By Ben Smart
For the fans and the fanatics of theatre, music, circus skills, comedy of all varieties (and qualities), and needless to say, excessive drinking in the August sun, the loss of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer will have been a colossal boot in the stomach for a while to come. A national highlight of the summer for aspiring performers to fully-fledged comic heavyweights; the Fringe has been the birthplace of a great deal of talent and a hub of entertainment for the masses for many years. But last year, we lost, and we lost hard.
The Royal Mile no longer swarmed by amateurish ‘flyerers’, using every opportunity to give men, women and infants alike a scrappy piece of card which would inevitably end up in a conveniently placed rubbish bin or not so swanky hostel window-sill at the end of a good day’s street-roam. Arthur’s Seat no longer filled with Edinburgh student wannabes posing with the latest North Face and flares combo to grace their wardrobe, because winter never stops in the North of the North (Face).
The Underbelly (among all the other wonderful to decidedly quirky venues) no longer graced by the glory of the Durham Revue, KEITH, and an assortment of brilliantly produced DST plays and performances. But this time, we may have hope to enjoy all the talent that the UK, (and hopefully beyond?) has to offer.
The great news is that progress for the Fringe has been ensured throughout this year. Firstly, there have been two key appointments to the stewardship of the festival. The brilliantly talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been announced as the Fringe Society’s first president, the society designed to boost opportunity for participation for all. She was one of such talents born out of the Fringe, where she first brought ‘Fleabag’ to life, to great success, since adapted for BBC Three.
By having such a success story of the power of the platform the Fringe can provide be the person who is at the heart of promoting such a platform, this was a really encouraging piece of news from earlier this year to the Fringe reviving. Just last month, Benny Higgins, the Former Tesco Bank CEO, was appointed chair, of the same society, having had roles for the National Galleries of Scotland, and the Fine Art Society beforehand, so he knows his way around non-profits and commercial work, with a ‘strategic vision’, according to the board’s vice-chair. Having two, very different, but equally highly capable and passionate individuals at the forefront of the Fringe bodes well for its resurrection.
It is better still, that off the back of the admirable substitute of digital content that was put out last summer by the festival, the UK government have granted a tasty £1m worth of funding for the expanding of digital content. Half will go to the funding the digital platform, and the other to the organisers to enhance the work itself: it is good to see that this money will hopefully not be lost to some corporate void. This development is telling of how a lot of, if not the majority of the content, will go on to be performed: digital streaming.
There will be many who will doubtless bemoan this, and with good reason, especially if a good deal of other large gathering events like Wimbledon and the like are able to occur with little difficulty. However of course the benefit of sports events is that they are, broadly speaking, outside, whereas the majority of Fringe venues are compact black box studios in anything from basements to transformed hotel conference rooms.
The COVID-19 risk in such environments, by comparison, need not at this point even be explained or stressed. It will however be deeply frustrating, broaching on unjust, if industries such as professional sport and mainstream music are able to make grand returns to profit that they are arguably in much less need of compared to the thousands of arts workers who have deeply struggled financially this year, which has not been best helped by the government’s general failure to consider the importance of funding theatres and performance venues in such a time of strife. Therefore, this new funding on this occasion is a welcome boost.
The power of an online platform, coupled with the name of the Fringe, must not be underestimated. Through the very impressive push of the ‘National Theatre at Home’ scheme, the National has been able to successfully raise funds whilst providing content for free. Even though many of us may have watched such performances with an aversion to the occasionally jarring cuts from close up to full stage shots, that in spaces such as the Lyttleton Theatre don’t always work so well: theatre is not film after all for a reason. And the power of seeing theatre in situ, in the flesh, is another matter that need not even be explained in how different an experience it will be.
But when the world is pushed away from such things, screenings can and have thrived. People will watch content with their households, or even on their own, and there is still a strong sense of community that DST exemplifies itself in the enjoying of the work each other have produced in both radio and filmed format. Everything from DDF to DADC will show you the chances of this. But with the new plans at the Fringe to combine digital performances with live ones in large outdoor venues, and the plans for show applications to still go on from May, it really would seem that there is still hope for a wonderful Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.
Image Credit: David Monteith-Hodge