Today’s cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was not a case of if but when. Though disappointing, this decision was certainly not taken lightly, and in recent weeks the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has worked hard to keep everyone updated, with chief executive Shona McCarthy sending out a regular weekly statement about the ongoing situation.
As the event’s governing body, the Fringe Society was rightly keen to point out that while it can advise the venues and participants, ultimately the final decision rests with the venues themselves.
The growing uncertainty over how long a lockdown could last meant the situation was fast becoming untenable with fringe brochure deadlines rapidly approaching. Although that date had already been delayed until May, there was little idea if the situation would be any clearer. It may well be worse. The venues and participants would likely have continued to spend until that point and losses would have been even more substantial.
As regrettable as it is, the decision to cancel is the right one. To have continued may have given the impression that profit was prioritised over safety.
Already a growing number of people were questioning why this decision had not already been taken. A group of comedians had set up the Twitter hashtag #CovEdFringe, while local councillors were last week writing open letters to the media calling for the fringe to be cancelled.
Let’s be in no doubt that both the artistic and economic consequences of this decision are significant. Many artists and companies rely on this annual showcase of work for discovery and onward touring. It is one of the global arts events of the year with the widest reach of audiences drawn from public and industry alike.
Then there is also the valuable training ground that Edinburgh affords to those interested in, or who are entering, a career in the arts across every sector from actor to stage manager to front of house. That’s without also factoring in the loss of income the fringe generates for the city of Edinburgh each year including from rentals, hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops.
While Edinburgh also profits from its annual festivities at Hogmanay, the loss of the fringe will cause a sizeable dent in finances and it is bad news for any local businesses already struggling. As a result of this decision, the Scottish government must inject funding to help them. However, will similar support be made available to the venue operators themselves, or to artists and companies who had already invested much to play at the fringe?
Edinburgh Festival Fringe programming was in the latter stages when this crisis struck. Many shows were already programmed, early entry fees paid, and some participants may well have booked flights and accommodation to get the best deals possible.
Less likely is that they will have already put insurance policies in place for the fringe. In the past, after entry deadlines, insurers have offered a basic liability insurance that many participants will have chosen to take. However, it does not provide the levels of comprehensive insurance to protect them from losses in the event of cancellation.
It is likely that by the time of the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe, the cultural landscape will look very different
The Fringe Society has a big job ahead to help participants and venue operators navigate the economic challenges they face as a result. Some venues have already offered to carry shows over to their programmes in 2021. That will potentially be reassuring to participants; however, with economic uncertainties over funding and individual circumstances, these may no longer be opportunities that can be taken up.
It is likely that by the time of the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe, the cultural landscape will look very different. In recent years, criticism had often been levelled by the public, industry and commentators over whether the fringe was any longer relevant, or if it had simply become an expensive commercial juggernaut.
With more than 3,800 shows playing at the event last year, scale had not necessarily always equalled quality. There had been concern that the very reasons why the fringe existed had become lost. Some thought it needed to go back to its original ethos of 73 years ago when eight companies that had not been invited to take part in the main festival parked up alongside the main event to stage their own work… and the fringe was born.
Is this therefore – by an unfortunate turn of events – a key moment in the Edinburgh Fringe’s history to pause and reflect on where it goes next?
Looking back to its roots, it’s important to remember that the Edinburgh International Festival and its fringe were created to unite global communities following the devastation of the Second World War through the power of the arts. Although we are not coming out of the aftermath of a world war, 2021 will be a time for people to come together as they try to understand living in a world that will have inevitably changed.
As heartbreaking as this decision feels today, and with it the considerable challenges for many involved, beyond the tragic and unexpected reason of this impending period of challenges for the fringe, there is an opportunity for the world’s largest arts event to reflect, regroup and revitalise itself by addressing issues that can make it better.
In ensuring its future, this enforced pause may actually be what the fringe has urgently needed. If this opportunity is properly embraced, then the fringe has been afforded an unexpected chance to redesign itself with input from participants and venues to emerge next year from this disappointment stronger, more resilient and more vital than it was before.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan