We’re firmly in what would have been Edinburgh season and like many theatre lovers, we miss it terribly. But was it perfect? Hardly. Nikita Karia writes about her love, hate and nostalgia for the festival and hopes for it to return cleaner and more diverse.

My first experience of Edinburgh was as a gangly fourteen-year-old desperate to flee the ennui of another slow summer in suburbia, securing a place on the Young Pleasance’s Edinburgh Residential Programme. While my classmates were partying in muddy fields, I was performing in front of international audiences and watching back-to-back comedy and theatre long into the night. There was, of course, a substantial amount of misbehaving backstage – crushing on older boys and rushing to buy Smirnoff before the Scottish watershed kicked in. The fringe was my first taster of booze, boys and theatre… the three vices that defined my adolescent years. On the final night of the run, as I woozily tottered to the cast party with the festival’s iconic firework display booming in the background, I decided that I had caught the highly contagious Edinburgh ‘bug’. 

For the past 7 years, I have been returning to the festival as a performer, lighting operator, front of house assistant, supervisor, punter and more recently as a producer. I resigned myself to spending every summer in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future, proudly boasting that “it is the only place to be in August”. But as the fringe became more expensive, my duties more stressful and the hangovers more gruesome, the novelty inevitably started to wane. The festival’s close became synonymous with being broke, voiceless, crippled by exhaustion and usually mulling over existential thoughts while I grazed on a tepid McDonalds aboard a LNER train back to Kings Cross. As a seasoned fringe-goer, I had also become attuned to its ingrained imperfections which echo those of the wider theatre industry:

Harmful to the environment

The gruelling festival get-out invariably leaves behind colossal quantities of paper, discarded sets, food produce and other waste. Companies like Staging Change have kickstarted progress, seen in pop-up eco-venues and no-flyer zones, but change on a bigger scale seems like a distant possibility with a festival of this size and reputation. How do we go about reducing pollution caused by mass international travel to and from the festival? What is the festival without its mass of tourists hoarded on the Royal Mile?

Exploitation of workers and artists

Most temporary festival staff are on zero-hour-contracts and work 12-hour days with minimal breaks and pay. Venues tactically disguise these roles as ‘volunteer’ positions, providing staff with a highly sought-after Venue Pass (the Fringe equivalent of a Golden Ticket) and booze-fuelled staff parties to keep them shtum. The public-facing nature of most roles means that festival staff are ill-treated not just by their employers but also by the drunk and disorderly public who are almost always several steins in.

The festival operates an oligopolistic market dominated by the ‘Big Four’ venues who charge artists high upfront costs for the privilege of performing there. Artists are also met with extortionate rent prices, hiked up by local landlords for that one month, as well as transportation, PR costs etc.

Unable to pay themselves, artists are convinced that although prohibitively expensive in the short-term, the festival is a rite of passage for any early-career creative wanting to get noticed, secure future programming and reap long-term rewards. But of course, none of this is certain. The Edinburgh-centric model is dangerous as it perpetuates hierarchical structures within the industry making opportunities highly inaccessible to artists not benefitting from the privilege of wealth.

Lack of diversity

High participation costs and leadership of all four principle venues by white Artistic Directors, has culminated in a festival that is alarmingly un-diverse. From personal experience, I can only remember a sea of white faces on posters splashed across the city and in the eight years that I’ve attended, the number of theatre shows I’ve seen or heard about with an all or majority non-white cast can be counted on one hand. I was recently on the panel for a fund dedicated to commissioning Artists of Colour for Edinburgh. This is one of the first schemes in the festival’s 73-year history, that is attempting to break down barriers faced by Artists of Colour within a festival context. I hope that this is the catalyst for change and not the extent of it.

My last Edinburgh was the toughest one yet. The show was a hard sell, mediocre reviews dampened spirits and I was producing alongside writing funding applications for another company, spending hours working in dingy school canteen-like cafés (it is not uncommon to work multiple jobs alongside performing). Our budget was tighter than usual, anxieties about making a loss were soaring and a cast illness forced us to cancel a sold-out show on the busiest Saturday of the festival, losing out on hundreds of pounds worth of ticket sales. Did I mention, we weren’t paying ourselves for this? This lethal combination of circumstances took its toll on my mental health, as well as that of other company members. By the end of the festival, I was a shell of myself: exhausted, miserable, and lacking the energy to even speak to my family.

These are the unspoken realities of performing at Edinburgh. Too often, I find myself in the company of artists reminiscing about their love for it, their rose-tinted glasses firmly affixed, while dread is the only emotion stirred within me. But at the same time, I realise that I am extremely privileged to have attended the Fringe and I am complicit in the problems outlined above… it has undoubtedly opened doors to opportunities that I otherwise would not have had access to and I’ll be eternally grateful to those who permitted that.

After the trauma of last year, I was welcoming the idea of a fringe hiatus with open arms. I threw my XXL rain mac and trusty lanyard to the back of my closet, adamant that they wouldn’t be discharged until at least 2021, but then coronavirus swept in and upstaged us all.  For the first time in over 70 years, the festival has been cancelled. As with many privileges, now it’s gone, I’m missing its presence. Over the past few months, I have been seesaw-ing between a vehement “Edinburgh can do one” mentality and an unusually strong sense of nostalgia for the festival.

Edinburgh means so much to me and is the source of many fond memories: enchanted by the costume wizardry of Ennio Marchetto, being handed a Kleenex from a stranger as I sobbed uncontrollably in Rosa Hesmondhalgh’s Madame Ovary, beaming after a friend snuck me in to watch a sold-out James Acaster gig from the lighting box – to name a few. It is not just the city in which I fell in love with theatre but also with my long-term boyfriend after we were both cast in the same youth theatre production in our teenage years. We have returned to the festival together every year since.

It is okay to be mourning Edinburgh. I will miss the glorious moment of pulling into Waverly station on July 28, the wobbly sensation of pre-show jitters, the scalding mac and cheese scoffed on the hoof to a show on the other side of Cowgate and even the thick film of sticky sweat that lingers in every unventilated venue. But let this year off galvanise introspection and action on how to cultivate a healthier and more diverse festival environment. I will be more vocal about the festival’s drawbacks when it is revered by artists. I will call out venues that perpetuate exclusivity and condemn their majority-white programming (readers, you can donate to Fringe of Colour, a charity that strives to combat the lack of representation of Black and Brown voices at the festival). I will implement further eco-practices in my work. Venues must also make a conscious effort to support non-fringe-going theatre makers to dismantle the Edinburgh-centric career progression of early-stage artists.

Yes, I fell out of love with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but distance can only make the heart grow fonder.