum, but the England-based arts media has followed the Big Four and the exposure from the Scotland-based Arts media goes unnoticed outside of Scotland, and so even some of the local Edinburgh acts get more interested in the English festivals. The International Festival – that turns out to still harbour a 75-year-old grudge – takes over many of the old buildings hoping that the fringe crowd will keep coming, but it’s no use; the vibe isn’t the same, nor are the acts. Even the other festivals take a hit. Without the buzz of the Royal Mile, it loses its charm. The Book Festival is now just another book festival. The Film Festival is now just another film festival. The only festival that emerges unscathed in the Military Tattoo, as no other festival can offer the courtyard of Edinburgh Castle.

And no help comes – at least, not from anyone in a position to help. They are still more interested in blaming each other for what happened. When the decline finally ends, there is a tiny rump fringe formed from the remnants of Bedlam, PBH and Greenside. Brighton Fringe and the Vault Festival are now the leading festival cultural hubs. Perhaps one day the Edinburgh Fringe can rebuild its former glory – after all, it’s been smaller before – but what a stupid pointless way for Edinburgh to throw it away like that.

Is this a prediction? No. Is it a possibility? Yes. And the fact I am even contemplating this future should be a very sobering thought. This should set alarm bells ringing to high heaven and prompt everyone to do something to avert this. But so far, nobody is.

It will be unforgivable if we come anywhere near this outcome.

2 thoughts on “7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

  1. tychy June 15, 2021 / 8:56 am

    Interesting article. I personally think that replacing Edinburgh with Brighton is rather like downgrading from pure heroin to weak tea. Mind you, I have pretty much written off this year (I am not making do with a third or a quarter of the Fringe) and, for the next, I am eyeing Adelaide with increasing curiosity…

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