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Edinburgh Fringe: Is there an alternative to the alternative?

Is the cool nature of the Fringe being undermined by the middle class management and poor pay?


The word ‘fringe’ tends to be connected to ‘cool’, a vagabond image of something different, something unique, something alternative. And, as long as you don’t live under a rock all summer, you’re also likely to hear ‘fringe’ being said in the same breath as ‘Edinburgh’. The famous arts festival started life on the edges of popularity as an alternative option to the Edinburgh International Festival, and has since then grown into the world’s largest celebration of the arts.

With an emphasis on theatre and comedic brilliance, 2012 was a year that saw the Fringe put on over 2,695 shows from 47 countries, and 2013 doesn’t seem to be halting the momentum: a record number of shows went on sale this year before the programme was even launched. Everyone who’s anyone in the arts world seems to have their attention inexorably drawn across the border every August, drawing it away from everywhere else.

But hold tight. The monolith may be getting a shake in the future, and hungry young festivals like Camden Fringe are waiting in the wings licking their lips.

In what seems like a direct attack on the ‘cool’ that is the Fringe, leading producer and director Pippa Bailey has damned the event as elitist. Bailey claims the festival is ‘very white and middle class’, with artists being exploited by the ‘posh English blokes’ who dominate its administration. The argument is not a new one. Many artists and young companies will work at a loss in the hopes of a good review and increased productivity post August. The fact is, due to the vast investment that is needed in preparation for the event, no one is earning huge amounts of money.

But it is a unique mix of circumstance that is pushing this issue to the forefront of the debate. The number of productions has risen by 6.5% in the last year. This Fringe, 273 venues will be hosting more than 2,800 shows. Yet in the current financial climate the audience is less willing to take risks in their show selection, which leads to a conservative culture of performance. This is clearly not the best environment for an event that is supposed to serve as a springboard for innovation and fearlessness in the arts!

Bailey will capitalise on this growing trend with a series of talks, held at the Summerhall Arts Centre, which call for a rethink of the whole festival.

The future, however, is not as bleak as it may sound. Camden Fringe is growing as an event. Young, emerging talent is able to get a foothold in the scene with performances in the capital’s answer to the cool Fringe. A good example of this new talent is Fist Full of Theatre, a brand new theatre company that will be performing ‘Normal’ in August. Co-founder Jessica Wells describes their upcoming performance as “an exciting opportunity to show what we can do”; enthusiasm that is a far cry from the complications of Edinburgh and Bailey’s “lost faith”.


Click here to read Daisy Bartlett’s response.

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