A Future for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The Royal Mile in 2020

Professor Joe Goldblatt

The actual title for the world’s largest cultural arts festival that is universally known as “The Fringe” is The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. This distinction is important because although there are now over sixty other festivals throughout the world with the name Fringe included along with their place name such as the Adelaide Fringe, the DC Fringe and more, there is and will only ever be one maternal home of this global cultural phenomenon. However, we must act now and with confidence to insure that we continue to secure and cultivate its rich contibutions to our nation and to the entire world.

In 1947, when two Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, Sir Rudolf Bing and maestro Bruno Walter along with others launched the Edinburgh Festival of Music in Drama, almost simultaneously eight other theatrical companies from Scotland and England who were not invited to perform at this festival, arranged their own venues and the curtain was raised upon a new kaleidoscope of music, drama, comedy, dance, circus arts, and much more that is known ubiquitously as simply The Fringe. Ironically, not only is Edinburgh the maternal home the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it is also the city that gave birth through Professor David Brewster, to the kaleidescope. Bewester selected this word for his new invention because of the greek origin of the words kalos for beauty, eidos for form and scopos for watcher. The kaleidescopic experience of culture in Edinburgh is now being watched world wide to see if we as rngaged citizens may work together to retain and improve its beauty through a new and better form.

During the intervening seventy years, The Fringe has, as William Shakespeare first stated, “suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as its success have led to criticism from within and outwith this organisation. The internal criticism often was the result of individual artists competing for parity and fairness amongst the major producers whose investments in marketing and logistics often dwarf the smaller productions. The exogenous forces include concerns about over tourism and its impacts upon the quality of life for local residents.

It appears that the global pandemic has brought many of these age old issues to a feverish boil and that there is now a great risk for Scotland’s capital city and other cities throughout the world who host Fringe festivals that these competing forces may lead to diminishing future returns for the what was once the world’s largest arts festival. I am deeply concerned about this prognosis and therefore wish to offer the following treatment plan to hopefully begin to begin to heal the wounds that are seeking to kill something very special for all of us.

First, I believe that our politicians should speak out even more forcefully amongst the noise from local groups to champion the important social, financial and other impacts of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The City of Edinburgh Council appointed two councillors (Labour and SNP) as their “Festival’s Champions” and now I believe it is time to raise their profile to demonstrate the importance of this role. Perhaps instead of champions we now need Festival’s Tsars to show the greater importance of these roles now and in the future. A Tsar in government is often granted broad powers to advance public policy. However, I further believe that championing the Edinburgh Fringe should also be the role of all councillors and citizens, as it was in 1947, to recognise that supporting the arts is our civic duty.

Secondly, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe itself must seek opportunities to create even stronger and more effective links with civic organisations to promote better understanding, respect, and support for their important contributions to our city, country and indeed the entire world through the thousands of performers who visit Edinburgh each summer. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s chief executive has done an exemplary job serving as an effective spokesperson for her organisation, however, now it is time to greatly amplify her voice with messages of support from organisations that provide social, health, education, recreation, environmental safety and security and other key services for our city and proclaiming through their endorsement that this programme is indeed a civic asset that must be enshrined in the future life of our city.

Thirdly and finally, it is now time to initiate a multi – year strategic planning process for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to identify the goals, objectives, and measurable targets that will be welcomed by local residents, the performers and audience members in the next five to ten years. This process must be transparent and include a cross section of the community including those that have been critical in the past. I believe the outcome of this process will result in a road map to future cultural sustainability and excellence, the likes of which have not been seen in our city since the reactionary establishment of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1947.

One of the persistent overarching questions asked about the future of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is “How much is actually too much?” When the Edinburgh International Festival was established, prior to the creation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the founders sought to repair the wounds of post war Europe by creating a festival that would promote the flowering of the human spirit. They did not nor could not ask about the size of their challenge. I am convinced that to heal the lingering wounds of the global pandemic, the Edinburgh Fringe is our next best hope to insuring that our human spirit not only flowers but also grows from strength to strength through the kaleidescopic diversity of culture that often serendipitously descends upon Edinburgh each August. This new flowering of our human spirits shall create further extensive roots that may in fact help transform our city, country and wider world in many positive ways in the future.

Therefore, the mother of all global Fringe festivals, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe must now receive our well deserved respect and commitment to provide compassion, empathy, and support to insure that her future years are celebrated and enjoyed with dignity and good health. If we simply dismiss this opportunity due to our fears of returning to a time where we failed to ask how much is too much we shall dishonour the values and aspirations of those civic leaders and artists that gave birth fo the original festival and established Edinburgh as the maternal home of festival excellence.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. He has been studying and writing about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for nearly fifty years. For more information about his views about Edinburgh’s festivals and other topics visis www.joegoldblatt.scot

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