The Edinburgh Festival Fringe not taking place for the first time in its 73 year history was a huge professional and personal blow to the thousands of individuals and organisations who make up the festival. The Fringe Society, the charity that underpins the infrastructure of the festival, faced an existential crisis as 85% of its income is earned through the festival. This model of operation – largely unsubsidised and reliant on ticketing income yet to be secured – is pretty much the standard for Fringe venues, artists, promoters and producers year on year, here in Edinburgh but also in Fringe venues and festivals across the world.
The opportunities derived from presenting work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be enormous; many artists book onward touring, build a new collaborative partnership, find a new agent, get bookings for stage, screen, and film work. Many engage with a loyal and adventurous fanbase, earning income to support their year-round activities, or taking the chance to try out new work and ideas on audiences who are actively looking for something new. The impact of these lost opportunities will stretch way beyond 2020, with artists looking at a long recovery for their work to be seen on stage again, with the worry that many will be forced to leave the sector to earn a living elsewhere, impacting marginalised voices more acutely.
The sustainability of this model and its capacity for inclusion, was already in question before the Covid 19 pandemic, and the Fringe Society, amongst many, were working collaboratively to affect positive change to address this before the enormous impact of the pandemic hit. The situation remains fluid, and it changes fast. Just this week HM Treasury have announced a significant package of support for the sector, which will throw a much needed lifeline to organisations, from individual artists all the way up to the cultural institutions of the UK. It is critical to remember that funding needs to be distributed at all stages of the supply chain – there is no West End without Fringe theatres above pubs, no Olivier Award winners without training and stage schools, no hit TV series without spaces to try, fail, and try again.
There is no future without artists who reflect the world we inhabit – and artists will be key to helping us imagine a new, shared future. We need artists to record history, to help us make sense of ourselves and reflect the true nature of our world, to challenge what we think we know, to delight and entertain, to show us the best and worst versions of humanity, to let us laugh at ourselves when we fall down and cry when we don’t know what else to do. Fringe of Colour works with audiences and artists of colour to help them see and be seen; COMMON works with working class arts professionals to break down the barriers of money and network; Sick of the Fringe supports work exploring physical and mental health; Disability Equality and Deaf Scotland strive to make it easier for d/Deaf and disabled artists and audiences to engage with culture – all of these organisations, and more, have been working with the Fringe Society to inform strategies, influence investment and funding, and lobby for greater support for fringe artists.
As we await the details of transitional financial assistance we can use this opportunity to challenge our own assumptions and deliver a future for our sector that is inclusive, progressive, bold and uncompromising in being to the benefit of all.
Lyndsey Jackson is Deputy Chief Executive at Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society