Changing the culture: a new normal for the Fringe?
We catch up with Bilal Zafar, Eleanor Morton, Tom Mayhew, Chloe Petts and Sikisa about what the ‘new normal’ should be for future Edinburgh Fringe Festivals
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a sorely missed staple for many comics who look to build on, and in some cases establish their careers. It’s been off the cards since April 2020 but it feels, however tentatively, as though we could see its return this summer, even if it doesn’t look or feel quite the same.
Between Fringes comedians have been finding various ways to fill the time over the last year. Sikisa found her platform online. “I was quite lucky during lockdown as I had the opportunity to perform at some of the big online shows like Always Be Comedy and The Covid Arms as well as having the opportunity to perform on stage at the Save Live Comedy events, and having my TV debut.” Also taking their talents online is Bilal Zafar: “Since April I have been streaming on Twitch, a lot! It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
“I’ve spent most of the year working on my Radio 4 series, Tom Mayhew is Benefit Scum [now on BBC Sounds],” says the eponymous Mayhew. “I really appreciated having that project to focus on, to be honest, otherwise I would have probably gone mad!”
For Chloe Petts, writing has offered similar solace: “I've been working with the genius Sean McLoughlin on my new show, although it's very hard to write stand-up when life feels like Groundhog Day.”
Eleanor Morton’s kept herself busy with writing, podcasts and online gigs. “I got to be in Adam Larter/Weirdos' award-nominated Gary and the Crisp Factory for Leicester Comedy Festival, which all sounds quite exciting until you remember it all took place in my bedroom.”
A year of lockdowns has allowed space for reflection on what can be done better. Whether it’s harassment on the Scottish comedy scene, the lack of safe spaces for marginalised communities, or the sheer expense of the Fringe for those from lower income backgrounds, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Zafar is in two minds about Fringe inclusivity: “I think it will seem more inclusive because the diversity of acts will continue to grow but I don’t see the cost of venues or accommodation going down so it’ll probably always favour performers with rich parents.”
“As a female person of colour who comes from a council estate,” says Sikisa, she knew she’d have to work hard and save like mad to do the Fringe. “But in general I would hope the Fringe becomes more diverse,” she adds. “Tom Mayhew was my star of 2019 with his Edinburgh show, but it wasn’t nominated and the wonder is whether that’s because he wasn’t in one of the top three venues.”
“I think this year specifically could be more inclusive because it's unlikely to be a full month,” says Petts, who should have debuted at Fringe 2020. “But, then again, maybe that will just be balancing out the lost income of potential attendees due to the pandemic.”
Morton is less confident. “I don't know how much can change in a year or so, especially as I don't really feel like we've had that discussion as an industry.”
Tom Mayhew, though, points toward initiatives making waves: “We have seen things move forward over the past five years, with Edinburgh shows like Best In Class giving a platform for working-class comedians who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to be there.”
That’s not to say the Fringe isn’t sorely missed. “Over-priced woodfire pizza. Seeing 90s comedy legends buying cigarettes in newsagents. Bumping into a teacher from high school and having to explain that you 'do comedy now',” is what Morton is yearning for. “The feeling of having written an entire show that I’ll hopefully be proud of and then seeing one of my flyers in a puddle,” muses Zafar.
But for Mayhew, it’s about escape from the everyday. “Not everyone will relate to this, but for me, it has always felt like a guilt-free holiday. Don't get me wrong, it's not a typical holiday, as you are working your butt off! However, it is still time away, in a different scene, doing different things.”
Whatever’s in store for us this August, and however much we look forward to the Fringe’s triumphant return, the world’s largest arts festival needs to be better at including, and raising, the voices of people from marginalised communities. Let’s hope that better comes soon.
Find more about our interviewees' work here:
- Bilal Zafar on Twitch at twitch.tv/zafarcakes
- Eleanor Morton on Twitter @eleanormorton and catch her shows on NextUp
- Tom Mayhew on Twitter @tommayhew and catch Tom Mayhew is Benefit Scum on BBC Sounds
- Chloe Petts on Instagram @chloepetts and Twitter @ChloePetts
- Sikisa on Instagram at @twix_choc87 and @girlcode_chat