Born out of a need for more inclusivity, Edinburgh Fringe has been the go to festival for artists from all over the world for over 70 years. Is its return next week a bit premature though? Perhaps says one of our writers.
Little has been left unharmed in the last year and a half – especially Theatre. Even in the last couple of weeks, the ramifications of the pandemic still rage on as productions like The Browning Version, starring Kenneth Branagh and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella have been forced to close.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The colours, the buzz, the fight to get down the Royal mile to watch live events in conventional or makeshift spaces and fireworks lighting the Edinburgh Skies: they have always made it an unforgettable experience and a feeling I can’t even put into words.
Edinburgh Fringe was formed in 1948 by eight companies that didn’t feel welcome at the less inclusive Edinburgh International Festival, which began a year earlier. For over 70 years, the City has seen itself transformed for 3 weeks every August, but all that changed in 2020 when, for the first time ever, it was cancelled.
The joy and excitement of the Fringe is contagious, but sadly not quite as contagious as COVID-19. For the last two years we’ve had to prioritise our personal safety, but how does this translate to an event where one of the chief requirements is about being in close proximity to lots (and lots) of other people?
As someone who absolutely loves the Fringe but also struggles with social anxiety, I find it hard to imagine how the Fringe could happen with COVID regulations in place. As it stands, social distancing will be lifted on August 9th in Scotland, but this makes it impossible for the performers, the venues, the Fringe organisation and those wanting to attend shows to make any plans.
In order to encourage a necessary feeling of safety, it is vital to lay out strong, clear rules and provide information, right? It required a Herculean amount of effort for me to find any COVID guidelines on the Fringe website and that was only after spending a considerable amount of time scrolling through. Out of the major companies, the only one that has easy to access information is the Gilded Balloon.
Ordinarily, art lovers will flock from all over the world to enjoy the Fringe, but because of travel restrictions, we have ultimately lost some of the diversity that makes it such a vibrant place to be. This includes performers , venue staff and audience members from all over the world.
People in the arts who come from overseas need to ask themselves whether they want to spend money to work at a festival, much smaller than normal or to avoid it altogether. Many will be faced with this predicament, and many will make the hard decision not to come over, contributing ultimately to a less diverse event.
Over the past couple of months, I have been on Technical Theatre groups fuelled with outrage about the double standards that exist between arts and sports venues. The final of the Euros at Wembley hosted 100,000 fans (without masks). Both are methods of escapism and yet theatre is the only one considered a luxury.
At the end of May, Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga announced a state of emergency for Tokyo and subsequently the Olympics, following a fourth wave. This means that the Olympic Events will not be attended by both domestic and international spectators, no doubt an extremely hard decision when host countries tend to rely on a surge in tourism. Should Scotland follow suit? The planned removal of restrictions in August raise questions of safety. Are restrictions being lifted because it’s the right thing to do or because not doing so will damage the economy further?
The Fringe was created to give performers and acts an opportunity to perform no matter their funding, wealth, fame or experience. Due to the current restrictions however, the Fringe will inevitably only be accessible for a more privileged few and most notably, far less attendees from outside the UK. Will we see something more akin to the Edinburgh International Festival’s origins – a significantly less inclusive event? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Personally, I believe it would have been better to leave it off for another year until the opportunities were more readily available to bring back the Fringe we all fell in love with.