David Mead muses on issues facing the annual arts jamboree, and casts an eye back on this year’s edition.
Being the first full year back after the pandemic was always likely to be a little different for the 2022 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And so it felt. Walking around the city, it certainly seemed like visitor numbers were down. The Royal Mile was busy, particularly at weekends, but I can’t ever remember being able to walk down it so easily. It was a similar tale down on the Grassmarket, which felt decidedly deserted some days. At least it was easier to get a seat in a coffee shop!
On the whole, audiences didn’t seem too bad, however. Most performances I attended had pretty much the number there I might expect. The exception was the two shows I saw at ZOO Southside, which were both surprisingly thin. But the evidence of my own eyes suggests it was mostly the casual visitors there mainly for the street entertainment that were missing.
A few numbers. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe say that just over 2.2 million tickets were issued this year across all venues and art forms, for 3,334 shows performed by artists from 63 countries. That’s 25% down on 2019, although there were also 14% less shows. Sales to residents of the city (39% of the total sold) were actually up 4%, with those to overseas visitors (10% of the total) up 2%. So, it’s UK visitors that are missing.
There are some huge variations in those figures, however. Although the big eight Fringe venues (Assembly, Dance Base, Gilded Balloon, Just the Tonic, Pleasance, Summerhall, Underbelly and Zoo) reckon their sales match the overall trend of being down around 25%, at Summerhall, ticket sales were just 7% lower, despite presenting 30% fewer shows, meaning that more tickets were sold for each show.
More numbers. The Fringe Society’s Arts Industry office accredited 1,354 producers, programmers, bookers, talent agencies, festivals and others from 45 countries, all looking to find work, tour it and support artists beyond the festival itself. Over 770 of the world’s media attended, although presumably only a fraction were reviewers. I heard and read several comments about shows struggling to get covered. There certainly seemed to be fewer dance reviews this year.
Regarding there being fewer people around, some of it is probably a Covid hangover with some not yet ready to be in big crowds again.
More important, I suspect was the expense and problems just getting there. Fuel costs have rocketed and there were massive uncertainties around flights and trains, often being cancelled at short notice; and that’s before you factor in the days when strikes meant no trains at all. I suspect some just gave up. Even I came close. And I can’t help wondering, like theatre-going, have some people just got out of the habit?
But the biggest issue is surely the soaring cost of accommodation, which has long been a problem but it is starting to get acute. Indeed, the eight Edinburgh Festival Fringe major venues have warned that this poses a major risk to the its future. Put simply, they say, audiences and artists alike are being priced out of the city.
It’s all about supply and demand of course, but it’s not unusual to find hotels doubling prices during August. University hall accommodation has also got extremely expensive, more per night than you would pay in a four-star hotel in another city in some cases. What reasonable deals there are on AirBnB seems to be getting fewer and fewer, and further and further out of the centre.
Costs of actually staging shows are rising too. The eight big venues note than many artists and productions made significant losses.
On top of all that, this year, there was the trash; and I don’t mean on stage. Thanks to a strike by Edinburgh’s refuse collectors, bins were overflowing and rubbish was piled high wherever you looked. When the bins got full it was simply dumped. Gutters were full of discarded water bottles and food wrappers in particular. It really was as bad as the pictures in the newspapers. It must have put people off.
Incidentally, surprisingly little of the garbage seemed to be fliers. I have seen it suggested that a mobile app would remove the need for them. Like a website, an app is only going to help if you have some idea of what you are looking for, unless you want to spend hours scrolling through shows. A flier is going to attract you to shows you might never have considered, that never would have showed up in your browsing. And, if handed it, you are probably meeting someone in the show, or at least closely connected to it. An app might make booking easier, though.
I don’t go along with the idea that the fall in numbers in itself is a major threat to the Fringe going forward. It’s certainly not about to implode. Edinburgh has been struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of Fringe performers and visitors for some time. It’s nothing new. But maybe a little slimming down would be no bad thing. Bigger is not always better.
But there clearly are challenges. How to solve them is another matter. One of the problems with addressing the issues is that there are so many organisations involved. The Festival Fringe is not overseen or co-ordinated by a single organisation. It’s just a loose collection of venues, promoters, artists and workers. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society (not without its financial issues too) run the centralised booking system at edfringe.com and various events for arts professionals, but they have no control over venues, shows or anything else. And even if there was some sort of co-ordinating body, it is never going to deal with the lack of affordable accommodation, which is also not just an August problem.
But a collective approach to address the issues is clearly needed. The city and Scottish government, landlords, universities (who own quite a number of the Fringe venues as well as the student residences) and the Fringe Society all need to come together try find better ways going forward. That’s likely to be the easy bit. Getting them to agree and giving them teeth to act is likely to be far more difficult.
On stage, from a personal perspective, it was a mixed Fringe, but then it always is. For whatever reason, it took me a few days to get back into the swing of things. There were some great shows, but some pretty poor ones too. One day in particular stands out for those.
There were shows like the powerful and gorgeously staged See You (再見) by Hung Dance (翃舞製作) and The Receptionists by Kallo Collective that I pretty much knew would be great. But, and again as always, best were the nice surprises; shows like Charlotte McLean’s And, a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes joyful celebration of self; Liz Lea’s Red, another autobiographical hour, both at Dance Base; and A Death Has Occurred by Kennedy Muntanga at Greenside @ Nicholson Square. And SMACK and Spektakel at theSpace Triplex, the latter a lovely madcap piece was a great way to round my ten days off. All those artists left me wanting to see more of their work.
There were shows that unexpectedly hit a nerve too, no more so that Diabolo Dance Theatre’s (舞鈴劇場) Light of Life (生命之光). From Taiwan, they’re a company I’ve always previously admired, but this show somehow touched me far more than I expected.
With one exception, the Edinburgh International Festival shows were all great too. I understand the programming of most of the dance over a single week happened by chance, but it’s a great idea and long may it continue.
Deciding how many stars to give, which I only do at Edinburgh (it helps the shows and both festivals encourage it), can be tricky but, looking back, I reckon I got it about right.
Everyone at the venues and in the press offices also could not have been more helpful, whether dealing with last minute ticket changes or finding somewhere to stash my suitcase. Yes, I really did go to shows between train and accommodation both arriving and leaving! Thank you all. But that’s the Fringe for you. Sometimes, it’s the only way things can be squeezed into the schedule.
Here’s to 2023 and beyond.