Thu. Jul 18th, 2024


Without substantial support, the world’s largest arts festival won’t take place north of the border in 2021. Might it migrate to London?

Work is intensifying behind the scenes to put together a reduced Edinburgh Festival Fringe – potentially with in-person attendances – in August.

But the heads of the four main Fringe venues – the Pleasance, Assembly Festival, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly – are cautioning that a clearer timetable for the return to normal life in Scotland plus substantial state support are required if it’s to go ahead. They further warn that the survival of the world’s biggest arts festival, estimated to bring between £200 million and £1 billion to the Scottish economy, is at risk if Government backing isn’t found.

The roadmap to ending restrictions in England, provisionally by midsummer, was met with cautious optimism by the theatre industry after it was announced on Monday. But in Scotland on Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon’s outline offered a less comprehensive timetable for the transition from the current (highest) level four restrictions (lockdown) to normality. The furthest date the First Minster was willing to set down was a putative return to level three from April 26. Another update will be delivered mid-March.

There was no official reaction from the Fringe Society – the organisation that supports the Fringe. A spokesperson referred to the most recent statement: “There will be a Fringe from 06 – 30 August 2021, be it live or digital or both. It’s still too early to say exactly what the festival will look like at this stage, and with the situation changing around us so rapidly, it wouldn’t be sensible or fair for us to speculate.” Registration for performers has moved to spring, and will stay open through the summer.

At the Edinburgh International Festival, another spokesperson advised: “It’s too early for us to talk in any detail about this year”, directing any interested parties to a recent statement by Francesca Hegyi, the executive director: “We are still optimistic that the Edinburgh International Festival will go ahead this summer and are working closely with our colleagues in public health, local authorities and Scottish Government.”

Pleasance Theatre boss Anthony Alderson is frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon's 'lack of commitment'
Pleasance Theatre boss Anthony Alderson is frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘lack of commitment’

It’s easier to get the lie of the land from talking to those who run the biggest venues on the Fringe. The most outspoken about the risks and potential for crisis is Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance Theatre Trust. Established at the Fringe in 1985 – in a complex of student buildings – and growing hugely thereafter, the Pleasance saw boom times in 2019 (selling 560,000 tickets to 277 productions by the last day), and then its operation violently grind to a halt with the cancellation of the 2020 Fringe last April.

Alderson expresses concern at the “lack of commitment. Nicola Sturgeon said the news would be frustrating and that’s exactly what it is. She said it’s impossible to map out how to come out of this, but I don’t entirely understand why. The version for England sets out the intention – my frustration is: where is the intention here? We’d love to be doing something. If we have to wait until April to get a decision about June, then we will never get there. I think we have to have a decision now about August. We all accept that there may come a point where they’d turn around and go: ‘We haven’t met the conditions set out for opening’ but why can’t we have the conditions?”

Whereas in England, Reading and Leeds festivals are now booking for the end of August, north of the border a question mark still hangs over the removal of social distancing. “We’re trying to press upon the [City of Edinburgh] council and the Scottish Government that we cannot do a festival at two metres,” Alderson continues. “At one metre-plus we could consider it. Even then it’s almost impossible.”

In common with other venues, the Pleasance is exploring the option of finding workable locations outside. The aspiration is to hold on for as long as possible to work up a programme – potentially as late as May – but the room for manoeuvre is limited. With reserves having run down, the challenge is taking any substantial risk.

In December, Alderson warned that the festivals “cannot possibly survive missing two years in a row”, and reiterates the gravity of the threat again. “How do we get to festival 2022? If I don’t know about any support and I don’t know anything about festival 2021, we may be looking at hibernation. If we miss this summer, there are maybe up to 50 venue operators who will be thinking ‘We’ve got to survive to August 2022, which is a hell of a long way’.


“The real prize comes next year, the 75th anniversary – wouldn’t it be a tragedy if there was nothing there? Scotland could lose one of its biggest cultural treasures. The recovery is going to take years. It isn’t going to be a single shot in the arm that sorts everything in one go, it’s going to take years of reinvestment. If they want this golden egg back then they’ve got to support it.” His estimated bill “for putting the festival back on its feet is £10-15 million.”

“I don’t know if we need as much as that,” affirms Karen Koren, the founder (in 1986) and co-director (with her daughter Katy) of Edinburgh institution the Gilded Balloon, “but we do need some kind of underwriting. For us, it would cost about £1 million to do a full programme. We’re about half a million in debt.”

Their embryonic modest plan is a couple of venues, with a handful of shows each. “We’re in a precarious position; we are doing all we can to survive. If the council and the Government want the festival to be the biggest arts festival in the world, they’re going to have to subsidise it in some form.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag began at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag began at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013 CREDIT: Jane Hobson/REX

Ed Bartlam, director of the Underbelly (est 2000), agrees: “One mustn’t underestimate the importance of the Fringe to the wider cultural ecosystem. If there’s ever a time to support it, then this is it. The Fringe’s success is that it’s an entrepreneurial beast, but in this situation that makes it incredibly fragile. If nothing was to happen this year, that could jeopardise the future of the Fringe. We’re confident we can do something if we’re allowed to. There’s no doubt that there’s an appetite from the city, and definitely artists and promoters for something to happen, as you’d expect.”

Stressing the positives – that the Fringe “by its nature can be quite reactive and fast-footed” – he also warns that if it goes ahead, it won’t be business as usual. “It’s not going to be the Fringe we all remember. But we’re continually looking at what we could do. At Underbelly we do a lot of stuff in tents, with accessible ticket prices, outdoor food and drink, which is exactly what people are going to want to do. At the next Fringe there’ll be more emphasis on outdoor tented events than vaults, a la Fleabag 2013 [which took place in the latter].”

Last but not least of the Big Four, William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Festival (dating to 1981), acknowledges that the challenge of rescuing the Fringe is daunting. Factor in five other major venues that are also in regular consultation (Zoo, Traverse, Summerhall, Just the Tonic and the Stand) and “together we turnover £30 million at the festival. It won’t be commercially viable unless there’s some support going into it.”

In contrast to the Gilded Balloon, Assembly has a full programme in readiness just in case. “The conversations have all been on the basis that there would be more shows outside than inside. I think outdoors is preferable because there is more air, but I’m old enough to remember when there was a hole in the ground where the Traverse now is and they put tents next to each other. It caused havoc. I remember Malcolm Hardee driving a tractor through Eric Bogosian’s show with all his audience following behind him.”

That anecdote alone serves as a reminder of how teeming with maverick adventure, inimitably so, the Fringe can be. But is there a risk that if things don’t improve sufficiently quickly in Scotland, artists will congregate south of the border? The idea may sound extreme, but it’s not. As Alderson reveals: “Without a doubt, those conversations have started. None of us want to be sitting around doing nothing. If we can’t do [the Fringe] in Edinburgh we will be getting in touch with theatres around the capital, saying ‘Why don’t we do something?’. In fact, that’s already happening.”



By Lala