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Lyn Gardner: There may be trouble ahead as fears mount that we’ve reached peak Edinburgh Fringe

The Believers Are But Brothers, which was supported by Northern Stage when it went to the fringe last year. Photo: The Other Richard The Believers Are But Brothers, which was supported by Northern Stage when it went to the fringe last year. Photo: The Other Richard
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Have we reached peak fringe? It was a question asked at the Devoted and Disgruntled session at Fringe Central on Monday discussing sustainability on the fringe and how we can improve working conditions.

For more than a decade I’ve heard people say the fringe can’t get any bigger and one day it will go pop. So far, I haven’t heard any big bangs, but maybe the air is beginning to slowly escape from the balloon. This is pushed by a number of factors, from outrageous flat rental prices to the fact that, if Edinburgh cannot deliver on at least one of: reviews, a tour, or an audience, young artists may decide it cannot deliver at all. £10,000 is an awful lot to pay for a three-week participant pass that allows you to see everything at Underbelly. It may be professional development, but it’s a pricey way to go about it.

I have no doubt the final ticket sales will dispute my anecdotal evidence, but people on the ground and online are telling me it has been harder than ever to get full-price paying audiences this year, particularly for shows beyond the main venues. Even though Edinburgh seems rammed. You can’t cap the numbers that want to perform at an open-access festival, but will they keep coming if nobody is coming to see them or properly paying when they do?

At D&D some questions were raised. If the fringe was 50% smaller would it put less pressure on the city and be more manageable or just be more exclusive? What would happen if everybody, apart from school and college groups and those issuing Equity contracts, were obliged to do open-book accounting as a condition of registration. I don’t know if these things would make a difference, but they might.

Sometimes the fringe, with its dreams of success and glory, can feel like a struggle that can’t be won, as a fresh crop of young graduates are sent over the top to be replaced the next year by another bunch of bright-eyed optimists, who don’t realise how hard it will be, and on and on.

At the D&D session, one local artist and resident suggested a way to get locals invested in the festival might not be just to offer discounted tickets, but the local equivalent of a venue pass for a cut-price rate. It sounds like a potential goer but would need Travelex-style sponsorship, so once again it’s not asking artists to bear the burden.

The fringe may be one month-long party for some, as UK theatremakers move to Edinburgh, but what does it do to cultivate a year-round theatre ecology for Edinburgh? If you ask who really benefits from the fringe, local people and local artists will be way down the list. You are unlikely to find the latter performing on the fringe – mostly they will be working flat out in bars and as ushers. They can be found at the Hidden Door Festival in May, a not-for-profit providing a platform for emerging artists, which is currently trying to raise £80,000 to keep operating.

Groups of artists should come together to develop more Forest Fringe-style initiatives and those NPOs who bring their shopping baskets to Edinburgh should also put something back, just as Northern Stage brought companies to wider attention by supporting them to come to Edinburgh. Some of those companies have gone on to become NPOs.

But it is not just companies that are starting to ask whether Edinburgh is worth it. Some of the theatres and venues who come here to scout are also thinking about whether the increasing amounts of money they spend to send producers to Edinburgh (much of it going on flat rental) might be better used to see new work from emerging artists across the country during the rest of the year. In many cases artists who would never be able to fund getting themselves to the fringe. David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre is certainly thinking about it. I have heard others voice the idea.

If these organisations start to withdraw, and mainstream press coverage continues to decline, then young companies may discover that the maths doesn’t add up. If the holy trinity of reviews, tour dates and audiences are no longer deliverable then maybe we have indeed reached peak fringe.

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