What happened to the Edinburgh Fringe?

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Words: Claire Mackenzie (She/Her)

Over the last few summers, my city has been turning into a capitalist bin. Looking over Edinburgh from the coffee shack where I worked, my stomach would crunch with conflicting joy and disappointment. Some days, the fairy-lights hanging over the majestic and historical town would make my heart swell with a local pride. Other days, I was left with a sense of disillusionment watching groups of drunken tourists pay £15 for fried food and triple that on booze in the heat of the Edinburgh midday sun. I questioned whether this was what the Fringe has become. Over- exhausted actors in a sea of rubbish and uninterested tourists with too much money to spend. The Fringe is veering away from its inclusive and rebellious roots.

The Edinburgh Fringe started as an outsider’s rebellion to the main festival, ‘The Edinburgh International Festival’. In 1947, the city hosted an invite only theatre event and the groups that didn’t make the cut decided they should have a space to perform regardless. Eight theatre groups performed at different venues simultaneously in competition.  As they continued the tradition year after year alongside the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe was born. Both events continued in Edinburgh and there is still a distinction between the festival and the rebellious Fringe. The festival is a high cultural event with ballet companies, opera and competitive theatre groups. The fringe has a slightly different appearance;  alternative, countercultural comedy, rogue dance, and every genre in-between. It’s a free-for-all that aims to promote outsiders and give everyone a voice. But will these voices continue to be heard if the Fringe keeps growing?

Edinburgh becomes a different city in the summer months, walking down the street feels like wading through water. This is due not only to the festival punters, but the vast quantity of performers too. In 2014, there were just under 50,000 performers performing in 3,193 shows. Considering it started 75 years ago, this is a big leap. The extreme growth could be due to the magic allure it holds to up-and-coming actors, directors, and playwrights. There are many U.K household names whose fame can be credited to the Fringe; Tom Stoppard (a fringe legend), Miranda Hart, Rowan Atkinson and Phoebe-Waller-Bridge. Given their success, it is no surprise that new artists come to the Fringe wanting to showcase their work. 

However, whilst the cost-of-living crisis plagues the nation, Edinburgh’s already-high-prices are rising too. It’s a small city with only about half a million residents. Spare rooms for artists working at the Fringe are by no means available in surplus and prices of hotels in Edinburgh are 44% higher than pre-Fringe Edinburgh prices and 93% higher than the cost for hotels in Glasgow. For the month of August, it has become the most expensive city in Europe to stay in in terms of accomodation alone.  The prices of amenities are therefore also rising, and even the commutable towns close to Edinburgh are following suit. It has become inaccessible to many and impossible for artists to up-root themselves for the month of the Fringe without any guarantee that their work will be noticed. We are therefore getting a less diverse range of voices across the fringe. It seems ironic that the Fringe, designed to include the outsider’s voice, is now leaving little space for those voices to be heard. 

The truly upsetting thing for me is that the Fringe has shifted focus. It champions consumerism, using the festival as a money-making scheme rather than an appreciation and display of contemporary theatre in the U.K. Whilst some theatre venues are empty, the bars and restaurants face no problems attracting customers. This contradicts the cultural and curious heart of the Fringe. Is it time for a new Fringe to emerge? Perhaps we need a Glasgow Fringe?








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