The Fringe must be open to all if it is to stay relevant

During the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, tens of thousands of performers from around the world come together for the biggest arts event of the year. This year, artists from over sixty countries will perform in over 4,000 shows staged in 323 venues. More tickets will be sold than any other yearly event.

The sense of community, comradery and common spirit that Fringe exudes makes Edinburgh an enduring haunt for so many during August. Yet for artists sensing the industry pressure and necessity to have your work seen at the Fringe, it is hard not to feel limitations of sky-high costs and the very real possibility of an empty theatre if a marketing campaign falls flat.

Our company, Theatre Paradok, is a student theatre society from the University of Edinburgh. We live in Edinburgh year-round and see the effects of the Fringe when our city's population of 500,000 doubles every August. Usually empty streets become harder to navigate than Oxford Street on boxing day.

Citizens of Edinburgh open their arms wide and their Airbnb doors wider to visitors from around the world, driving up prices and altering neighbourhoods year-round. Residents are being priced out as more buildings provide short term holiday rentals than affordable homes.

Despite the effect of the Fringe on the costs of living in Edinburgh, citizens remain, broadly speaking, positive about Fringe. Money pours in during August and the cultural value of having the world's largest theatre on your doorstep must not be ignored. Living in Edinburgh means I see more work in August than I would year-round otherwise. The Fringe gives young artists like me the opportunity to breathe to the pulse of the nation’s cultural heart for a month.

Despite already being based in the city, the same rent costs, marketing frustration and financial difficulty that puts companies off almost perturbed us. This will be my third Fringe, but the first time I have taken the plunge and put on a show. Seeing other artists cope with the high stakes year after year has been humbling and off-putting. The costs are so high and, when you need to work all month, it is hard not to feel like showcasing one’s work at the Fringe is an impossible dream.

Our show this year is about two ordinary working women struggling to get by. We tackle their disenfranchisement, comparing the 1983 and 2017 general elections, and investigate class, democracy and representation through the lives of history’s forgotten working women.

It is hard to miss the irony when writing our show, Twice Over, which centres around themes of representation and enfranchisement. Edinburgh in August is a Fringe bubble that can feel alienating and lacks representation from the full financial breadth of society. The Fringe’s positives surely outweigh its negatives, but, unsurprisingly, such an expensive endeavour fails to attract and maintain artists from working-class backgrounds.

For our production, we paid our costs upfront back in April, only possible because of a grant. But what independent artist has upwards of £1000 to pay a venue in advance? Shows working with more experienced production companies will find ways to cover the costs, but it is harder for newer acts to navigate different payment options. By paying upfront, our show faces less risk, but ticket sales will be essential. What is more, a venue that has already met its costs faces less pressure to market a show and get bums on seats than other spaces which take a cut of sales. Ultimately, these problems plague fringe theatre everywhere, but with the scale of the Edinburgh Fringe, it can is easy for performers and artists to feel defeated before they even arrive.

I spoke to actress and comedian, Francesca Sellors, a veteran of the Fringe who performs each year with the comedy troupe The Improverts. The Improverts perform at Bedlam Theatre through the Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA), which owns many of the buildings used for the Fringe. Despite making 12 grand profit each year, the performers do not see any of that money. Francesca describes the ‘bureaucratic obstacles’ that the troupe have faced from EUSA when they try to split profits. She says “We’re the longest running improv group at the Fringe, we’re not a small company. We work really hard for fringe and it costs us a lot of money.” So, it seems that even the established acts face significant financial challenges to make Fringe happen.

Thus, Edinburgh faces a crisis. It is estimated to bring £260 million to the local economy, but it is students, young artists and grassroots performers who must fork out money to pay the barely profitable theatres. The artists who can least afford it are subsidising the Fringe so that audiences can travel to Edinburgh and broaden their cultural horizons. Hopefully, performers will have their work seen by industry insiders and the opportunities that come next could well be priceless, but when that doesn't happen, artists risk losing out big time.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to see new work and have your work seen can't be missed, not to mention the fun that can be had each year. So, artists will continue to lose money, desperately chasing their Fleabag moment, and those who cannot afford to will be pushed out.

Something must change, or the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will cease to be a culturally broad and exciting place. Creating our show has been a labour of love, and we do not expect to make money, but the costs should not prohibit the county’s brightest and most promising artists from finding space on this international stage.

90% of the money generated at the Fringe stays in the city of Edinburgh, but without the artists, Edinburgh would have no festival. We must find a way for the profits of Fringe to be more evenly distributed or for costs to be driven down. When the art ceases to come from all corners of society, the Fringe will lose its soul and marginalised voices will be pushed further into the margins.

Related Listings

Twice Over

Twice Over

Twice Over examines Thatcher and May’s leadership through the lives of two Northern women. As history moves in parallel, we use prose, poetry, verbatim and music to explore gender, democracy and education… 

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