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Richard Jordan: Fringe festivals are under threat – they need support before it is too late

Brighton Fringe evening celebrations at The Warren. Photo: James Bellorini
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Next week, the 51st Brighton Fringe, England’s largest fringe festival and the third biggest in the world, begins.

Over the following four weeks, more than 500,000 audience members will attend a performance at the fringe where more than 4,000 performances will play across 150 venues.

North of the border at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, those numbers are even higher. Annual open-access fringe festivals in the UK have grown consistently, making them among the arts industry’s greatest success stories. However, the valuable contribution that they make both to the wider industry and their city’s economy is frequently overlooked.

I have previously written about why I consider fringe festivals to be the single-most important training ground for the arts.

My own producing career began at the Edinburgh Fringe 20 years ago. My theatre education, however, happened long before that by seeing work and discovering artists, writers and companies at both the Edinburgh and Brighton fringes. But today I worry that their future may be under threat.

Festivals and fringes have become big business for a number of larger, commercial operators who have recognised a strong marketplace boasting an enviable young adult audience. Therefore, their own vested interest will always ensure a fringe, at least in name, survives, but the reason why the events existed in the first place could become entirely eroded.

The glue to these fringes’ survival is their respective fringe societies, which serve as their governing bodies. They provide a crucial balance and harmony that maintains each festival’s purpose and integrity by overseeing all from the large-venue presenter to smaller operator – with both the established participant and newcomer. The governance they provide, alongside the multiple opportunities they help generate, is vital to ensure accessibility to such an event is well-maintained and all voices are heard.

As a generator of opportunity, the society’s role can also be seen in action across the fringe, whether that’s through the ‘how to’ talks they provide both before and during the fringe, the various training programmes and masterclasses on offer to participants, or their arts industry office, which coordinates national and international artists and producers scouting for work.

Brighton Fringe provides more than £25,000 of support through various programmes to participants, many of whom are embarking on careers in the arts. Yet despite the demonstrable results, fringes are working against what seem like insurmountable odds.

In 2018, Creative Scotland cut its funding for the Edinburgh Fringe. Currently, the future of the Brighton Fringe is also in doubt after losing its headline sponsor and, since 2016, £70,000 of support.

I have been the patron of Brighton Fringe since 2010 and watched how, year by year, this festival has thrillingly evolved. In an attempt to address the loss of its major sponsor, Brighton Fringe is currently running an urgent crowdfunding campaign to raise £20,000 that will hopefully secure its existence in 2019.

The sudden doubts over its future reflect the growing challenges faced by arts organisations across the UK, and how quickly even the most established festival’s position can change causing irrevocable damage and great uncertainty for its staff and audiences.

Sponsorship has already become vital for most arts organisations to bolster funding shortfalls, but as funders’ support has declined, there is greater pressure to find support elsewhere.

The timing of all this is challenging. A decline in sponsorship may be attributed to the uncertainty caused by Brexit with businesses relocating outside of the UK, alongside the lack of clarity on tax arrangements and future trade relations after we leave the EU.

Businesses’ reduced interest in the UK, therefore, presents an enormous risk to the vital support needed not just for the fringe, but across the arts in general.

The fringe spirit is driven by an attitude of “bare bones and passion”. Its success is built on finding a way when told: “You can’t do that.” That sentiment can often be attributed to the arts as a whole, but sometimes funders read that attitude – one of “we’ll do it whether supported or not” – as not needing their money. In contrast, several years ago, the film industry demanded support “or we’ll go somewhere else” if it did not see its funding increased and tax breaks. It received both.

The fringe, being at grassroots level and often seen as an edgy outsider on the peripheries of the creative industry, always risks being sidelined both in importance and funding. This comes at a time where the platforms and opportunities it affords for debate, ideas, career development and global cultural connections are urgently needed. Its loss would be both devastating and far-reaching.

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