Two months before opening, Brighton Fringe was forced to cancel all 5,000 of its scheduled performances due to the coronavirus pandemic. The event’s chief executive Julian Caddy tells Tom Wicker about the financial and emotional costs of the virus and what he believes the future holds for the festival
Five thousand performances across 170 venues were scheduled to take place next month at the Brighton Fringe. By the beginning of March, the brochures had been printed and ticket sales were booming. The build-out of the Warren, the fringe’s pop-up multi-venue hub in Victoria Gardens, was only a few weeks away. But then the full scale of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK theatre industry.
Along with countless other companies, venues and events, including this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Brighton Fringe Limited – the festival’s organiser – was forced to pull the entire May schedule. The fringe has now been postponed until later this year. It’s the first time that this popular open-access arts event – one of the world’s largest fringe festivals – has not taken place as planned since it began in 1967.
“Aside from the financial impact of it, there’s an enormous sense of loss and shock. It all came to an end so quickly,” says Brighton Fringe chief executive Julian Caddy. He immediately realised the need to reassure staff that the organisation would survive the crisis. “There will be struggles ahead, but we need to stand together as a sector.”
’There will be struggles ahead, but we need to stand together as a sector’
Brighton Fringe is offering existing ticket-holders the option to put their tickets towards any rescheduled performances or next year’s festival. In some cases, they will also be offering audiences the opportunity to convert the cost of their ticket into a donation to help participating artists mitigate their loss of earnings. “It depends on the venue,” says Caddy. “Some have their own arrangements. But if it’s a show that’s booked through us, we want to give people the option.”
Nonetheless, it has been a devastating blow. The Brighton Fringe, a registered charity that employs a 15-strong, year-round team and seasonal staff, receives no regular financial aid from Arts Council England or Brighton and Hove City Council. “It’s hundreds of thousands of pounds that we are seeking out,” Caddy says. “We’re having to furlough staff. We’re applying for all of the grants available. We’re in talks as we speak.”
He explains that while the Brighton Fringe has had some successful Arts Council applications in the past, it isn’t a national portfolio organisation.“We’ve been receiving project grants over the years for various things.” This year, it was for a new hub for international work at the Spire space, in east Brighton, which he says would have been “a fantastic project”.
Chief executive: Julian Caddy
Team: 15 permanent team members plus seasonal staff
When: May each year
Funding: Registered charity, but Brighton Fringe does not rely on public funding
Partners: The Pebble Trust, Arts Council England
But even if there’s “a mountain to climb”, Caddy is fully committed to bringing some form of the fringe to Brighton this autumn. While everything is provisional right now, he’s aiming for late September or October. “It’ll be a much more low-key affair. We certainly won’t be able to afford brochures.”
Due to the differing levels of lockdown globally, he doesn’t expect to see many international shows. But he wants to offer the fringe platform to as many artists as possible. “It’s a very organic process. It’s not for me to say to people: ‘You will do this date.’ I’m handing it over to the artistic community to see when they feel most able.” Venues, he says, are already getting in touch with their availability. “We’ve got a pop-up ready to go.”
From a performance by a young Amy Winehouse, and work by site-responsive theatre company Dreamthinkspeak, to early material by comedians including James Veitch, who has gone on to award-winning success, Brighton Fringe has showcased a great deal of talent over the years. Even percussion group Stomp started out there. “They’re really supportive and were part of the creation of the Old Market, which they own,” says Caddy. “It’s great to see people coming back and reinvesting.”
He’s proud of the Brighton Fringe’s sense of community. “If you look at the demographic of artists who have put on work, you see a strong contingent from the local area,” he says. “If you look in detail at sales, many people buying tickets are local, but they’ll also be buying tickets for friends from outside. They are proud of the fringe and proud to welcome people into the city.”
Caddy has been with Brighton Fringe since 2011. He came to theatre as a career change, after working as an account manager for an advertising agency. Participating in amateur dramatics won him over, and led him to train at the School of the Science of Acting in Holloway. Like many theatremakers, Caddy went to the Edinburgh Fringe every August. He co-created the Sweet Venues in 2003 with some drama school colleagues, initially for somewhere to perform. As the programming of other people’s shows grew, he switched to producing.
As both a former performer and a venue manager, he describes the Edinburgh Fringe as “the biggest money pit you could ever have invented in terms of arts festivals”. He also says his time spent at the fringe was “a defining moment in my personal and professional development”. While it’s difficult to predict the longer-term implications of its suspension this year, he has a “sneaking suspicion” that, as social-distancing rules begin to wind down, there will still be a fringe in Edinburgh this August.
However, he believes it will inevitably be much smaller. Caddy is also uncertain how many Edinburgh Fringe venues will survive, as they are “heavily reliant on the cyclical income”. He sees a wider impact of the festival’s cancellation on the global arts industry. “It’s an opportunity for people to network in a way they can’t really do anywhere else. Only the Adelaide Fringe comes close to Edinburgh in terms of its scale.”
But Caddy wonders if Edinburgh’s cancellation might also be a turning point. “There are these moments when festivals change course,” he says. As an example, he points to 2008, when the Edinburgh Fringe Society’s ticketing system collapsed. At short notice, Edinburgh’s biggest fringe venues invested in Red61. It’s since become the box office used by most fringe festivals and venues. “From then on, those big venues moved very much to the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe Society.”
He believes there is “always the risk of corporatisation of what was originally an organic affair” for all major fringe festivals. Now, whether something like the current pandemic-related cancellation “brings some of those corporate organisations to their knees, and us back to something more ‘homecooked’, remains to be seen”, he says. This is why Caddy is careful about how he labels Brighton Fringe Limited. He says: “It isn’t the fringe itself. It’s a support system for the people who are laying their careers, their finances, their creativity and their energy on the line. We shouldn’t forget – they are the fringe.”
Born: Woolwich, 1972
Training: The School of the Science of Acting
• Gamarjobat, Sweet on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe (2004)
• Catching Dust, Sweet on the Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe (2004)
• Yesterday was a Weird Day, Sweet on the Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe (2005)
• ThreeWeeks Editors’ award for best bar (Sweet Venues, 2008)
• Argus Achievement award for contribution to arts and culture (2013)
• Brighton and Hove Business award for best event in the city (2015)
Further details: brightonfringe.org