Comment: It doesn’t matter how many Fringe shows there are

Le Patin Libre from Canada promote their ice show at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Le Patin Libre from Canada promote their ice show at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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WELL, who saw that one coming? The Fringe is actually shrinking.

After 69 years of growth that we were beginning to think might never end, the world’s biggest arts festival is getting smaller. There’s no denying it. This August there will be fewer shows, fewer performances and fewer venues than last year.

But scratch below the surface and you see a different story. This year there will be more than 50,000 performances at the Fringe for only the second time in its history. As always, there will be all manner of venues pressed in to service, including this year the lawn of St Mary’s Cathedral to take just one example.

The old saying that there are lies, damned lies and statistics applies here. More than 100 events staged for the benefit of Fringe performers and their support staff rather than the general public have been taken out of this year’s programme. You can’t help but feel that if the organisers had wanted to they could have easily found a way of presenting this as yet another record-breaking festival.

They are, however, quite rightly, giving more attention to more pressing matters.

What does it matter precisely how many shows are performed at the Fringe? Isn’t it much more important how interesting they will be? Where you’ll be able to see them? And what kind of value for money they offer?

Take the second of those questions, for example. Why are there only four events being staged in Leith? The port is home to a thriving artistic community and a lively restaurant and pub scene. Isn’t it the perfect location for a whole lot more Fringe activity?

This is the sort of question which may loom large in the mind of the Fringe’s new chief executive, Shona McCarthy. She does not commission shows, so cannot control where they take place, but she can and does encourage and help facilitate change.

Part of the philosophy she adopted in promoting the arts in Northern Ireland was that events should start building a programme on the outskirts of a city and then work their way in towards the centre. That way there is far more chance of the whole city getting involved. It’s an inspiring thought and one that might change the minds of many who live in Edinburgh and regard the Fringe as “not for the likes of us”.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.