Covid-19 has forced the cancellation of the fringe this year, putting many careers on hold. Creatives and other key players tell David Pollock what it means for them and how it will affect the future of the world’s largest arts festival
Anthony Alderson, director, Pleasance
“When the prime minister came out and basically said: ‘I do not want people to go to the theatre,’ it was clear we had to close. There’s a tiny part of me that hopes there’s still an opportunity to do something during August – it could be entirely digital or just small venues, it could look like the festival of the early 1990s. Public health is the absolute priority, though, and none of us can take that decision without the support of the authorities and the public.
“There’s a myth that the big festival venues are wealthy organisations, but we just aren’t, the margins are minute. Our reserve will keep us going until November or December, but we’ll need to find support to continue. The potential financial burden on us is going to be somewhere between £1.8 million and £2 million, which doesn’t include the £4 million that would have gone from our box office to the artists.
“We’re the largest of 300 venues, so to put the festival back on its feet you’re looking at maybe £20-30 million, but it’s estimated that it brings about £160-180 million a year into the city, so to do that would strike me as a very wise thing to do. Yet the fringe will survive, without a question. It’s a concept, a collection of ideas – even if it had to start from scratch, it will always exist.”
Verity Leigh, programme manager, Summerhall
“When the cancellation was announced, we were aware the decision had to come. People needed to rehearse, they needed to book accommodation and travel, so it wasn’t sustainable to wait until the end of June. We spent two days calling everyone we’d programmed, which was a depressing process, but it was nice to have those conversations. A lot of people asked if they could help, which was really nice, and a few said thank you for making the decision so they didn’t have to.
“Our plan for this year was to celebrate our 10th fringe; we had around 35 shows registered, and the same again at various stages of being programmed. The fringe has said it will repay all the registration fees, and we’ve told everyone we’ve had money from that we’ll give it back. It has [had] a big impact on us, and the longer it goes on, the worse it is. At this stage it just feels very close, and we need to take a step back.”
Guy Masterson, producer
“This would have been my 27th consecutive season as either a producer, a director, a writer or a presenter of other people’s work. Obviously health comes first, but coming to terms with this is pretty brutal. As a performer I’ve lost 50 gigs already, a significant hit on my income, and as a producer the fringe is the centrepiece of my year, I open work there then tour it internationally.
“What this does is force me to look at other ways of working, and to write and to think, and that’s good as an artist. I’m working towards directing something by Skype, so I’ll have something ready when restrictions get lifted. The beauty of small-scale work is that you can do that, and be ready to strike while the iron is hot in the hope there will be an audience.
“For Edinburgh to be cancelled is a testament to how seriously we’re taking this, but there are companies and venues there that can put something together quickly [if an August programme is possible]. Artists are well placed to exploit the cracks, to find new ideas beyond the cusp.”
Sarah Spencer, director and creator, Notflix
“Notflix is an improvised, all-female musical comedy with a full band. We’ve been at Edinburgh for four years, building up to bigger rooms at Gilded Balloon. They’ve been like family to us. We were playing a five-night run at the Vault Festival when the first case of Covid-19 happened in the UK, and the audiences halved overnight.
“We were mentally prepared from that point; we knew we needed a contingency plan. Until Mick Perrin got involved with us last year, we’ve never had any kind of financial security, we’ve always hustled. We’d play to 8,000 people in Edinburgh, so how could we still do that from home? We’ve done the Notflix Film Club online, every Sunday we post clips from our shows, then on Monday we do a [performance] live stream.
“There’s an audience out there for it; our last one had almost 2,000 hits in the first 24 hours. As improvisers, it’s like playing an instrument – you’ve got to keep your playing sharp and hit the ground running. We’ve found there’s a lot of strength in just carrying on, essentially.”
Callum Douglas, performer
“I was going to present Mummy’s Boy, my first Edinburgh show, at Summerhall this year. Me and my mum were making it together – it was a celebration of our relationship and a look at a very specific moment in time for us, in that I’m not long out of education and she is a few months from retiring. I graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2018, but she’s never performed in her life.
“I’m based in Edinburgh and work front of house at the Traverse Theatre, although before lockdown my girlfriend and I came to my mum’s house in Fife. I’ve applied for Universal Credit, so I’ll hopefully hear back soon about that, but I’m quite fortunate in that I’d already engineered my life to be very low cost.
“The show was giving me momentum and purpose and creativity, and now suddenly it’s gone. We’re still hoping to do it next year, but now we have to un-produce everything we’ve done so far. It’s been a struggle mentally and emotionally, thinking about whether I should be doing more creatively, but I know the important thing is just to be safe and make sure those around me are too.”
Alfie Pates, freelance events technician
“I’m based in Edinburgh and I work freelance at Summerhall during the fringe; the rest of the year I do corporate events, live music and some theatre. I work across the venue as a swing technician, my job is to fill the gaps. Now I have nothing in my calendar until the end of September, which is kind of terrifying, and the conversations I’ve had with my accountant have been uninspiring.
“I’m not expecting to see any money from the government to support me. I run my business as a production company, and I’m going round in a big loop of schemes that don’t really cover me. I feel failed by the system, and I think there are a lot of people in my position who feel similar.
“Right now I’m spending money that I was saving for my house deposit, while I figure out a different direction to take my business in. At the moment that looks to be events behind closed doors, online live streams and so on, but it’s a big risk to make that change.”
Joanne Hamilton, Spoon cafe, Edinburgh
"I’d taken the cafe on from the previous owners at the start of February, although I’d worked four festivals there as front of house, and you definitely see the impact it has. We’re dependent on the Festival Theatre across the road, but the festival opens up all these other venues around Spoon. We’re at the heart of it, and it gives the business the bulk of its profit over the year.
“It’s going to be hard to predict what things will be like after this, especially if people still feel hesitant about going out. I’m being positive, though, and hoping that people are going to crave socialising after being locked down. For everyone’s mental health, it’s best to stay optimistic. It’s a period of uncertainty, but we’ll make plans around it and hope for the best.”
Ewen McLean, managing director, Eastern Exhibition and Display
“We’re based in Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh. For 20 years we’ve worked [putting up posters] for the fringe, mainly on the poster towers and welcome archways along High Street [the Royal Mile] and on the Mound area on Princes Street, as well as various venue boards and ticket collection units around the city. We have 40 employees and most are used in one way or another for the festival.
“The cancellation is devastating for us as a small business, but hopefully with support from the government and local council we can survive.
“The knock-on effect on small businesses around the city will be huge, although in the last few years there has been a bit of a backlash [against the festival] from a small number of locals, and I’m hoping one small positive is that this minority might appreciate what the festival does for the city.”