Fringe chief admits its world-beating size could be ‘meaningless’

It is the cultural bonanza that for decades has been promoted at home and abroad as the world’s biggest arts festival.

But now the body behind the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has admitted that the scale of the event risks becoming “absolutely meaningless” in future unless it is also the best place to perform, stage and watch shows.

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Shona McCarthy warns festival experience must be excellent on and off stage. Picture: Greg Macvean

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, has pledged that ensuring the festival experience was “excellent both on and off stage” would be more important than anything else for the event in the future.

She has also pledged that it would take “direct” action against producers of shows and operators of venues “who fall short of good practice” and would be taking steps to “rate and reward good practice” at the event.

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But she insisted the event’s founding ethos of being “open access” will remain intact – despite claims by campaigners that it is “turning a blind eye” to exploitative practices in some venues.

Official reports for the city council have raised concerns about growing overcrowding on the city’s roads and pavements, particularly Princes Street and the Royal Mile, and an increasing strain on the city’s public transport networks.

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Ms McCarthy, who has previously compared the scale of the festival to the World Cup, has been at loggerheads with activists from the Fair Fringe campaign in recent weeks after they demanded one of the biggest producers of events, C Venues, be banned from the official programme

She said some producers and promoters were being unfairly vilified and portrayed as “evil megalomaniacs” by Fair Fringe activists and accused them of being more interested in “hyperbole” and “exaggeration” than facts about the Fringe landscape and how venues operate.

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Speaking at the launch of the Fringe Society’s annual review, Ms McCarthy said: “Whether we look back to 2018 or forward to 2019, we are proud that the founding idea at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe remains constant: anyone with a desire to perform and a venue willing to host them is welcome.

“Our ambition is to ensure that this commitment to freedom of expression, giving voice to all, is a reality. Physical, socioeconomic, geographic or financial factors shouldn’t prevent people being part of it.

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“Whilst the Fringe is undoubtedly the biggest performing arts festival in the world, that scale will be meaningless unless we can also say with confidence that it is the best at which to perform, work, create, run a venue, see a show.”

Recent research carried out for the Fringe Society found that nearly a third of venue workers were not paid anything for their time.

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However Ms McCarthy has highlighted that 90 per cent of those who took part in the survey said they would choose to work at the event again.

She added: “More than anything we want the experience of the Fringe to be excellent both on and off stage.

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“We’ve been working closely with Fringe venues and promoters, and been consistently proactive, conducting the biggest independent survey of workers on the Fringe ever undertaken, publicly sharing the results, giving positive encouragement to those whose good practice resulted in a 90 per cent positive rating of the Fringe work experience, and being direct and constructive with those who fall short of good practice.

“We’ve worked with the sector’s trade unions to devise best employment practice guides and with Volunteer Edinburgh on a code of conduct for volunteering. We’ve ensured workers know their rights and we have committed to repeating our survey every three years and developing new platforms to rate and reward good practice.”