Róisín O’Brien, Edinburgh resident and critic
I’m not sure why I didn’t believe Edinburgh’s August festivals wouldn’t be cancelled.
The Edinburgh festivals form almost a blackhole within Edinburgh and Scotland’s cultural cosmos. The artistic year is dictated by them: cultural institutions (from venues to marketing agencies) circle around it, getting drawn ever nearer as August approaches. The festivals are not simply the performances or exhibitions. They comprise a month where the city surges with visitors, and restaurants and hotels are fully booked. The international festivals are a lifeline of work for local events workers and seasonal staff who move between them: venue managers, stage managers, lighting technicians, sound technicians, box office staff, press and marketing agencies, journalists, broadcasters, producers, hospitality staff, catering companies, and construction workers.
The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947 after World War II, a vision of unity that sought to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.’ The Edinburgh Festival Fringe famously grew up around it when eight theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform at EIF. No-one technically runs the Fringe, but the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society are the official organisation that underpin it.
August also sees the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues festival directly precedes it, and this is after the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June (which used to happen in August). The Fringe is now famously bigger than the International Festival. Its subsequent solidification and commodification has spawned more fringes: the Free Fringe, or the Edinburgh Book Fringe, for example. In short, Edinburgh’s August just seemed too big to cancel.
The seemingly endless expansion of the festivals has been met with its fair share of criticism, with commentators and punters rightly speculating how much longer the Fringe, in particular, could operate at this capacity for. The possibility of making a profit as an artist at the Fringe is laughably slim: the most artists can hope for is good exposure or a five-star review (and we all know how well print journalism is doing these days). How these huge, temporary venue builds affect the landscape for the rest of the year cannot be ignored. Then there’s the cost of accommodation during August. It rises drastically which, coupled with the increasing amount of AirBnBs, adversely affects local residents. Some venues notoriously pay their staff next to nothing (or nothing), while asking them to work extremely long hours and with few days off. Accessibility for disabled audiences is still limited. In 2019, Fringe Central (the participant hub of the Fringe Society) ran many workshops focused around mental health and wellbeing.
Questions have to be asked: who is benefitting from the Fringe, and at what cost? Do shows reach local audiences or support Scottish artists?
I live in Edinburgh year-round: it is a beautiful city that does not simply exist as a quaint, medieval town to decamp to in August for a month of excess. Though, as a dance critic, I have often scanned the year-round offerings and sighed: there’s that inevitable pull towards August, and even then, Edinburgh doesn’t always get international premieres.
But I do love the Fringe, I do love August in Edinburgh. It might not sound like I do, but my impression is that many of my colleagues and friends who work in this industry feel similar. There are hard questions to ask, but we ask them because we love what we do. And I think what is particularly tough right now is not simply that months and years of planning have gone out the window, but that we are being forced to confront this already precarious situation and ask these questions during a time no-one could have planned for. Maybe there’s some sort of meagre silver lining to be gained from stepping back, a possibility of change, though it will come from a step no-one wanted to take.
I still cannot conceive of August without festivals. In my earlier memories, I am wandering through the Forest Fringe (in its previous Bristo Place home), past an old piano and stained-glass windows. I go see a dance piece with a friend: it doesn’t look like dance to me, but it will, soon enough.
A few years later, I’m helping out backstage on a dance show, a role that involves sweeping up chickpeas. In 2016, I’m there with my own show: the dancers are warming up in a church stairwell and in the evening I go see Crystal Pite’s Emergence for Scottish Ballet. I start reviewing shows, I write feature articles for The Skinny. In 2018, I’m there working in PR for the first time: I work long hours, meet innumerable journalists and agents, consume stupid amounts of Thai food and cider, and I see so, so many shows. I see a musical about Norse Gods Thor and Loki; I sit in a shipping container blindfolded, the headphones in my ear playing an increasingly distressing scenario from within an airplane; I see Pussy Riot perform and am lucky to catch Amanda Palmer in one of her ‘ninja gigs’. Drag Queens and Kings intermingle with famous comedians and acrobats on what becomes my daily walk to work. This year, I had hoped to work again and bring a show I’ve been working on for over a year.
Maybe in a few months’ time, we will see some positives. Small, truly ‘fringe’ performances may emerge, briefly. Maybe we will find new solutions for next year. We will take time to breathe.
But right now, it feels sore.