What is the future of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

The Fringe has grown to a mammoth event – indeed the world’s largest of its kind.  But do we really understand the impact of the size on the quality of the Festival?  Could it be that the stem is too weak to support the bloom?

Tomek Borkowy
Tomek Borkowy

My first encounter with the Edinburgh Fringe was in 1983, when I brought my production of Dialogue with a Dying Man by Michael Almaz.  We performed in the Little Lyceum, located in a “hole in the ground”, more or less where The Traverse Theatre now stands.  Despite being a serious drama in a midnight slot we got great audiences and very good reviews.  I fell in love with the city and above all with this intoxicating Festival.

In 1990 I returned with my Ab Ovo Theatre Company.  We hired Hill Street Theatre, produced four of our own productions and hosted 21 others.  We broke even and I decided to continue as an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue producer.

This year could have been my 27th Festival as a venue producer, but it isn’t.  I am stopping, not because I am bored of it but because it has changed into something I can’t support anymore.  For me it has lost its artistic purpose and is shifting to a structure that is profitable for some shareholders and ruinous for artists.  I really don’t like the direction the Festival is going with its unscrupulous and often unlawful cut-throat competition.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society was created to serve and help performers (and later venues) in their task of presenting work.  But during the last 20 years the Society hasn’t shown any vision of where to steer the Festival. The biggest problem at the Fringe Society is its Board of Directors.  In many cases members of the Board are getting themselves re-elected time and time again mainly for self-serving reasons, which in turn forms the basis of this lack of vital strategic thinking.

In my over quarter of a century stint with the Festival I have witnessed a lot of transformations and also catastrophic failures.  In 2007 for example, despite warnings from a number of venue producers, the Festival Fringe Society’s new centralised ticketing system collapsed, causing financial burden for all participants and a £1m deficit for the Society. Through the particularly deft leadership of Kath Mainland as (now former) CEO and the great team she assembled, the Fringe Society was back on its feet and in robust health.  However, the intensive 5 years focus on ensuring the wellbeing of the Society has allowed extraordinary bad practice by other stakeholders to emerge unchecked.  It changed the Festival, diminishing its international status not only as the most renowned arts event but also as the world’s leading Performing Arts Trade Fair.  These changes placed in question the long term health and purpose of the Fringe, and have been left unchallenged by the Society’s Board of Directors.  As a consequence in the last four years there has been a noticeable drop in the number of top professional international and British productions in Edinburgh, lowering the overall quality of the Festival.  Unfortunately there are strong forces driving this damage:  greed, lack of understanding and complete lack of vision.

In the past, relations between the Fringe Office and Venue Producers have been somewhat “challenging”.  A former Fringe Society Director described venue producers as “dodgy”.  This was due to poor understanding of the challenges in producing a venue.  Relationships were so poor that in 2006 I initiated the formation of AIVP (Associated Independent Venue Producers) to act as a mediating body.  In the last ten years it has helped create a number of initiatives, which have improved relationships around the Fringe.

Despite a change in the Society’s constitution to provide more representation by artists and producers, the Society has become increasingly corporate and feels ever more removed from the interests of those it was created to serve.  The board and management decisions, which caused the 2007 Box Office disaster, were never publicly explained despite the impact on everyone professionally connected with the Fringe.   Only one member of the Board, as an individual, had the courage and decency to apologise for this calamity, which nearly brought the Fringe to its knees.

The transition of the Society to a corporate entity has celebrated size over quality of experience. This includes Fringe Office expansion, which in turn requires increased revenue to fund it.  Year after year the media spin has been focused on how much bigger the Fringe has become. More shows, more performers, more tickets sold….  Except that under these circumstances what is hidden is that those tickets are not necessarily sold.  The truth is that a lot have been given away as intensive competition has led to relentless discounting and comp-ing.  With ticket income being the artists’ only source of income, inevitably they are the losers in this battle for finance.  The winners in this situation are Edinburgh’s traders, hoteliers, landlords, restaurateurs, the local authority and… the Fringe Society.

The Edinburgh Fringe creates a second ‘Christmas’ income opportunity for many stakeholders generating over £130m for the local economy.   While in principle, nothing is wrong with moneymaking, the long-term issue for the Fringe is that these Festival stakeholders don’t think or care how all of this is sustainable.  Prices in the city rocket during the festival, earning Edinburgh a global reputation for greed, especially in artistic circles.  Sooner or later we will have a smaller audience and fewer professional artists coming to the Festival.  I wrote about this at length two years ago in my article entitled “Are We Starving The Fringe Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs?”  (http://universalartsfestival.com/open-letter.html).

This time I would like to focus on the business of Festival Fringe venue production, some of the practices that amount to unlawful exploitation of people and an overall reduction in level of service.

The concept of managed venues started 36 years ago when William Burdett Coutts first created a serviced venue in the Assembly Rooms – renting time slots to companies other than his own productions.  This concept revolutionised the Fringe allowing many more artists to take part, having removed the burdensome task of building and maintaining the theatre in which to present their production.

The idea of managed spaces evolved to include three types of venue:  Professionally managed and run with a curated programme; professional producers/managers but with mostly volunteer staff and a partially curated programme; and venues run by volunteers booked on a first-come-first-served basis.  All venues provide different levels of sophistication of equipment and services.

Independent venue producers rent buildings or spaces from city landlords (the biggest by some margin is Edinburgh University, also the largest, and increasingly expensive, accommodation provider). They then hire theatre equipment including seating, lighting, box-office systems etc, and rent out time slots to performing companies.  Charges for this differ from venue to venue; from a straightforward share of Box Office to fixed rental or a mixture of both. The cost of creating and running a venue is significant, particularly if providing a high quality service to performers and audience.

Although there was always competition between venues, a status quo was maintained for many years.  The big change began about eight years ago when the spin about Fringe growth instigated commercialisation of all aspects of the Festival.  The rapid growth in the number of productions performed in the Fringe triggered a fast increase in venue numbers.

The ‘Free Fringe’ was established as an antidote to this, where nothing was promised, little was provided and nothing was charged.  Performers earn from shaking a bucket at the end of the show.  The concept is fine for amateur or small companies of aspiring professionals wanting to test their place in the industry but it cannot serve the needs of larger professional productions.  The arrival of it however, increased competition between venues at all levels.

The response by some venue producers to the fierce rivalry and massive growth of shows, unmatched by a similar growth of audiences, triggered cut throat competition.  Most venues were forced to embark on a major cost-cutting exercise.  All professional and semi-professional venues were forced to scrutinise every area of expenditure including quality of services.  Despite being in breach of current laws, many made savings in employment costs, resulting in widespread use of unpaid or exceptionally low-paid technical and front of house staff.  While the Fringe Society was focusing on its own growth, it has allowed these practices to flourish unchecked.  Despite knowing that many venue teams are unlawfully employed – accommodation and less than £200 for a 6/7 day-week, and often 12 hour shifts too, the response of one Society Board member to my concern was, that if this practice was scrutinised “it would be the end of the Fringe!”

For professional companies, both from the UK and internationally, the reduction in the quality of experience and increase of costs of accommodation and services is persuading them more and more to invest their time and effort in other more professionally run and less greedy festival cities, there are more and more each year both in the UK and across the world, many with a growing reputation.

So in conclusion,if the open access principle of the Fringe is to be maintained by the Society, we should change the Festival to meet the challenges of the coming decades.  Let’s stop celebrating size (and the dubious, immoral and often unlawful practices which support it) and start allowing quality to flourish once again.  Let’s clearly separate amateur from professional venues and ensure that those who claim to support professional artists do so in a professional and lawful way.  Demarcation between the two will allow an acceptable (and legal) differentiation of investment, services and expectations.

The other stakeholders – hoteliers, bar and restaurant owners and landlords of venue premises – who benefit so greatly from the annual risk taken by others – should welcome an introduction of a Festival Tax, which should then be spent on audience building.  This way we will still be proudly playing host to the world’s best festival in another 70 years time.

Tomek Borkowy
CEO & Artistic Director of Universal Arts
Former producer of New Town Theatre