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Editor’s View: Artists shouldn’t have to take all the risks at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: shutterstock The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: shutterstock
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I find myself continually impressed by theatremakers’ seemingly boundless optimism. Theatre is a career that most people would not have pursued were they not blessed with a ‘glass-half full’ outlook: many of the cold, hard statistics around rates of pay and percentage of time spent in employment (especially for performers) make grim reading.

Nowhere is this optimistic streak more apparent than at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Every August, a new batch of hopefuls heads to the Scottish capital in the belief that a three-week run in a converted church hall will be their big break. Some of them are right, but many are disappointed. Those with truly strong dispositions manage to summon up enough optimism to return year after year, often in the face of mounting evidence.

This atmosphere of fevered hope may be inspiring, but it creates circumstances in which that optimism can be exploited. Our front page story this week, about a series of scams on Facebook, is an extreme example, but it’s just the thick end of the wedge.

Edinburgh during August is designed to extract as much money from festival-goers and workers as possible. The city has long treated the fringe as a cash cow and seems happy to allow artists to self-exploit, and so subsidise the knock-on profits that the city generates.

Risk is always passed downwards. Building owners hike up the rent to venue operators, who charge higher rates to companies, who then have less profit to share in an increasingly euphemistic ‘profit-share’ model. Yet artists’ own costs never seem to go down, as the cost of accommodation spirals ever upwards.

As Lyn Gardner observed in a piece for the Guardian last year: “The more you dig into it, the more apparent it becomes that the entire economy of the Edinburgh Fringe is a mirage. The only real beneficiaries are Virgin Trains and the city of Edinburgh itself, its hotels and restaurants and shops, those with performance space to rent and the residents who let out their flats for August.”

Against that backdrop, it is crucial that theatres try to do as much as possible to support theatre workers and artists, and ensure that they are not exploiting them: Summerhall’s announcement that is abolishing zero-hours contracts is a good start, but there is still a lot more those in positions of power and influence at the fringe could do to absorb some of the risk upwards, away from the artist.

Optimism is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

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