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The Fringe at 75: how long will the Edinburgh festival survive?

The festival is a testament to people power. But we need to talk about commercialisation, equality and the climate

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
24 August 2022, 4.30pm

Each August, Edinburgh hosts the world’s largest arts festival

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Alan Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

I always recommend the circus. Each year, the world’s best acrobats, trapeze artists and contortionists come to Edinburgh and dance along the boundaries of what human bodies can do. Or an afternoon in Hunter Square, where I once saw a street performer climb blindfold onto an eight foot unicycle and juggle chainsaws. Or Summerhall, home of theatre’s radicals.

Everything everyone says about how terrible the Edinburgh festivals are, is true. They push up rents and exploit volunteer labour. Tickets are too expensive, performers get too little. A bed and a venue here in August can cost thousands – it’s much easier to bring a show if you (or your parents) have serious cash. They are built on carbon-heavy international travel.

Yet everything that everyone says about how wonderful the Edinburgh festival is, is also true. I took my 19-month-old daughter to her first show – Cirque Beserk – where she pointed and shouted “WOW” and “WHAT?” and, at the trapeze, “SWING”. I left Josie Long’s show dehydrated from crying and cry-snot laughing. At Jonny and the Baptists I took a large slug of my water just before a perfectly timed crack about the Queen, a silly joke you’d never get on the Beeb because it punches up too far, and the drink ended up down my sleeve.

Even this year, where the line-up has been diminished by COVID, there are still 3,500 shows to see at the Fringe.

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“I love art. And I love artists, and I love seeing the sheer wonderful variety,” Josie Long tells me over hot chocolates and sweet potato chips as I try to recompose myself after her show.

“As a comedian, I have always felt that going to the festival makes me up my game and try and get better.” Most years, she says, “I'll see a handful of shows that I find so incredibly, beautifully wonderful that they give me enough food for thought and challenging stuff for the future.”

This year, post-lockdowns, it feels like there’s a lot of that challenging material at the Fringe. The well-reviewed “Your Dead Mate” is just one of many shows – more than normal, it feels like – about death, as the world tries to find a way to talk about the human impact of the pandemic. Bilal Zafar’s Care, a gentle comedy act about a year working in the brutal for-profit care home industry, tells the shocking story of how the country has auctioned off its grandparents. There are many shows about climate change. Other performers have explored and mocked the current hostility towards trans people – and the trans comedian Jen Ives has faced some of that hostility herself.

Josie Long on stage in 2016

Comedian Josie Long has been performing at the Fringe since 1999

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Matt Crossick / Alamy Stock Photo

The Fringe is just one part of the festival held here each August. The Edinburgh International Festival, which is the official, high-art end of things, was originally a Keynesian post-war project – literally so. Launched in 1947, it was partly funded by the Arts Council under the chairmanship of the iconic economist. But the vision was that of an Austrian-Jewish refugee impresario, Rudolph Bing, who wanted to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" and heal the wounds of war.

Then there’s the Book Festival, “the world’s largest public celebration of the written word”, the Film Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Festival of Politics and countless other events, performances and happenings.

A radical history

The Fringe – the tangled chaos of energy that has grown up around that formal core – started in 1947 too, with theatre companies coming to Edinburgh to take advantage of visiting audiences. But it was given institutional form by the poet Hamish Henderson, who arranged the Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh between 1951 and 1954. Gaelic singers from the Hebrides and Travellers from the Highlands brought to urban and lowland Scottish audiences a type of music they’d never heard before, launching the folk revival.

Henderson was a multilingual libertarian communist who learned about Gramsci while fighting alongside Italian partisans during the war, and became the first person to translate his writing into English. He understood the importance of the arts in shaping how peoples see themselves and the world, and the importance of giving a platform to the working class and marginalised.

“It may well be,” said his Guardian obituary in March 2002, “that the new Scotland – with its parliament, its renewed cultural confidence, its renewed dominance of British politics – owes more to Henderson than anyone else.”

The Fringe probably does, too. But this is a polyamorous, multi-parented family. If Henderson brought folk culture, it was Ricky Demarco who brought contemporary art, as described in the BBC documentary, ‘Rico’. The now 92-year-old impresario, who has been involved in every festival, used it to build connections across the iron curtain during the Cold War, travelling into Eastern Europe again and again to find artists to host.

One of them – the Yugoslav feminist Marina Abramović, then a young woman, now seen as the grandmother of performance art, stayed in my dad’s flat while she was here in 1973 to perform her historic “rhythm 10”, in which she percussively stabbed the floor in the gaps between her fingers, repeating the error each time she accidentally caught herself. My dad found the performance so traumatic that he immediately bought a calming painting at a nearby exhibition – a skyscape he later gave to me, which hangs on the wall next to me now.

On the surface, the Fringe has become a capitalist happening. But it retains some of its radical heart

Another Demarco guest who gained significant prominence through the Edinburgh festival was Joseph Beuys, a founder member of the German Green Party, whose fringe exhibitions often on environmental themes directly influenced generations of artists around the world.

Anarchist Tony Allen and Marxist Alexei Sayle arguably introduced the then-new form of stand-up comedy to the Fringe in 1980. While Demarco later denounced comedy’s eventual domination of the festival as an “infestation” linked to his nemesis, commercialisation, I’ve seen some truly wonderful performances over the years – and mostly learnt to avoid the racist and misogynist claptrap.

On the surface, the Fringe has become a capitalist happening. But it retains some of its radical heart, with thousands of people putting the human flourishing of art ahead of financial return, and with hundreds of shows whose content is – implicitly or explicitly – more radical than what’s usually allowed on the radio or TV. It creates a space in which Left politics are, for a brief moment, not entirely marginalised, and where people can come together and give form to their thoughts and feelings. It is an institution which pulls politics in a different direction from most other media.

The rip-off hot dog stands and over-priced bars with underpaid workers aren’t, after all, the point. They are opportunists gathering around a crowd which has already formed – and which is there for its own reasons. The more important question is, perhaps, who’s in that crowd?

Who’s here? And who’s not?

The Fringe “has got all the virtues and disadvantages of being a brutal free market,” Joyce McMillan, the Scotsman’s veteran theatre critic, tells me. “There is no technical or institutional barrier. If you can find a hole and have a show to put on, you can come.”

But it is “absolutely brutal on people who start out with little. Quite a high portion of the Fringe consists of young people who are here because their parents or they can afford to be. That accounts for the part of the Fringe that’s people in fake moustaches doing spoof versions of Sherlock Holmes.”

Most of the big venues use the profits from prime-time big-name stand-ups to subsidise more serious theatre during the day. McMillan praises She Wolf, a monologue about gender and class in a capitalist world by a young Edinburgh writer who won an ART award, which grants free venue and rehearsal space; and Svengali, which hopes to help people find “a broader language to discuss power dynamics and those uncomfortable relationships that a lot of us have found ourselves in over the years”. A number of public institutions, including the Scottish and Irish governments, fund shows, although austerity has diminished the resources available.

Acrobats from the 15-strong Circus Abyssinia troupe rehearse

The 15-strong Circus Abyssinia troupe rehearse for their first post-pandemic performance, May 2022

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Imageplotter/Alamy Live News

At the same time, the past decade has seen a more active conversation about race, class and gender. The group Fringe of Colour puts “constant pressure”. “It’s still overwhelmingly ‘Fringe so white,’ but there are more Black and Asian companies than ever,” McMillan says.

In my experience, these are more often at the more professional end of things, where performers can expect a regular wage. All three circuses I’ve been to this year – Cirque Beserk, Circus Abyssinia and Black Blues Brothers; all excellent – are performed by people of colour.

Likewise, McMillan adds, people are more aware of gender. “There’s a fantastic generation of young female writers,” she says, though they still “get a rough edge from critics”. Exodus, by Uma Nada Raja, is a farce mocking Priti Patel with an all-female cast. McMillan thought it was excellent, despite some “bitterly bad reviews from people who don’t like farce or don’t think women should do it”.

In recent years, McMillan says, “the thing that’s changed most is that people are talking more about class and poverty, and a lot of these schemes to finance people are aimed to solve it.

She sees these as honest attempts by the Fringe’s authorities and venues, but ultimately “sticking plasters on a huge societal problem”.

“You can definitely see that there is a contingent of young people who are from working-class backgrounds,” says Josie Long. “But you can also see that there are a lot of younger comedians who are suspiciously wealthy.”

Nonetheless, Long thinks it’s “thrilling” that things whose value can’t be measured financially “still occur massively”.

“Even if you're completely and totally skint, there’s things like street performance. Of course, fucking landlords are making all the money. Yeah, that's what they want to do. They're awful, and a better society would have a system that would rob them. But unfortunately, we don't have that system. So at the very least, we can celebrate all the things that they don't understand.”

The festival relies on the ongoing support of a city, whose citizens are often an afterthought

Long first performed at the Fringe in 1999, when there were “exponentially fewer venues,” and performers could get a press pass – a “little piece of red paper” that would let you into any show with a friend, meaning “performers could just go around and see any show you wanted. And it was very exciting.” These days, “everything is becoming more digitised, and more formalised. That’s a real shame.”

This year, the Jerry Sadowitz affair – the comedian’s show at the Pleasance was pulled after audience complaints – has dominated headlines. But if older people feel a sense of loss, a sense that things are being ‘cancelled’, Long suggests, it’s got more to do with this growing surveillance, both online and offline, the increasing privatisation of space and the endless cuts to institutions which support culture and learning and play than it does to do with the so-called ‘woke brigade’ or ‘cancel culture’.

Change is needed

Perhaps the defining feature of this year’s festival isn’t the content, though, but the waste. With refuse workers in Edinburgh on strike, the streets are strewn with litter. When the wind gets up, as it often does in Edinburgh, the litter can be whipped up into your face, a reminder that this event – like almost every major event – is run by overstretched, underpaid workers.

It also relies on flying people from across the world at a time when fossil fuel use needs to be abolished; on a growing Airbnb market that is pushing up rents in the city centre; and on audiences getting over their COVID fears and cramming together into small rooms.

The festival also relies on the ongoing support of a city, whose citizens are often an afterthought. Absurdly, it doesn’t even align with Scottish school summer holidays, which end in early August.

“It just feels exploitative,” says Mike Small, editor of the website Bella Caledonia. If the festival is to have a future, he says, “they need to be challenged on why their only metric for success is growth. What’s their vision in ten years' time?”

The ‘they’ in Mike’s questions is ambiguous. The festival happens because of thousands of different organisations. But perhaps the two most significant are the city council and Edinburgh University, which has managed to pull the festival’s centre of gravity onto its campuses and into its buildings. As the largest landlord in the city, the university is also the biggest player in debates around the accommodation.

Nathan Manchutta blows a fire ball

A fire-breathing street performer entertains crowds on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

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Arch White/Alamy

Edinburgh probably needs to introduce a tourist tax, as the opposition SNP and Greens on the council have called for. Airbnb-style short-term lets need to be heavily regulated. And the failure of the university to build halls to keep pace with its growing student population needs to be addressed – fixing this could create space for performers to rent discounted rooms during university vacation time.

The city desperately needs to invest in its public transport infrastructure, including tram lines, and banish cars, which would let the festival grow outside of its city-centre bubble, easing pressure on Old and New Town communities.

And so does Scotland - as it becomes harder and harder to justify flying, ferry routes to Scandinavia and Europe from East Coast ports - some of which I was able to get as a child, but which were priced out by cheap flights - should be re-opened and publicly run.

And the festival needs to move forwards a couple of weeks to line up with the Scottish state school holidays, so local children can go to shows and local teenagers can bring them. There are too many productions by posh public schools, and none by local high schools. A calendar shift might also allow local schools to become venues, with the income and cultural exchange that implies.

The fact that Scotland’s capital city hosts the world’s biggest arts festival every year plays, I suspect, a bigger role in the national psyche than we often talk about. It helps create the sense that Scotland is its own player on the international stage. It is a broadly progressive anchor at a time when so much media pulls to the right.

But its continued success is by no means guaranteed. While the festival partly runs on the love and creativity of the arts, it also relies on a whole thicket of public institutions – the city council, universities, arts councils, museums, libraries – which have been slashed and burned by austerity, pushing them to become ever-more commercial, ever-less generous. And its basic model, physically transporting people from all around the world, isn’t sustainable.

If this astonishing monument of human creativity is to survive and thrive for another 75 years, it will need to reinvent not just the artistic forms of its shows, but its whole self.

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