The Edinburgh Festival Fringe: better than ever?

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The Edinburgh Festival fringe, which boasts the title of the world’s largest arts festival, returned this August after being cancelled in 2020.

As with all live mass events this summer, the Festival looked different. In pre-pandemic years, visitors of the Fringe waded through the crowds swarming street acts; the Royal Mile, in the Old Town district, buzzed with the cries of street performers competing for attention; venues brimmed with audiences elbowing for the best view. The festival is renowned for bringing together people from all over the world, not only those filling the seats, but the make-up of the performers themselves. In 2019, over 3 million tickets were sold to people from 63 different countries.

With the government bailout of $1.4 million, the Festival made its encore this summer but with a very different looking programme. This year the festival returned to not only our street, but our screens. In order to adjust to reduced international travel, restrictions on crowd numbers and social distancing, the Festival took on a hybrid of in-person and, for the first time, online scheduled and live events. The usual spontaneity was somewhat limited as pre-booked tickets were largely necessary to get into venues, which was catered by the Fringe website. There were only 440 in-person venues, a drop from over 3500 in 2019, and many were imaginatively re-envisioned car parks and a football ground to host performances outside. Some events required a Lateral Flow Test to attend and there were check-in points dotted throughout the George Square street food and drinks gardens.

The usual unmatched quality of the artists was not scuppered by restrictions.

Nevertheless, the Festival, as always, delivered. The usual unmatched quality of the artists was not scuppered by restrictions. Despite the comedians, especially smaller names, being unable to practice and fine-tune their sets over the last 18 months, they bounced back and delivered side-aching laughs. In some ways, the past 18 months provided the perfect sets for many comedians. Comedian Sean Walsh was ready to poke fun at the British public’s attitude towards the first lockdown as we scrupulously followed the one-way arrows around supermarkets in comparison to the 3rd, where a jumper held over our mouth was felt sufficient protection. In this way, comedians like Vladimir McTavish, provided the mockery of the absurdity of the past months that, it felt, the audiences were craving. As with much of the workforce in the arts industry, many of the comedians reflected on their jobs being hit by the pandemic. The Edinburgh and Glaswegian comics, Gareth Waugh and Liam Farrelly, reflected on how they, begrudgingly, took on the new title as key workers. In fact, Waugh had to run off-stage as his set ran into the start of his Tesco shift. The microphone, this year sanitised between artists, was increasingly held by local Scottish performers. The performers were not the only part making the Fringe more local this year, but a third of audiences were from Edinburgh, a figure unheard of, as locals normally rent out their homes and flee their city.

For, other comedians, however, the P-word did not pass their lips. The absurdist comic Sam Campbell, in his show Companion, offered an escape from all things pandemic as he took the audience, often confused but constantly crying with laughter, through his show aided by wacky slideshows and audience participation.

Despite the contagion of laughs and smiles the Festival spread, there is an underlying very serious issue the Fringe wants to address this year. The live arts and entertainment industry have undoubtedly been one of the worst hit sectors by the pandemic. The Fringe, which generates £173 million, is an essential part of that cultural sector. In a bid to recover, the donation page Save the Fringe, headed by the new President Phoebe Waller-Bridge, aims to reach its target of £7.5 million to secure its own future.

So, this year’s Festival offered a hope of resurgence, but there is undoubtedly a long way to go to fully recover the creative industry from the pandemic’s lingering legacy.

Link to the donation page: https://www.edfringe.com/save-the-fringe

Image Credit: Ian Robertson via Creative Commons (Flickr)

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