This time last year, I enthused that ‘Anything can happen in Edinburgh’. If only that were still the case…
Okay, so maybe I’m being a little dramatic - but the phrase certainly needs reframing if this year’s Fringe is anything to go by. Perhaps this is more apt…
‘Anything can happen in Edinburgh - if you can afford it’
Now don’t get me wrong - I’ve just returned from a wonderful few days at the greatest festival in the world, and I had a lovely time. I saw some Fringe classics (Out of the Blue, Sh*tfaced Shakespeare, Newsrevue etc.) and some great groundbreaking performers (Sad-vents, Bad Play and Aaron Simmonds, to name a few). All of it was great - full of the craftsmanship and quality I’ve come to expect from the festival over the last decade.
But I have to acknowledge that I was only able to attend because I had the disposable income to do so - and that’s speaking solely as an audience member. Ticket prices were high, the cost of food and drink was ridiculous and don’t get me started on the hotel. Just existing in Edinburgh during Fringe month has become a budgeting task of herculean proportions.
I do wonder what impact this has on the kind of shows that make it to the Fringe. When I said last year that ‘anything can happen’, I wonder how many of the limitless creative possibilities that I have come to expect as an audience member were simply priced out of taking a show up.
I spoke to one performer who told me that their show had cost £5000 to put on. This was in a 90 seater venue - so fairly intimate in the scheme of the festival. Five-thousand pounds! Just to take a punt on your hard work - a real hit and hope scenario. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I certainly don’t have that money lying around to throw at anything - let alone a show that you may only just break even on. If you're lucky!
Aside from this, the nature of the content that was being performed at the festival was certainly not challenging the status quo. I recall years of walking up and down the Mile (which strangely had no stages for performers and is no longer the hub of the festival - a real tangential shift) and seeing tons of shows that at the very least poked fun at the political issues of the day. Brexit the Ballet. Trump the Musical. Petrol Prices: the Play (okay, maybe not the last one). The most satirical thing I saw was NewsRevue - which did take aim at some of the people who are responsible for the current planet-burning, compassion free hellscape we’re all bearing witness to, but was ultimately very safe. It satirised everyone. Perhaps that’s where we’re at with satire right now - but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The new faces I did see pitched well and pitched effectively, with an angle of doing something innovative and challenging for audiences. But they were few and far between, which was genuinely disappointing. Where has the activism gone?
I can’t stress this enough - I do not like to be one of those people who just complains about things, only voicing problems and sharing no solutions. But this to me has a simple solution - just fund the arts. ‘What does that look like?’ you say? It looks like it did 13 years or so ago, when value was placed on performance in Educational settings, local communities and beyond. Arts organisations and progressive schools are our last bastions of hope for putting the heart back into performance and creativity for everyone, not just the privileged. Without them, we’d be in a totally different place and they’re working hard to keep the dream alive.
I know deep down that the festival can return to its former glory - a safe and inspiring space for performers of all backgrounds to showcase their art and tell their story. But right now, it’s a rich person’s game and it’s reflected in the art that’s being created - let’s put the arts back on the agenda and make it a priority for every community. If not, it’s only a matter of time before everything we go and see is ‘safe’ and ultimately pointless. Art shakes things up and makes things happen - without the Fringe, how else are we going to inspire the next generation to make their voices heard.