Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

Rubbish piles high on a big
This particular mess wasn’t Edinburgh Fringe’s fault. But there’s a lot of other messes that the Fringe Society need to clean up.

COMMENT: The fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to please everybody. They must realise this is no longer possible, decide who they want to please, and be open about it.

Well, we made it. Edinburgh Fringe was set for a bumpy ride, and the first few days were particularly turbulent, with complaints about support for reviewers, the relocation of Fringe Central, the lack of an app, and all sorts of other things being aired in the first week. There were even worries that the Big Four might break away and work entirely off their own ticketing site with other venues invited to join. Then the festival got underway properly and attention turned to what was actually being performed. In a way, it had parallels to the 2012 Olympics: lots of complaining in the run-up, but taking a back seat to the festival people love. Then came the Jerry Sadowitz saga and Assembly and Pleasance started fighting each other, undermining any prospect of a co-ordinated breakaway. Meanwhile, the performers at the free fringe venues have started clashing with the Big Four again – it seems the Festival Fringe Society was caught in the crossfire.

At the time of writing, it looks like the worst is over. Ticket sales are probably going to be okay. It’s not clear what sort of size we’re looking at next year, as it’s possible that numbers this year were inflated by postponed plans from the last two years, but we’re unlikely to be facing meltdown. There might also be a reduction as expectations of what post-Covid fringes would be like have been tempered with reality, but a modest reduction might be a good thing if it brings demand on accommodation down to something sane. The worst mistakes made this year can be rectified for next year. The app can be brought back, or, at the worst, the website can be improved to do the job. We can have the discussion of how best to support reviewers. Finances should be in a better state to roll back some of the less popular economisations. At this stage, I’m quite relaxed about 2023.

However, there is a root problem that isn’t going away any time soon, which is that Edinburgh Fringe has hopelessly outgrown the city that hosts it. Demand outstrips supply for both accommodation and performances spaces, and piles up expenses for performers; and although Edinburgh Fringe has tried to source some cheap accommodation, this is only a drop in the ocean. The bottom line is that unless you have a trust fund, already live in Edinburgh, or are able to run in one of the cheapest tech-free venues (or preferably a hybrid of all three), you are taking on a huge financial outlay without anything guaranteed in return. Anyone who thinks that your reward is directly proportional to how good your play was is naive – so much comes down to luck and factors outside your control. The Festival Fringe Society, remember, isn’t that big an organisation and can’t do that much about it. Even the Big Four supervenues can’t do that much about the sky-high rents that landlords charge for their spaces.

What the Festival Fringe Society can do, however, is decide who the fringe is for. The idealistic answer is “everybody who wants to go”, and I don’t think we should change that (indeed, if they dropped the open access I would probably stop going). However, we can still decide who Edinburgh Fringe is optimised for. Does the Festival Fringe Society concentrate its efforts of helping the minnows thrive in an environment where they compete with some big commercially successful players? Or should the society concentrate on a festival which the brightest and best compete for the prestige, and work on a sink or swim basis for everyone else? Both are valid aspirations, but they are very different aspirations that will please some and alienate others. However, alienating some performers is an improvement on alienating everybody, as happened this year.

The two choices:

I’m not saying these are the only two choices available, but they are the only two choices I can think of. There might be a compromise between these two extremes, but off-hand I can’t think of a workable one. Both these scenarios, by the way, assume that everybody is on board with the vision. It might not need everybody’s support, but it should at the least have the acceptance of the venues, the City Council, the Sottish Government and the arts media.

If it really comes down to a choice of one of two extremes, here’s what’s open to us:

1: Edinburgh Fringe is a gateway into the arts for all

Edinburgh Fringe is no longer the only open-access route into the arts – there are other options now such as Brighton and Buxton Fringes. Nevertheless, Edinburgh Fringe reaffirms its commitment to giving entry-level acts the best possible experience in Edinburgh. Bigger groups who have already made a name for themselves are still welcome, but it is made clear that the Festival Fringe Society won’t go out of its way to give extra support to acts who are already getting praise from the arts media and already have connections with the arts industry. Some of the things the festival fringe society can do are no-brainers. Getting the app back up and running has to be a priority; they probably want to focus on getting Fringe Central back to its former glory too. These things aren’t a big deal for the big acts, but many small acts see this as a lifeline.

The difficult question is what to do about reviews. Now, I think reviews are overrated to some extent. There is a widespread assumption that if someone prints a five-star review, good audience figures will follow, but was that really down to the review? Might it simply have been down to good word-of mouth publicity, of which the good review was a by-product? However, it’s after the fringe has finished when reviews show their real value. Whether you like it or not, reviews from reputable publications are the only way you can prove to prospective venues and punters that you can put on something good. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough review publications and reviewers to go round. Even in 2019, around a third of productions were going unreviewed – and if you’ve forked out for a three-week run that’s a very poor return. We’re probably looking at more extensive support than accommodation for a few national newspaper journalists, but more importantly, we’ll somehow have to make sure this support goes to people who otherwise wouldn’t get reviews. Simply piling on extra reviews for the best acts doesn’t cut it.

The other thing that needs a rethink is the conventional wisdom that you need to run the full fringe in order to be recognised. Is that really the case? Should we be encouraging this mentality? Perhaps we should encourage arts reviewers and arts industry to give a fairer hearing to acts running a shorter length of time. Maybe we should look at making a week-long run the norm, with the full month only used for popular acts who can be confident of selling over the whole festival. We may even need to contemplate the radical change suggested by some of splitting the fringe into two or more sections – people are less likely to feel obligated to run four weeks if there’s breaks in the middle of it.

The question is then what happens to bigger-scale acts who already have their favourable coverage and their arts industry backers. To be clear, I expect the most popular comedy acts to return year upon year no matter what – they pack full houses so easily it’s guaranteed to be worthwhile. But there are still some reasonably well-known comedians who are questioning if this is worthwhile, and focusing on acts less well known than them won’t be a good incentive to stay. Similarly, some plays backed by the best new writing theatres may decide Edinburgh’s not worth it if the support isn’t going their way – perhaps a tour of new writing venues will be more worthwhile. How much of a loss is this to the Edinburgh Fringe?

I guess the question this comes down to is whether an exodus of more establish acts is seen as a good thing or a bad thing. Fewer acts means less pressure on accommodation and cheaper prices for the rest of us. It might also mean that there’s fewer big acts soaking up all the media and industry attention, and perhaps the smaller acts will get the look-in they deserve. Or it might backfire. The people who are too busy reviewing and schmoozing with the big acts might not bother coming at all. Edinburgh Fringe may lose its shine, and the prestige of being the number one destination for the greatest art may wane, in turn weakening the credibility of al the other acts taking part. There’s no knowing which way this will go. But if you’re serious about rediscovering the Fringe’s original purpose of giving everyone a chance to make it big (Fleabag doesn’t count, Phoebe Weller-Bridge was already known to the national newspapers), that’s a risk you’re going to have to take.

2: Edinburgh Fringe is where we discover the greatest new talent

This is the more controversial route, but it’s less radical than you think. The Festival Fringe Society concentrates its efforts into making sure the big prizes for the best performers remain up for grabs: Fringe Firsts, reviews from the national papers, arts industry scouts looking to sign up actors for future careers, and up-and-coming comedians getting their first break on telly. Commercially successful acts and established performers already respected outside the fringe circuit are also supported – after all, you need the reputation of the existing bit hitters for the up-and comers to be taken seriously.

The price of this is that it becomes a less hospitable place for the newest acts starting off. In particular, expectations for reviews are managed, and a lot of acts run the festival without getting any reviews at all. Edinburgh Fringe remains open-access – the prerogative must remain with the individual acts to decide if they’re ready to compete with the big players – but the message given from the Festival Fringe Society is to treat Edinburgh Fringe as a trade fair. It is in your interests to only go with your absolute best material refined to be as good as it can be. If that is not you, they advise you to go somewhere else first. The smaller fringes are a good option if you’re not ready for the big one, and for those who can go via the Vault Festival or support from regional theatres, that’s another way of preparing yourself.

If this proposal sounds outrageous, I have one thing to say to you: I am already advising this. If you are new to this and your primary mission is to come home with some good reviews under your belt, Edinburgh Fringe isn’t your best option. You have about the same chance of picking up reviews from Brighton Fringe – and should you fail, it’s a much less expensive failure than running the full three weeks at Edinburgh. Want to just try something new? Buxton Fringe. Want an environment that favours experimental work over commercially safe work? Vault Festival (if they’ll have you). Apart from student groups (where everyone is free during August and you can spread the cost out amongst a large group), it is very rare that I would recommend Edinburgh Fringe as the first stop on your fringe journey.

The difference here is that this involves the Festival Fringe Society themselves saying what plenty of us are saying already – and that will raise eyebrows. So far, Edinburgh Fringe has happily coexisted with other open festivals but has steered clear of suggesting another fringe might be a better option. The optimistic scenario is that the people who should heed the advice to go elsewhere do so and demand for accommodation falls. Of course, if a sufficient number of smaller acts are to move willingly, the Edinburgh Fringe will have to make an effort to make sure the alternatives are worthwhile. Especially Brighton Fringe. Will acts to impress the reviewers and punters in Brighton be taken seriously as those in Edinburgh? Because you’re going to have to make sure they are if you want to steer demand away from Edinburgh.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of ways this could go wrong. Let’s imagine only a fifth of Edinburgh Fringe acts go to other fringes – that’s a hell of a lot for the rest of the fringe circuit to absorb, even Brighton. A lot of people are still wedded to the idea that Edinburgh Fringe can do for everybody what it did when it was half the size, 20 years ago. Even though I think those aspirations are unachievable, if Edinburgh Fringe said exactly the same thing the could be accused of selling out. This option is even riskier than option one – but I still think it’s a better course of action than doing nothing and hoping things somehow sort themselves out.

And a third possibility …

So far, my scenarios have rested on one key assumption: that the whole of the fringe holds together. This means it isn’t just the Festival Fringe Society acting along – the major venues and council agree to this direction and go along with it.

But what if things don’t hold together? Here’s how things might look if they don’t

3: The Big Four go their own way.

A decade ago, there was the infamous appearance of the “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” brand. For years the “comedy festival” and “fringe” were considered synonymous, but this was more specific. This was Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon (and sometimes Just the Tonic) pooling together their comedy listings together and calling this the comedy festival. The rest of the Big Four listings were also pooled elsewhere in the programme. Crucially, Edinburgh Fringe comedy that wasn’t with the Big Four was excluded, much to the annoyance of comedians at the Free Fringe end who didn’t want to pay Big Four rates. The controversial Comedy Festival name has been dropped, but the collated listings persist in the programme and edfest.com website. One convenient side-effect has been that you can buy tickets for one Big Four venue from another. But there’s always been nerves they’ve kept the infrastructure in place for calling themselves the fringe.

This year, eyebrows were raised when four other venues were included in edfest.com (including Summerhall and Zoo) and they stepped up their marketing as the best of curated theatre. If they do launch a takeover bid it won’t be for a benefit of the smaller acts in the cheaper and more inclusive venues. But if they did try to launch a takeover bid, how might it look?

The precedent I have in mind is the Premier League. There was a time when top-flight English football was playing in the first division. The Football association managed this and clubs from all divisions had an input. Then the clubs in the first division decided they’re rather run their own affairs. This was at the time when satellite television was taking hold and huge sums of money for TV rights were the key attraction, with or without the FA’s backing. They got their way – of course they did, money talks. The one concession they made was the keep their Premier League within the Football League’s structure for promotion and relegation, but there’s no doubt the Premier League is run for the benefit of the clubs in the Premier League first and last.

How might this precedent apply to an open arts festival? If the Festival Fringe society thinks the Big Four have the backing of the powers that be, they might concede the same way the Football Association did. So an open-access Edinburgh Fringe continues to exist, but the Big Four call the shots. Their website and programme becomes the primary source of information for what’s on. Services such as the app and Fringe Central are cut because the Big Four won’t willingly contribute the registration fees for things that, in their opinion, they provide their own acts themselves anyway. A fringe-wide website will probably continue to exist, but it’s hard to see an all-inclusive paper programme surviving. Supporters say that it’s much easier for the venues (who, they argue, actually do the work for the fringe) to run their own affairs. Expect protests from the free fringe venues, who may cut ties with a fringe completely at the behest of the Big Four. But don’t expect the highest-profile media to consider anything that’s in edfringe.com but not edfest.com.

Or … the Festival Fringe Society may tell the Big Four to do their worst. That’s when things get really messy. We will then have two competing festivals in Edinburgh vying to achieve the same thing. The national press might be happy to go with the Big Four and pretend the shows not in the breakaway don’t exist, but this is going to be a nightmare for the council and police who will be negotiating with two festivals instead of one. Expect the rival leaders of the two festivals to be continuously blaming each other. A lot may come down to who Edinburgh City Council sides with, but there may be a very very bitter dispute before we get to that point.

One thing is certain: the one group of people who won’t be the winners from the are the small-scale and entry-acts who either cannot get into the Big Four venues or don’t want to pay Big Four rates. This is why I would urge anyone upset over Fringe Central or the lack to the app not to treat the Festival Fringe Society as the enemy. The alternative we’re looking it is going to be a lot worse for you.

Does the Big Four have the resources to launch a breakaway bid? Yes. Would they be successful in ousting the Festival Fringe Society as the people in charge? Maybe. Would it be good for small acts who the fringe was supposed to be an opportunity for? No way.

And would the Big Four actually do this? … Probably not. That’s for one reason, and one reason only: lack of unity. The Big Four is at its most powerful when they stand shoulder to shoulder – right now, however, Assembly and Pleasance are in-fighting, over both relations with the festival fringe society, and the infamous decision over Jerry Sadowitz. However, the guarantee is not absolute. If the Festival Fringe Society makes as many errors of judgement next year as they did this year, the Big Four may forget their differences and unite against what they consider a threat to their livelihood.

So Edinburgh Fringe must collectively take a decision. It can’t go on at it has been getting pulled in all directions. They must choose a direction and stick to it. And if the people who don’t like it leave – well, no-one’s a fan of the current size, are they? I don’t know what the right answer is. All I know is that bending over backward to please everyone is not working.

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