Tackling the Edinburgh Fringe's Identity Crisis


Jake is Lead Editor of Grassroots arts magazine Binge Fringe, covering underrepresented artists and themes at theatre festivals around the World. They have written and produced three shows at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Brighton Fringe, and Prague Fringe, with an emphasis on platforming unheard narratives in historical and literary theatre.

They look back on this year Edinburgh Fringe 2023 and what the future of the Festival could be...

I've been covering the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for five years as an independent journalist. As the world's largest arts festival, it's a natural convergence of people with strong opinions and the creative power to express them. When you're talking with people involved in the Festival, two words come up more than any other – 'money' and 'crisis'.

The Festival has been caught in a spiral of costs for decades, with ever-increasing short term rental prices matching four figure venue costs for artists, which in turn raises the cost of tickets for audiences. With thousands of shows on offer and limited time to see them, some performers struggle to get seats filled while the well-lauded and critically acclaimed shows sell out continually. Still, there's something that draws people to the pub backrooms, lecture halls and hastily converted hotel conference suites every August despite the struggle.

This year's Fringe has just drawn to a close, and there was a real sense of optimism in the air that has evaded the past few post-COVID editions of the Festival. The powers that be have become more visible and seemingly more responsive. We see the Scottish Government finally starting to publicly move to regulate renegade landlords and their AirBnBs. We see Fringe Society President Phoebe Waller-Bridge popping up for candid conversations with performers. We see the power of social media drive a sell-out audience to a performer who posted a picture of herself crying when just one person showed up the day before. But to be honest, it has left me wondering when we'll move past seeing change in motion and start feeling it.

Models of funding a show range from emptying your savings account, to borrowing large sums of money in personal loans or overdrafts, or pursuing crowdfunding and grant applications on the basis of a show's perceived added value to a community issue or socially-driven campaign. Each of these options leave a great portion of creative people excluded, and bodies who fund shows often need to see either commercial or social potential in those that apply. Modest offerings like the Fringe Society's 'Keep it Fringe' fund this year provided £2000 to 50 shows, a comparative drop in the ocean to the 3000 that were performed this year. The currently available methods of funding a Fringe run leave people wondering how they can make their self-expression a marketable product or end up flat broke.

The fundamental cultural value of an event like the Fringe extends beyond bums-on-seats. It is often lauded as an opportunity to try something radically different in an environment that will challenge and excite you. Artists come here to connect with one another, with press and industry professionals, with those who see the inherent value in self-expression that transcends the comfortable narrative boxes of established media platforms. For such a diverse environment, we are missing a forum for creative action.

The arrival of 'Free Fringe' venue operators in the 1990s looked to radicalise this, and yet free shows more often than not find themselves marginalised. Making a steady income or attracting industry attention are lofted dreams for most free shows, barring an exceptional few who transcend its perceived commercial boundaries. It would take a widespread adoption of the free model to see the reputation it has lifted to the professional level it deserves, and this has been sidelined.

The Fringe Society has taken a decidedly gradual approach to the identity crisis facing the Fringe. While the 'Keep it Fringe' fund offers limited help, the Society turns its head to commercial interests more often than not. The new 'FringeShip' launched by Playbill with Fringe Society backing offers accommodation on a cruise liner from £199 per night – proposed partly to try and alleviate the accommodation crisis at the Festival but geared towards a luxury market. It won't help the theatre companies, technicians, and box office staff who are stuffing fourteen people into a one bed flat, however, and one has to wonder which should be the priority. The FringeShip itself will also become a venue – shuttling artists out to Leith Docks to perform in a sort of 'All-Inclusive Fringe' manner. Let's just hope they are paid, and not charged, for that liberty.

It's clear that top-down change is surface-level, and while it leaves a buoyant atmosphere we need a commons-led, grassroots mission to ease the Fringe into a kinder era with a more compasionate identity. A kinder era that triumphs the marginalised through campaigning for the end to their precarity. A kinder era that benefits audiences and doesn't overcharge them. A kinder era that connects that unheard to those with platforms rather than diminishing their voices. The resources are there, we're just missing the forum and empowerment to make the case heard.

Were you part of this year's Festival? Did you come away with any thoughts on how things could work better? Perhaps your work with other Fringe festivals has given you some thoughts on how Edinburgh could develop too. We'd love to hear of your experiences, please do get in touch.

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