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4 August 2022

“The festival is more fragile than ever”: the Edinburgh Fringe wars

The Fringe should be enjoying its 75th year. Instead Nish Kumar, Mark Watson and other performers insist it needs reform.

By Anna Leszkiewicz and Bilal Aly

This year was meant to be a celebratory one for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Thanks to the pandemic, the month-long theatre and comedy festival was cancelled in 2020 and much smaller than usual in 2021. It’s full return this year also coincides with its 75th anniversary. It was to be a glorious comeback for the festival, which is credited with kick-starting the careers of many of Britain’s best-known writers and performers, such as Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Richard Ayoade, Peter Kay and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Yet instead, the Fringe has become a battleground. Actors and comedians, most of whom take part for the thrill and in the hope of making connections with peers and promoters, are used to making a loss. In recent years, however, the festival has vastly increased in size and expense, leaving thousands of venues and performers vying for dwindling audience shares while accommodation costs spiral dramatically. Critics have accused the Fringe’s organisers of not only failing to support performers but making changes to the festival that will actively undermine their efforts and leave them further out of profit.

Central to the summer’s discontent is the fact that this year the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, which organises the Festival, will no longer be providing an app through which audiences can find shows and buy tickets – a seemingly minor change, but one that many performers fear will have a huge impact on audience numbers. The app’s “Nearby Now” function allowed audiences to see a list of performances starting soon in their vicinity, so they could discover smaller shows without a marketing budget that they may not otherwise have seen advertised. Fringe organisers say the same function is now available on the website, but in the absence of the app, Equity, the actors’ union, is calling for performers to be reimbursed for their registration fees paid to the Fringe Society, which range from £200 to £400 per person.

On 5 July the Live Comedy Association wrote an open letter to the society, claiming it is “increasingly difficult to justify the expense of taking part” in the festival and that “little has been done to actively improve the Fringe experience for participants”. The letter, requesting the return of the app, greater transparency over how festival earnings are distributed, and support for accommodation and travel costs for performers, has been signed by more than 1,500 people.

Nish Kumar, the comedian and host of the BBC satire show The Mash Report, first performed at the Fringe 16 years ago. “The size and scale of it has vastly expanded, and everything costs more money,” he said. “When I first started going into 2006, everyone was like, ‘It’s got too expensive!’, and that has not improved.” The lack of the app is “an unfathomable decision”, Kumar told the New Statesman. “It’s bad enough that the Fringe Society isn’t pushing back more stringently on rising costs that are facing performers. It’s bad enough that they’re doing nothing. They’re now doing things to actively damage the performers that are attending its festival.”

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The comedian Mark Watson has seen a similar change over more than two decades of attending the Fringe. “It’s incredibly competitive,” he said. “It’s become a victim of its size, because there are so many shows now that some of them suffer.

“I’m a strong believer in the idea that the Fringe needs to reform. The Fringe Society, as many comedians have now pointed out, is not really fulfilling any useful function. It doesn’t do the job which it claims to do, which is to support performers. If the Fringe Society truly supported performers, it would be working to ameliorate rising costs in some way – finding ways of subsidising accommodation and registration fees, or at least delivering stuff like the app.” 

“If the Fringe becomes a playground for people with trust funds, then the entire purpose of the exercise is completely fucked,” Kumar said.

On 4 July Shona McCarthy, the Fringe Society’s chief executive, said in a statement: “We share everyone’s disappointment about the absence of the Fringe app in 2022. After two pandemic-affected years running on shoestring budgets, we simply d​id not have the budget required to build and maintain the app this year ​at the point when this work needed to be undertaken (Dec 2021). I am sorry this is the situation, and can reassure the Fringe community that we have every intention of re-instating the app once our finances are more robust.”

In an email to the New Statesman Susan Russell, the society’s head of communications, said: “We recognise that we could have better communicated some changes to Fringe services this year, and we have apologised for any frustration caused. Our Nearby Now functionality is now live on the edfringe.com website, which offers the same functionality. Our focus remains on supporting artists in the busy weeks ahead.”

Rob Lugg, Equity’s organiser for comedians, said the disappearance of the app was the “last straw” for performers “facing a cost of living crisis, facing accommodation and transport costs spiralling out of control”.  

He acknowledged that “it can be easy, because they’re the public face of the Fringe, to blame the Fringe Society, but I don’t think that’s fair, because a lot of this stuff is beyond their control”. Reimbursing participants, however, “would be a good gesture of goodwill to try and rebuild that damaged relationship with performers, without whom the Fringe literally doesn’t exist”. 

The lack of the app shuts newer performers out of an increasingly competitive market. While those performing at one of the festival’s “Big Four” venues – the Assembly, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance and the Underbelly – are likely to get noticed, those putting on shows at the hundreds of smaller venues, especially those without money to spend on marketing, may struggle to find audiences.

Joe Kent-Walters, one half of the double act the Lovely Boys, who are performing at this year’s festival, said he paid to register with the Fringe Society to perform at one of the official Fringe venues – rather than taking part in the Free Fringe, which would not have incurred a cost – because of the app. “It totally levelled the playing field, in terms of the PR that a small show can’t afford,” he said. “For me, it was worth investing for that.” When he found out, late in the day via the Fringe Society’s Twitter account, that there would be no app this year, he “felt completely done over and out of pocket £400. That’s a month’s rent that’s been paid for something that’s not been delivered.”

Luke Rollason is a performer and actor in the Disney+ sitcom Extraordinary who has been attending the Fringe for nearly a decade. His show Bowerbird is on at the Fringe this year. He said that bigger venues have a “stranglehold” on the Fringe. Without the app, audiences have to rely on the enormous online brochure. Otherwise, “there’s brochures for each of the Big Four venues and the Big Four themselves have a brochure that is just the four of them. A lot of people will think that is the extent of the Fringe.”

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As well as the challenges of finding an audience, the cost of performing at the festival is prohibitive for many. Meryl O’Rourke, a stand-up comedian, is not taking her show Vanilla to the Fringe. “I’m in my early 50s, my daughter is 16,” she said. “If I have £6,000, should I throw it at a show which maybe somebody might see, maybe somebody might not see, or should I put that into a savings account for her to go to university? It’s a difficult decision to make.” 

The biggest issue for many remains accommodation costs. Rollason has seen accommodation costs rise sharply in the last few years. In 2018 he and a group of other performers rented a four-bed flat in the city for £2,750 for the month. To rent the same flat this year, he was told it would cost £3,000 a week. In retrospect, he sees 2018 a “golden age” when affordable accommodation was still possible to find – when split between eight people sharing rooms and beds, the flat cost him £350.

Dillie Keane, a founding member of the satirical cabaret act Fascinating Aïda, has been attending the festival for almost fifty years. “Forty-nine years ago it was much more a rough assembly of various shows,” she said. “It’s worryingly becoming much less democratic. The cost of actually staying here has nearly doubled since before the pandemic. God knows how young artists can come up and afford to stay. The rentals here are iniquitous.” 

Kent-Walters agrees. “Without a shadow of a doubt the cost is going up every single year, little bit by little bit, and it feels like this year has been the biggest jump,” he said. In 2017 he rented a one-bedroom apartment that he shared with ten people, which cost him £400. This year he’s spending £600 to share a bed with his double-act partner: it’s “one of the best deals I’ve heard of”.

Accommodation is far from the only cost for performers. As well as the registration fee, performers pay venue fees, the cost of marketing and PR, and travel. “I have a friend who’s been charged for a table,” Kent-Walters said. “To hire a table to put their props on, a table that’s in the venue already! The Fringe Society should be taking more responsibility as the central force to police venues and hidden costs.” 

Anthony Alderson, artistic director of the Pleasance Theatre, one of the “Big Four” venues, has been going to the Fringe since 1987. He sees the Pleasance as “a microcosm of the whole”. He said: “The majority of our venues are under 100 seats, and we have a few big ones. Ultimately, the big venues help some of the little ones. There’s an ecosystem that is symbiotic.

“We – as a group of venues and with the Fringe Society – we’re the infrastructure of this festival and we’ve got to make sure that it is affordable and sustainable.” 

No one who runs the festival is getting rich, he said. “It’s very easy, I think, to walk into venues, look and go, ‘Well, somebody must be making a lot of money.’ But of course, no individual is. There aren’t any fat cats in this festival. The city of Edinburgh is who makes money from this festival. It goes to private landlords, the university, restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels. Everybody in this festival is bringing money to the city and leaving it behind. What we’ve got to do is try and make sure [we make] enough for us to be able to remount it next year. And that’s the thing that’s getting hardest. And that’s why the festival is now at the most fragile it’s ever been.”

Despite the conflict, Alderson believes there is “lots to celebrate” in the Fringe’s 75th year. Watson agrees: “In a lot of ways, the thrill of the Fringe is for performers exactly what it always was, which is the opportunity to do something that you want to do in a room with like-minded people and connect with audiences in a really visceral, close-up way.”

“I still think it’s something that’s worth fighting for,” Kumar said. “That’s the reason I’m so furious with the Fringe organisation. It’s because I love what the Fringe stands for.”

[See also: “The BBC won’t survive another Tory government”: Nish Kumar on the British comedy culture wars]

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