Over the past couple of weeks, a number of Edinburgh Fringe venues have announced their 2019 programmes. With just three months to go until the city opens its gates once more to thousands of artists and audiences, questions over the legitimacy of the festival have been coming to the fore and I’ve been thinking about the historical origins of this extraordinary event. The Fringe emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, on the outskirts of the high-brow International Festival, with a philosophy of open access woven into its roots. And yet today, it is the biggest arts festival in the world with daunting accommodation costs and an undeniable commercialisation to boot. Are we losing the Fringe?
I have had the pleasure of visiting the Edinburgh Fringe festival twice; once as an audience member and the second time (2018) as a front of house volunteer. During my time as a volunteer I was lucky enough to have a pass that granted me free access to a wide variety of venues. In exchange for this, I shared a bedroom with five strangers, in a house with around thirty other individuals. I worked six to eight hours a day, six days a week, and experienced the underbelly of the Fringe. From the hardworking artists, to the vomiting audience members, to the irritated tourists who had seriously mis-timed their visit to Scotland’s city of culture; I saw it all.
At one point during last year’s Fringe, renowned theatre reviewer Lynn Gardner tweeted “Edinburgh is full”, suggesting that the whole thing had simply become too big. It is this phenomenon, of a city that has truly reached capacity, that now threatens the future of the Fringe. My experience alone, in a crowded house with a frustratingly busy commute to work, was definitely coloured by overpopulation.
So it seems worth remembering that the Fringe wasn’t always like this.
The story of the birth of the Fringe festival is, fittingly, a story of uninvited guests. In 1947, as part of a movement to celebrate European culture and provide entertainment for a country struggling after the horrors of the Second World War, an International Festival was formed in Edinburgh; the same festival which still runs today.
While the International Festival invited the some of the world’s best performers to the Scottish capital, eight theatre companies took it upon themselves to reap the rewards of a city overflowing with culture-vultures. Performing in smaller venues around the ‘fringes’ of Edinburgh, these companies attracted audiences that the curators of the International Festival had not expected. Drama had been excluded from the International Festival’s programme because it was considered too low-brow; not cultured enough for their international audience. However, the success of these eight companies proved there was an audience for drama whether the elite thought there should be or not, and the Fringe Festival was born.
Throughout the 1950s, the Fringe developed its identity. Often defined by what it wasn’t more than what it was, the Fringe was firstly dramatic, not musical, and secondly contemporary, not classical. Crucially, the festival was open to all, with cheap tickets and a friendly atmosphere for anyone who wanted to engage with the arts. A stark contrast to the International Festival, at which artists performed by invitation only.
In the 1960s, the International Festival brought the now famous Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Theatre Group to an event called Beyond the Fringe in an attempt to rival the success of the low-brow upstart. In response, satire boomed at the Fringe and remains an essential element of the entertainment today.
The Festival Fringe Society formed in 1958 and brought a certain amount of administrative order to the annual event. The society provided information to artists, published a programme of events, and created a central box office which still exists (although now with updated technology). In 1971, 78 companies performed at the Fringe – a big step up from the eight that started it all twenty years earlier, but still nothing compared to the huge numbers that take to the Fringe today. By the eighties, it was the largest festival in the world.
Now, all of this seems to be under threat.
Last year there were 3,548 shows at the Fringe; meaning approximately 57,000 performances occurred over the three weeks of the festival. To understand the pressures this puts on the city, you only need to consider that the population of Edinburgh, according to the 2016 census, is approximately 465,000. Last year’s Fringe alone attracted 4,500,000 audience members to the city. It is not surprising that people are pressed for space. I may have slept in a house with thirty people, but, by all accounts, this was a privilege in comparison to the performers’ annual pilgrimage to Scotland. With increased demand for living space, prices are naturally rising and now the festival is faced with a dilemma. Originally a festival designed to celebrate art and make it more accessible, whatever the elite might say about it, the Fringe is now a festival where creatives struggle to make ends meet.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this crisis started. The Herald has suggested that fears the Festival is too big for the city “is a question almost as old as the first posters for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” But, with ticket sales increasing by 5% between 2017 and 2018 alone, it seems that the rate of growth in Edinburgh today is an unprecedented and unsustainable issue. I wonder to what extent the creation of the Festival Fringe Society can be held accountable for the current crisis. After all, the Fringe was born naturally out of spontaneous action and companies ignoring the opinion of cultural and administrative elites. The society formalised the existence of the festival, and today has three goals: to support participants, assist audiences, and promote the festival. This seems to suggest that the group’s primary objective is audience participation rather than artist performance.
The society has tried to avoid influencing the intended spontaneity and open access philosophy of the performances. Indeed their constitution dictates that they should not play any role in vetting the programme.
I wonder, though, is it enough for the Festival Fringe Society to simply avoid limiting artists’ access to the festival? At a time when the festival has become beyond the reach of so many, should someone be actively trying to make the festival more accessible to performers? If not, I suspect its death might be as sudden as its birth. On March 16th this year, the society launched its “put up a performer” campaign, seeking to place performers in spare bedrooms of residents throughout the city. They claim they want to connect residents with artists, for experience, rather than to pave the way for residents to turn more profit from the transaction. A nice idea, although I must admit I am a little sceptical about it. Last year I met many Edinburgh residents who moved outside the city boundaries during the Fringe, to rent their flat for an extraordinary fee while they simply commuted to work for the month. And why shouldn’t they? While the over-population of the Fringe is clearly a problem, completely overwhelming the city every August, the £280 million of revenue it produces for the local economy is surely enough to enable many residents to see some virtue in the event. The society’s attempts to reduce these profits while allowing the Fringe to continue growing is almost counterintuitive.
Ultimately, the issue at stake here is not really one of overcrowding. The bigger issue is who is forced out once the city reaches capacity. As demand for space increases, only one thing can happen; prices will go up. I doubt the Fringe Society will overcome the economic law that increased demand for a limited resource will create inflation. As prices go up, working-class artists will be forced to find an alternative space to perform and experiment. It is simply too expensive to live in Edinburgh during the Fringe, while facing the costs necessary to put on a show.
And this is the one thing of which I am quite confident – once these groups are forced out of Edinburgh, they will go somewhere else. I think much of the fear-mongering surrounding the Fringe today orbits the idea that if the Fringe becomes too expensive for artists, the art will stop happening. We only need to look to the history of the festival itself to see this is false. If artists are not invited to perform, they will perform somewhere else. Just as the eight companies were not invited to the International Festival in 1947, these artists today will find their own space and their own audience whether the powers that be help them or not.
Art will always find a home, and the Edinburgh Fringe has plenty of years left in it yet. This is not to say that the festival won’t continue to evolve through time. And, perhaps, just like the eight groups that invited themselves to Edinburgh in 1947, a new festival will emerge to rival the Fringe. If it does, I’m sure it will be started by someone you didn’t invite, and made by someone you didn’t expect.
Tasha Kitcher is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.