Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile on August 5, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Life is more important than art

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has failed to live up to its responsibility as an industry leader

Were this year any other year, I’d now be licking the well-earned wounds of a heady month of debt, alcohol dependency, sunless summer, sleeper trains and self-promotion. I’d have seen around a hundred shows (the vast majority awful), swapped endless business cards and spurned endless flyers, made a thousand plans for a thousand new projects with a thousand new friends, and happily papered the vastly overpopulated metropolis with a steady stream of imaginatively illustrated pound notes. I would, in short, have put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I’d now have a tightly sprung production ready to tour, a cast who understood it (and each other) intimately, a fine (or not so fine) stretch of stars and reviews, and all of the publicity material, contacts and goodwill required to take it on the road and milk the thing for the next year or few. This year, however, is not any other year. This year, alas, I have done no such thing. This year, nobody has.

My company is far from alone in our frustrated plans and lost opportunities

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe could not be accused of acting in undue haste with its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Though there was talk of it from the beginning of March, it wasn’t until 16 March that theatres finally received official Government advice to close their doors. London’s eight week VAULT Festival (England’s Edinburgh equivalent, in full swing at the time) cancelled the final week at short notice, and the Brighton Festival announced cancellation for the first time in 53 years; its Fringe counterpart postponed until October. All eyes, all ears, all performers turned to Edinburgh. Edinburgh kept schtum, and the venues continued to urge companies to keep paying deposits, to keep calm, and to carry on as normal. A few days passed, and the Prague Fringe announced that it was following Brighton’s lead in postponing the May festivities until October (just recently giving in and cancelling altogether, after valiant efforts to make something – anything – work). Still, no word from Edinburgh.

My first Edinburgh fringe was back in 2008, when I played King Arthur in an ambitious (some said too ambitious) piece of new writing which spanned two timelines, lasted two hours, and earned two stars. Whilst the play as a whole was clearly too unflinching, too uncompromisingly raw and innovative for mainstream acceptance, I enjoyed the performances and surrounding debauchery immensely; the fringe has remained a permanent fixture in my calendar ever since. 2020 should have marked the fifth consecutive outing of my company’s award-winning DROLL strand of chaotic, anti-classical, rough theatre (based, ironically, on scripts performed during the closing of the theatres in the Civil War). We’d also been given a residency with Theatre Deli (the planned venue has since closed) to develop a mythology-based family show with puppets and physical theatre and second hand costumes from the National’s 2003 production of His Dark Materials. None of this, unfortunately, came to pass, and we are far from alone in our frustrated plans and lost opportunities. This has been a rough year all round, and – though not top of the list on things the country needs to worry about – live performance is a bruised industry, with many not making it through at all. We need whatever help we can get.

To read recent articles on the state of the arts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Edinburgh Fringe had nobly lead the way in self-sacrifice and cancellation with a martyr’s foresight, with Brighton and VAULT following their orders, and all other festivals joining the cause subserviently. This is sheer revisionism. More than a week before the Government advice came, Kevin Short, comedian and Edinburgh veteran, published an open letter on 8 March regarding the ethics of going forward with the Edinburgh Fringe, posting it to every industry Facebook group and news platform he could find. Titled simply Is Art more important than Life?, Short asked two fundamental questions: 1) Could the Edinburgh Festivals have a negative impact in the context of this pandemic? If the answer to that was even a tentative yes, then he asked 2):

Why are the powers that be not cancelling the Festival now? Festival Fringe is about to take in more and more registration fees, Venue Operators more rental fees, and many more businesses (such as accommodation agencies) are operating with a hopeful ‘business as usual’ attitude. From my communications with the Fringe, it seems everyone is waiting for the Government/Local Councils to make the decision for them. Meanwhile, head-in-the-clouds participants are going ahead with their plans too, ignoring the financial, let alone moral impact, all this will have on them. More importantly, not confronting the big question: Given the Global and more recent UK outbreak of coronavirus, should the Festival go ahead? Yes or No? … If your answer is NO, then I urge you to stand your ground, start preparations to withdraw from the festival now. I believe, just as with environmental issues, the People know what their conscience is telling them, even if they sometimes ignore it. We shouldn’t wait for the powers that be to make a decision we ourselves know is the right thing to do. Why wait for so-called senior bodies who put economy and business before common sense and delay the inevitable until it’s right for them? It’s time for Participants to do the right thing now. For themselves, and the Edinburgh people.

Any public discourse advising circumspection was quickly shut down

The response was one, predominantly, of hostility. Whilst a few were sympathetic to his points, on the major groups commentators called the notion “ridiculous”, “foolish”, mocking him and the very idea that something so all-powerful and untouchable as the Edinburgh Fringe could be cancelled by any authority under any circumstance; nobody could stop them from just turning up and performing in the streets, man. “Artists give rise to critical thinking inspiration and creative delights, not propaganda and fear” said one (sic), “Is art more important than life? Yes. Yes it is.” said another, in an extraordinary display of self-importance, even for fringe theatre. A certain Patrick Melton condemned Short as “a self-absorbed idiot who has been pitching this poorly written letter … to support some blatant personal motive … and obviously has some serious mental disability … Nobody cares. As you’ve been told in other groups on Facebook, fuck off” before apparently making threats of physical violence (Kevin Short responded, rather fittingly, by making a show about it). A week or so later the “early bird discount” deadline for Edinburgh registration came and went, with no indication from the festival that there would be a cancellation, just the usual urges for performers to keep paying their deposits as usual.

It was not, in fact, until 1 April (All Fool’s Day, for those paying attention) that it was finally confirmed the Edinburgh festivals would not be happening as we knew them. It was a response that came almost a month after Short’s letter, and weeks after VAULT, Brighton, Bedford Fringe, Prague, Glastonbury, etc. had set the precedent. Within that month of silence tens of thousands of pounds (if not more) were spent by hopeful aspirants in registration fees, venue deposits, programme deposits, publicity materials, travel and accommodation. Some of it has been refunded. Much hasn’t, and never will be. Any public discourse advising circumspection was quickly shut down. Many Edinburgh venues have since started fundraising campaigns to ask the various students and starving artists who usually fill them to donate what little they have left after these months of unemployment, so that next year they can pay them even more for the privilege of losing money on their stages once again. The industry’s problems do not begin or end with Covid-19.

I have yet to be convinced that filmed theatre is anything other than bad film

It is, of course, a difficult thing for any event or institution to balance what’s best for the country (where the coronavirus pandemic is concerned), what’s best for artists, and survival on a financial level. The fact that the theatre industry has for so long been capitalising on progressive politics and a sense of moral superiority means, in the same vein as the recent Ellen Degeneres scandals, that the slightest whiff of self-serving hypocrisy can be enough to undermine decades-worth of goodwill – take the Southbank Centre’s choice to hold an outdoor exhibition celebrating low-paid key workers and “Everyday Heroes”, whilst making the 400 lowest paid members of its staff redundant and reducing their redundancy payouts (thus ensuring senior management retain comfortable salaries of more than £100,000 per year). It’s not a good look.

I raised the question of finding this balance with Mat Burtcher, one of the Festival Directors at VAULT, after their announcement at the end of July that the festival would not be going ahead in any recognisable form until 2022:

Personally, I think it’s a good idea to prioritise the long term … I think if missing a year of ‘proper’ VAULT Festival is what it takes to make another ten years of it possible, that’s the right choice, even though it’s a sad one. Risking health, money and goodwill (ours and our artists/audiences) on a proposition that’s more risky than an already crazily risky Festival could be a very quick way to ensure it doesn’t have a future.

VAULT will, of course, follow in Edinburgh’s footsteps (and those of most other festivals) in seeking to develop some online alternative to fill the gap; I am sceptical of these efforts, however. Whilst the experiment is certainly worthwhile, I found the recent Edinburgh attempt at creating an internet fringe a predictable swing and a miss, and frankly a waste of scarce resources with no discernible point. What was it for? I have yet to be convinced that filmed theatre is anything other than bad film.

The mess around coronavirus is unprecedented. Whilst I do not think it is useful to outright condemn the choices festivals and theatres and arts centres have made in response, I do think it’s important to discuss them, and for those institutions to be open to the notion that they might have gotten things wrong. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe got things wrong. They did not handle it well. They made bad choices for seemingly self-serving reasons. They did not live up to their obligations as an industry leader. Whilst they shouldn’t be crucified for this, they shouldn’t be lionised, either. If we are to learn from these “unprecedented” times, then it is vital that we stop re-writing them before they even become history. Goodwill, support and optimism are one thing, but let us leave fantasy narratives on the stage where they belong.

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