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Kate Maltby: It’s okay not to be okay at the Edinburgh Fringe

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Who doesn’t have a great time at Edinburgh? Surely you made an appearance at The List Festival Party/the book festival in the Author’s Yurt/that fabulous house party on the last day of the fringe that anyone who knows anyone goes to every year?

Did you get a ticket for the last night of that show that everyone is talking about? It only ran for seven performances, to an audience capacity of 10, but everyone who matters has seen it. Wasn’t it glorious?

I love the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Ever since I was 16, when a mate and I corralled a bunch of fellow teens into the world’s most clueless and pretentious ‘theatre production company’, Edinburgh has meant something peculiar and vital to me – the first place I felt like a free, imaginative agent in the world. I’ve no time for the naysayers: the London-centrics who moan about travelling too far out of their bubble, or the artistically risk-averse who aren’t prepared to sit through the dross to find the moments of undiscovered genius.

But this year, I’m not going to Edinburgh and I’ve never felt happier about it. It might be the first August in a while when I feel, instead, mentally at peace.

In recent years, people have slowly started to talk about the toll Edinburgh can take on our mental health. We’ve long known what a financial gamble it is for performers and participants – causing bankruptcies and even homelessness. And even if you haven’t poured your life savings into a show, budgeting for a week’s rent in August in Edinburgh is a mathematical equation that industry observers find themselves struggling to solve for the next 12 months. With that financial outlay comes a diet of junk food, sleep deprivation and social expectations involving far too much alcohol.

Our critics pick the top shows to see at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019

Perhaps it’s those social expectations that cause the most mental health trouble. And I don’t just mean around alcohol. The fringe can be one big party – one of those parties populated by too many people who only showed up to tell the rest of us what a great time they’re having in the VIP section. Status anxiety pervades. Among critics, commissioning producers and other talent-spotting types, it sometimes feels there’s a race to find the hottest new thing before everyone else. Even when you’re seeing 12 shows a day, there’s always something you’re missing. Every choice has an opportunity cost.

The theatre community is beginning to create spaces at Edinburgh in which it’s okay to talk about being less than okay. The Sick of the Fringe runs workshops to support the mental health of participants, with a particular focus on those from marginalised communities. At The Skinny last autumn, theatre editor Amy Taylor wrote eloquently of the impact on her health of festival stress – where she led, others are following.

Let’s hope Edinburgh continues to benefit from more honesty about mental health. It is a wondrous place, and although I might skip the odd year, I won’t stay away for long. I couldn’t – I’ve already got a crippling case of FOMO.

Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby

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