Make no mistake, the cancellation of this year’s Edinburgh festivals, in particular the fringe, is a major blow for independent artists. The people who, in many cases, are bearing the brunt of the theatre shutdown economically and in terms of lost opportunity, will miss out on the biggest showcase of the year. For all its flaws, the fringe offers opportunities that are otherwise hard for companies and artists to access.
We can all agree that the fringe model is dysfunctional and an extreme manifestation of the uneven playing field that bedevils British theatre all year round. But for many independent artists, it remains their one hope of getting work seen by programmers, producers and critics, however many emails they send or doors they knock on the rest of the year.
For the more established, going to the festival each or every other year is part of a cycle of creation that then leads to touring opportunities over the following 18 months. Many venues will book new work only once they have seen how it does on the fringe.
This is why so many make such big sacrifices and get into such debt to be there: they feel they have no alternative. The Edinburgh Fringe gives many artists and companies a visibility that they lack the rest of the year.
The Fringe Society’s advisory cancellation of this year’s festival was absolutely the right thing to do and is in line with the cancellation of Edinburgh’s other festivals, including the International Festival and the Book Festival. But in the context of some less-than-exemplary behaviour and treatment of staff by some venues, it’s worth noting that the fringe is an open-access festival, and the Fringe Society simply does not have the power to shut either the whole festival or individual venues down.
From the wording of their statements it’s clear some of the bigger venues are trying to keep the door open to some kind of fringe in some form if the situation changes for the better. The Fringe Society’s head Shona McCarthy backtracked somewhat on the initial cancellation statement, saying the Fringe Society has plans in place to move quickly “should restrictions be lifted, public health officials deem it safe to do so, and venues and artists emerge in August with stages for work needing to be performed”.
But I would be very surprised if any version of the festival does take place this year, and in the meantime, it is crucial the registration fees artists paid to the Fringe Society and the deposits paid to venues are returned as soon as possible, if that’s what they want. A credit note and a guaranteed slot for next year’s festival may suit some bigger producers, but it is not going to feed artists and their families.
‘All theatres, not just the EdFringe, will have to grapple with the possibility that when lockdown finishes social distancing will continue for a considerable period’
Venues may feel they can take the risk to programme shows at a few weeks’ notice but I doubt that artists will be in a position suddenly to spring into action, and while Edinburgh – in particular the university, the shops, hotels, landlords, bars and restaurants – does very well economically out of the fringe (it’s estimated that Edinburgh will take a £300 million hit from the cancellations of the festivals), it’s hard to imagine that the city’s residents would be thrilled by the prospect of a sudden influx of people into the city even if lockdown was over. Would the programmers and journalists and audiences flock, anyway?
Moving forward, theatres more generally, and not just the Edinburgh Fringe, will have to grapple with the strong possibility that when lockdown finishes social distancing will continue for a considerable period – and further lockdowns may follow in waves if there is a resurgence of infections.
It is likely to make audiences nervous about returning to venues and also creates an ethical dilemma for theatres about whether they are really serving their artists and audiences’ best interests by making work available too soon.
This makes it extremely tricky for theatres to plan and programme. I admire the optimism of those who have already announced the rescheduling of shows for July, but the danger is that some artists may suffer the heartbreak of a double cancellation. But theatres, of course, are going to find it hard to survive any longer-term shutdown and each week that passes makes their situation more precarious. The urge to get back to business is, understandably, a strong one.
This is clearly what’s driving the thinking of Edinburgh Fringe venues. But their precariousness is nothing to the precariousness of most of the artists who make the work and pay to play each year.
Rather than clinging to the remote possibility that the fringe may yet happen in some form, it would be much better if the fallow year is used to renew and for venues to work with the Fringe Society and in consultation with artists to rethink the lie of the land. Maybe then it will return in 2021 a fairer, kinder place that offers greater opportunity and less risk to more artists.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner