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Edinburgh Festival Fringe is at breaking point (your views, September 5)

Festivalgoers throng the Royal Mile at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Photo: Lou Armor/Shutterstock Festivalgoers throng the Royal Mile at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Photo: Lou Armor/Shutterstock
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Following my 19th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I’ve been wondering what we are all doing and why we are doing it to ourselves.

No one seems very happy; everyone’s tired, grumpy and a bit emotional. There are fewer staff and there is less accommodation – even less affordable accommodation. But there are more shows than ever, topping 4,000 different productions in the fringe brochure and more venues than ever.

Angry residents, worker exploitation, soaring rents – can the Edinburgh Fringe really go on like this?

Everyone seems to be working for longer and harder. Shows are bringing fewer staff because they can’t afford them. So staff across the venues are forced to work longer shifts with fewer breaks. Venue technicians are operating 75% of shows rather than 25%, as it was 10 years ago.

The spiralling cost of living in Edinburgh in August is phenomenal. Rents are up 50% on two years ago. People are forced to share two or three to a room and restaurants and cafes put up prices every year. Is it any wonder local residents dislike this time of year? Airbnb rentals are extortionate, but a recent report suggested that something like 35 out of 7,000 are licensed as commercial property by the council.

Our taxes go up, but residents don’t see the benefits, so maybe a tourist tax is the way to go. It won’t stop people coming here, but it will help bring in the money the council needs to keep the bins empty, the streets clean and the roads functioning. The city centre is a no-go zone for locals. It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard to get anywhere, restaurants are full, shops are too busy, staff are stressed and customer service is poor. Overworked people are not productive.

The council can’t keep the city clean, no matter how hard it tries, with limited budget and staff. The fringe has become a massive advertising campaign. Posters and flyers are everywhere, as thousands of performers try to compete for an audience.

It costs performers thousands just to get here: brochure fees, entry fees, venue fees, PR, advertising, staffing, travel and accommodation. That’s before any production or living costs. How can the small independent companies that the fringe is meant to be about compete in this dog-eat-dog environment? It used to be a rite of passage, but now it’s only possible if you have a bit of cash behind you.

The big venues complain that they can’t pay staff any more – or instead employ volunteers, offering expenses and accommodation only. Union members are trying to get day rates across the board. Corporate technicians are fighting their corner and putting people off applying for above-minimum-wage jobs because these low wages are disrespectful.

But we don’t all work in the corporate world. When I was freelance, I would take six weeks’ work at a reasonable above-minimum-wage job at the fringe over the chance of a couple of well-paid corporate gigs.

I don’t know what the answers are – or even if there are answers – but something has to give. If the number of shows and accommodation and venue costs keep rising, but we can’t get the staff or keep the city functioning, then the model is broken.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has lost its way and if it doesn’t get back on track soon, it’s in real danger of becoming a commercial entity rather than an open-access arts festival.

I fear it might already be too late.

Gary Staerck
Production manager
Via email

Onstage representation

As I was mentioned by name in the open letter (‘Playing Jewish roles on stage’, August 22, p6), I feel the need to respond.

Jewish theatremakers speak out against cultural appropriation on stage – your views, August 22

I am not technically Jewish. My grandmother was half-Jewish by her father (my great-grandfather was a German Jew and a butcher by trade), so I would not be considered Jewish under Jewish law even though I have Jewish heritage. I also have Irish, Mansk, Norwegian, Danish, and East End cockney ancestry. In short, I’m an American mutt. Am I allowed as an actor only to play roles within my heritage?

My family brought me up knowing about all the cultures of their homelands and the main thing I gathered was tolerance and the beauty of them mixing it all up. We weren’t religious because we had Lutheran, Jewish, Anglican and Catholic religions between my grandparents.

Equally, before my relationship with my husband, I was in a long-term relationship with a Jewish man, in New York City. I celebrated all the Jewish holidays with his family and with many of my friends. To say I have no understanding of Judaism would be false.

I don’t really think any of this is anyone’s business. I’m an actor and I draw on my experiences and my imagination. None of us are always as we appear on the outside.

I think these arguments need careful debate. What’s happening now for ethnic-minority voices and artists is long overdue. But If we applied the letter writers’ argument universally, we couldn’t have non-Americans playing Americans, non-Canadians playing Canadians or non-Afro-Caribbean people playing Jamaicans. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, we are storytelling and lending a voice to the human experience.

If you thought my Rose was a stereotype, I’m sorry. I would disagree based on my experience listed above. I was working with what was on the page and under the guidance of Tony Kushner and his writing. He was present in the process.

Lauren Ward
Via email

I read the Jewish theatremakers’ letter with great interest. As a writer, playwright, campaigner for inclusion and a member of the Romani community, this really resonated with me and I feel for my Jewish sisters and brothers.

Cultural appropriation and negative stereotyping in 2019 is at best disappointing and at worst very damaging. It should definitely be called out so it’s good to see this being reported.

Richard R O’Neill
Via email

Quote unquote

Timothy Spall. Photo: Shutterstock
Timothy Spall. Photo: Shutterstock

“As an actor, you’ve got enormous responsibilities. Say you’ve got six scenes to do the following day, a) you’ve got a hundred people waiting for you to turn up and b) if you get it wrong, it’s there for perpetuity and people are going to be thinking ‘What an arsehole’ for the next 150 years.” Actor Timothy Spall (Metro)

“What’s wonderful is that we’re getting audiences who saw it the first time round, plus kids and teenagers who really relate – people are still dealing with the stuff we portray like sex, heartbreak, prejudice, drugs, body image, identity… It really is a story that will live forever.” Actor Mica Paris on Fame (Islington Gazette)

“I’ve talked a lot about how the theatre is supposed to be a place to feel all ranges of emotions, so if discomfort is one of them that’s great. You didn’t experience it in an unsafe way. Your discomfort was not capitalised upon. What does it mean that these certain audiences come to the theatre to feel comfort?” Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Evening Standard)

“Neither of us take holidays. What’s the point? We feel we’re on holiday if we find a little cafe and have a gorgeous coffee. That’ll do for us. We’ve learned to live in the cracks of our busy lives, as women always have. And you know what? We’re really, really good at finding joy.” Actor Maria Friedman on her sister, Sonia Friedman (Sunday Times)

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk. Please mark your email as ‘for publication’. The Stage reserves the right to edit letters for publication.

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