Mental Health After the Edinburgh Fringe

After this year’s Fringe ended, our theatre editor had a stress-related health scare. Here she writes about her experience of the festival, the pressure that comes with it, and asks what can we do to better manage mental health in the arts

Feature by Amy Taylor | 12 Nov 2018

I knew something was very wrong with me when I looked in the mirror and my reflection had half a smile. After weeks of feeling unwell, both during and after the Edinburgh Fringe, I suddenly looked how I felt. The left side of my face smiled normally, if not a little maniacally, while the other side desperately tried to heave the corner of my mouth into a rictus grin. I couldn’t move the right side of my face. I stared at this face that was no longer mine. I wasn’t there.

After a couple of hours in A&E, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a condition where a facial nerve swells and paralyses one side of the face. It’s typically caused by being run down, or by a dormant virus, such as chicken pox, being triggered by stress. In my case, it was Fringe stress.

The lead-up to the festival had contained the usual: hundreds of emails, review requests, interview requests, follow up emails, tweets, DMs. Putting things together for the August issue, our biggest of the year. Recruiting writers, creating and managing their schedules, working late into the night, uploading reviews all day, putting the September issue together during the festival. Chasing outstanding reviews. Chasing outstanding reviews. Chasing outstanding reviews. Editing, uploading, reviewing.

For days, I barely saw or spoke to anyone, unless it was via email. I didn't go to any parties. I got a case of Fringe Flu that I struggled to shift, my migraines steadily increased in number and in severity, my sleep was disturbed. One morning I woke up, went to make breakfast, and realised it was 3am.

The Fringe exists in a bubble of its own design, with a culture based on late nights, star ratings and drinking, drinking, so much drinking. A haven for performers, PRs, producers, audiences, agents and more. But the price you pay to be at the Fringe doesn’t always stop at your bank account. How does the Fringe affect your mental health? And what can be done to make it easier for particpants?

'A Culture of Excess'

“I think that the culture of the Edinburgh Fringe is one of excess," says Annie McKenzie, an actor who appeared in Happiness is a Cup of Tea at the 2016 Fringe. “One of hard work, nonstop stimulation, excitement. It’s a place where everything is happening all at once and it is very easy to get swept up in that.”

For McKenzie, who is a recovering alcoholic and attended this year’s Fringe as a punter, the Fringe’s culture of non-stop working and endless partying takes a toll, not just physically, but mentally as well. The Fringe environment, McKenzie says, allowed her to go “wild” and enabled her addiction: “Drinking excessively every day, partying, showing up hungover for my show (something I had never done before and don’t know why I thought it was OK to do at the Fringe), hardly sleeping. All that stuff. 

"I do think the culture of the Fringe enabled that. It fed into my illness and I lapped it up.” 

“When I’m forced to be in Edinburgh for the full month it breaks me," explains Luke Emery, a theatre maker with several years experience of the festival, "The pressure to network, to see shows, to care for the artists and crew that I’m working with, it all builds up.

Like McKenzie, Emery also points to the culture that exists at the Fringe; one which involves countless parties, endless alcohol, and whose late-night nature encourages attendees to not look after themselves as well as they should, opting for booze and fast food over healthier, more sustainable options.

Emery says: “The Fringe is an environment that makes it a constant struggle to avoid unhealthy or potentially self-destructive behaviours. Free booze at opening events, fried food on every corner and literally minutes between meetings or shows to grab it. One day off in the middle of a 30-day working month.”

It’s not all partying as Laura Horton, a freelance arts PR, points out. Usual working hours do not apply, and at the Fringe your work is never done, which in turn affects your mental health.

“There's never time to stop," says Horton. "Once you've got a piece of coverage you're on to the next, and the next, and so on. At the Fringe the work starts early in the morning and continues late into the evening; meeting journalists, collating coverage, emailing, writing, working up pitches – you can always be doing more.

“It can really affect anxiety. It's very high pressured and fast-paced. I find it can often be worse after the festival, you power through when you're in it and then find yourself burnt out by the time September comes around.”

According to Emery, it takes around a month for him to recover from the Fringe. Emery also says the high pressure of the festival has led to an unequal culture where supply massively outstrips demand, and many attendees won’t achieve what they came to the Fringe to do.

“Everyone comes to Edinburgh hoping to book a tour, to get their next show commissioned, to get on TV," he says, "but it’s a torrent of supply heading towards a narrow gap of demand. There’s not enough done to highlight this to all the people who pack their hopes and dreams into their bags, to lay themselves bare for a month in Edinburgh.” 

Horton says: “It's always a magical month. I love seeing work, meeting people and publicising shows I believe in, so it will always be exciting in that way, though this year was undoubtedly tougher, with less arts coverage and more shows.

"It's not an easy month for anyone, let alone for someone with poor mental health or disability. I'm afraid it's still a place that excludes lots of people for financial, accessible and mental health reasons."

The Nature of the Arts

Part of the problem appears to stem from the nature of the arts themselves, with small budgets, short-term projects and a lack of time often driving creatives to neglect their mental health.

“The time always feels like it’s running out," says Emery. "It leaves little time or space to work with people who already have complex access needs.” 

While there are now more discussions on mental health in the arts, research undertaken, and proposals written to help facilitate change, all too often recommendations can’t be applied because of the very nature of the industry itself. Emery says that all involved are "often trapped by an industry that requires constant output, constant delivery and constant streams of new work. It’s something that Lou Platt and I have referred to as the Mantra of Martyrdom.

“We’re not seen to be doing good work unless we’re seen to be doing all the work all the time. It’s all too easy to get sucked into this and fall out the other side, burnt out and jaded. All too often it feels like sector development organisations are really keen to be taking a stand on the subject of mental health and wellbeing, but the reality of what needs to change is beyond their reach.

However, unsurprisingly, financial issues are a huge source of stress for creatives, and funding for the Fringe – arguably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, arts trade shows in the world – isn’t always available.

“Arts Councils in every country in the UK need to take a look at how they are supporting people to attend the Fringe," Emery explains. "In England, we’re expressly not allowed to apply for funds solely for the Fringe... while the opportunity for success is finite, it’s also one of the key places to getting your work on stages outside of your own city and country.”

Another, perhaps lesser-known problem involves the slashing of arts coverage in both national and regional publications. For a PR like Horton this leads to longer working hours, and adds to a feeling of loneliness – which was exacerbated by her living arrangements this year. She explains: "I wasn't in a flat with friends this year and, as I work as a freelancer, I really felt that isolation at certain points. Loneliness is something I think nearly everyone will feel during the month. The decline in arts coverage also meant I was working even longer hours."

Culture Change

Although mental health was a hot topic at this year’s festival, with the Fringe Society organising various events to discuss the issue, more needs to be done to tackle mental ill-health before, during and in the months after the festival. As Horton explains, that work needs to continue and evolve as the Fringe itself does. “The Festival Fringe Society do a lot," says Horton. "There is a section on their website about mental health, and a programme of workshops and support during the Fringe. As the festival is growing rapidly more can always be done and I'm sure it would benefit from a dedicated space people can come to talk confidentially at any time. Again, it's a question of resources.” 

For McKenzie, the festival’s culture of heavy drinking, and the fact that alcohol is so ubiquitous throughout the Fringe, needs to be discussed – with less alcohol-orientated options made available. “I think there should be a lot more in the way of mental health, meditation, self-care on offer," she says. "I think there should be more on offer for non-drinkers, or even some non-alcoholic bars so the culture doesn’t solely revolve around getting shit-faced and fucking each other. I think there’s a lot to be done, but it starts there. It starts by talking about it.”

As a journalist, the fear of missing out on the year’s biggest show, or not finding the show or the performer that you’ll be talking about for years to come, often led to this writer reviewing more than my schedule would allow. And this seems to be a common theme for other people at the festival. “FOMO is real but looking after yourself is more important," says McKenzie. “It’s OK to go home. It’s OK to nap. It’s OK to have an early night. It’s OK to ask housemates for a bit of time to yourself.”

Horton agrees, and believes it’s vital to take some time out for yourself: “FOMO is rife at the Fringe but it's so important to take some time where possible, even if that's an hour at a coffee shop outside of the festival bubble.”

When it comes to surviving the festival with your mental and physical health intact, Emery is unequivocal – talk to other people and figure out how much you can do.

“Dig beneath the star ratings, the sold-out stickers, the Fringe Firsts," he says. “Ask people what it was really like on a day-to-day basis, and how much it actually cost them to do it. Then evaluate how willing you are to take that risk yourself and how much you can afford to do it. Don’t forget who you are when you go.”

When we approached the Festival Fringe Society and asked about their commitment to mental health at the festival and beyond, a spokesperson reiterated participants' rights at the festival, and said: “The Fringe Society works year-round to provide support to the artists and venues that make the Fringe happen every year. At Fringe Central we run a programme of professional development events that are free for anyone participating in the Fringe to attend.

“The Health and Wellbeing section of the Fringe Central programme includes sessions and events on physical and mental health. In 2018 these included events organised with NHS Lothian, the Mental Health Foundation and Equity. We have fully-trained mental health first aiders on our participant services team and our website provides information on emergency contacts, including the NHS Mental Health Assessment service. We would welcome and be keen to participate in any discussion around mental and physical wellbeing at the Fringe.” 

The day after that contact, the Fringe announced plans to roll out the reveal of shows performing at the 2019 festival every month from January until the official programme launch in June. 

After a week on steroids, my face started to return to normal. I can look in the mirror and smile with a face that is mine again. I am there.