Fixing the Edinburgh Fringe

The Skinny asks voices from the comedy industry to air their most pressing concerns about the performing arts behemoth, to find out how they would try to solve a problem like the Edinburgh Fringe

Article by Emma Sullivan | 27 Mar 2023
  • Edinburgh Fringe Royal Mile Street Performers

These are torrid times for the Edinburgh Fringe. After the soaring costs of last summer made for a stressful festival experience for many performers, pressure is building for evidence of real change. There was a cautious welcome early in March for the bursaries for artists and companies launched by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The subsequent announcement in the UK budget, however, of ring-fenced funding for a £7 million Fringe Society hub, was met with dismay, given the urgency of other issues.

For both artists and visitors, it’s accommodation costs that dominate, and while the Fringe Society clearly recognises the need to source more sustainable, affordable accommodation and is apparently working hard behind the scenes, tangible results are lacking. New rules have been proposed to address the number of short-term lets in the city. Although a benefit to the festival, they squeeze the availability of long-term housing for Edinburgh residents. However, pressure from the big Fringe venues has postponed the legislation’s rollout until the autumn. It’s just one of the ways in which the needs of the Fringe are increasingly at odds with the year-round needs of the city.

Clearly, though, there are no easy solutions. For all the love many have for the Fringe, as stand-up Njambi McGrath suggests, “for most, and for those who can afford it, it’s a money pit with many never seeing any returns.”

Mark Watson, speaking from the Melbourne Comedy Festival, thinks that a paradigm shift is required, saying that “the biggest problem with the Fringe is that it has grown to a size where it needs some sort of regulation and central control, but it's ideologically opposed to that very idea.” He’s adamant that in order “to run an event of this size every year, you need management – of the kind that exists in Melbourne (where I am now), Montreal, almost every comedy festival in the world. Edinburgh's different because it has been built on chaos.” 

Like many we speak to, Watson is keenly aware of the burden placed on Edinburgh’s infrastructure, insisting that the festival “has to demonstrate that it's enriching the year-round cultural life of the city, not just serving as a playground for the month of August. And we as comedians have to have honest conversations about whether the Fringe can cope with the number of us who are trying to perform there.” Sofie Hagen also worries that the Fringe has grown too big for the residents of the city: “If we're no longer wanted there, then we need to figure out how we can respect their wishes.”

Meanwhile, Jess Brough, the founder and director of Fringe of Colour, emphasises that “it’s important to remember that the Fringe is not the only access to arts and culture in Edinburgh or in Scotland more widely”; a point made by many in the indignant responses to the budget boost for the Fringe, which ignores the parlous state of many year-round Scottish cultural institutions. Brough senses an increasing appetite for independent, collective action in the Scottish arts scene: “I’m excited to see what else emerges from cultural practitioners who aren't willing to wait around to see changes made.” 

At Monkey Barrel, a year-round Edinburgh comedy venue often noted for its good practice, there’s a similar degree of pragmatism about the chances of top-down change. Director and co-owner David Bleese says, “we want shows to be affordable and accessible, acts to make a living from performing and to continue to ensure our staff get paid a living wage for the great work that they do. If we achieve this while at the same time everyone involved has a great time, then we’ve probably done our bit.” Given the difficulties many faced last year, Bleese has already noticed fewer acts returning this year, or doing shorter runs, perhaps influenced by Sam Campbell’s 2022 Best Show award on the back of a two-week stint. While that does make for a more 'calm and relaxed' experience for performers, most acts want the final half of the Fringe, which “risks a two-tier Fringe with the focus of awards and industry all geared up for the final week or so.”

Shorter runs and scaling back is a theme picked up by several people; Ashley Davies, a judge on last year’s Comedy Award Panel and journalist for the Metro, thinks that if “a cap can’t be placed on accommodation prices, the whole thing needs to be scaled down dramatically.” She wonders if it would be workable “for, say, comedy to run for half the month and theatre for the other, with the other disciplines split too.” Mark Watson also argues that the Fringe “needs to be smaller” which might then allow it to be “more cooperative... the festival needs to start functioning AS a festival, and not as a marketplace” he says, “with the venues working together and hand-in-hand with the Fringe Society.”

Tom Little, who does the Free Fringe every year, thinks some kind of limit on PR would make a huge difference in halting the “publicity arms race” of Fringe. “It doesn’t cost £10,000 to do the Fringe. It costs £10,000 to do it ‘properly.’” Defining his frustration, Little says “the act with the biggest budget isn’t the best act. It’s just the act with the richest dad. So why do industry people who ought to know better keep letting this bullshit determine what they see?”

There’s no doubt that attention does tend to focus on the same shows, something that Robert Peacock of the Wee Review flagged last year, when he argued the need to “incentivise a broader spectrum of reviews.” He reasons that for only “a tiny fraction of what gets spent on Fringe PR each year,” a team of reviewers could be funded to ensure wider coverage. Again, it’s a solution that requires top-down intervention, and one that is sharply at odds with the current Fringe ethos.

For some there’s simply no hope of improvement, and it’s only by starting afresh that British live comedy will gain the genuinely meritocratic showcase it needs. After the stress and exhaustion of last year, Martin Willis, director of Objectively Funny, a highly regarded comedy production company, has decided not to return. He describes last year as “painful – working 14 hours a day, being with artists who couldn’t work harder if they tried: hustling beyond any conception of the word – five, six gigs a day, working a job every day in order to afford it.”

Willis is categorical that “the Fringe simply lacks the infrastructure to let the less privileged thrive,” and feels that despite the fact “we all love this thing or we have loved it,” at a certain point “it becomes an abusive relationship.” And while there are plenty of festivals that are “doing everything right”, naming Leicester and Hastings as examples, it’s not that another festival can step up, given they all feed into Edinburgh. Willis is not alone in arguing for extreme measures – Richard Herring, for example, recently tweeted that “an organised boycott” might be the only way “to get performers valued.” 

And as Glasgow-based comic Stuart McPherson suggests, it’s not just performers that are being “shafted”. With both accommodation costs and ticket prices becoming prohibitively expensive, audiences may well be deterred. “If I was a comedy fan but learned that a week on the beach in Spain is the same price as three nights in an AirBnB in Tollcross,” says McPherson, “I know where I’d end up going.” 

There’s also another, more subtle problem with the impact of costs upon audiences. If rising costs increasingly define the Fringe audience demographic as middle-class, then there’s a risk of working-class acts feeling like case studies or oddities, which potentially prescribes and restricts their material. The problem of audience homogeneity also affects performers of colour, who face a similar kind of othering when confronted with largely white audiences. And to compound it all, high ticket costs further deepen the sense of creative curtailment, with the potential that audiences may be less tolerant of alternative shows or works-in-progress.

There’s little doubt the costs are stifling for both audiences and performers alike, as McPherson suggests: “If you’re arriving on day one £8,000 in the hole, you’re less likely to try out new ideas that are exciting to you.” Risking so much financially “doesn’t lend itself to creative expression” or experimentation. And if the Fringe is no longer a guaranteed crucible of creativity, what is it for?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 4-28 Aug 2023
Many thanks to all those who contributed to the article and those we reached out to for comment