Theatre: new homes for the Edinburgh Fringe
With new venues in Leith and old favourites reopening in the New Town, the Fringe has a more balanced geographical footprint for its 70th year
If you open your bright new programme for the 70th anniversary Edinburgh Festival Fringe, launched last week, you’ll find – towards the back – a new addition to its pages. It’s a map of Leith; and it shows the eight Fringe venues set to operate in the area this year, from Easter Road stadium, over to the Biscuit Factory, and down to the old St James Episcopal Church in Constitution Street, set to be flooded for a spectacular show inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Not only that, but there’s a special yellow flag marking the Leith Depot pub, in Leith Walk, which is not only a Fringe venue in its own right, but will act this year as Leith’s first-ever Fringe box office. And both of these moves have been made at the request of artists and promoters working in Leith, all of whom are conscious, like the Fringe administration itself, that despite Leith’s presence as an area full of artists, restaurants and bars, just a ten-minute bus ride from Princes Street, its involvement in the Fringe has until now been fairly minimal; while two miles away parts of the South Side are so crammed with venues, performers, visitors and traffic that just walking on the pavements becomes a serious challenge.
“It’s early days yet, in our effort to get more activity going across the whole of Edinburgh,” says Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy. “And as in Leith, it has to be about what artists working there want to do. But where there is potential to develop more venues, and a bit of excitement about the Fringe in areas that haven’t recently been touched by it, there are things we can do to help – and Leith is just the most obvious example.”
Taking action to discourage the Fringe’s growing concentration in the university area of central Edinburgh is only one of McCarthy’s priorities, of course, as she launches the 2017 Fringe Programme. In preparing to celebrate the Fringe’s 70th Anniversary, she and her colleagues have been making major efforts to encourage the greatest possible international participation in the festival, with 62 countries represented this year, compared with 48 last year. And the Fringe itself has grown again, although McCarthy insists that quality matters more than size; the total number of shows is now 3,398, with more than 53,000 performances scheduled.
McCarthy is conscious, though, that the Fringe can only survive in the long-term with the support of the wider community in Edinburgh and Scotland; and she is busy building alliances with organisations like the Scottish Drama Training Network, which can encourage the next generation of emerging Scottish artists to see the Fringe as a vital world stage, right on their doorstep. “It’s astonishing,” she says, “how many people, even here in Edinburgh, don’t realise that this is an open festival, and that you don’t have to be invited to appear on the Fringe. You just have to find a space to perform, and register, and you’re in. I’m not suggesting that’s easy; but there’s no one saying you can or can’t be part of it, and we want to get that message out, to everyone in Edinburgh and Scotland.”
And in that context, it’s easy to see why McCarthy wants to combat the sense that the Fringe is just an upmarket student event, concentrated around the swirling South Side vortex between Chambers Street and Summerhall. So she is delighted, this year, to see not only signs of Fringe life in Leith, but also a move back towards the New Town, which has lost some of its vitality as a Fringe centre since Assembly Productions left the George Street Assembly Rooms seven years ago, and Aurora Nova ceased operations at St Stephen’s Church. There has also been another blow, this year, in the decision of commercial companies based around St Andrew Square to refuse permission for the operation of the hugely successful Spiegeltent there, home to some of the Fringe’s greatest cabaret and music events.
Yet despite that setback, Fringe activity is returning to the New Town in style this year, partly thanks to the great Danish dancer and choreographer Peter Schaufuss, who has bought both the former Rose Street Chapel and St Stephen’s itself, and will open his new Rose Theatre at Rose Street Chapel this year with a programme of cabaret, comedy, musicals and theatre created by Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon, who also hopes to run a year-round basement theatre at the Rose from this September. And with the Book Festival expanding out of Charlotte Square into various George Street venues, Assembly Productions back at the Assembly Rooms, and C venues appearing on George Street for the first time at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to be known as C Royale, there’s a real sense of a rebalancing taking place.
“I think the Rose Theatre is in a fantastic place, right next to Charlotte Square and the Book Festival,” says Koren. “It’s absolutely the centre of the city; and I’m pretty sure that with a strong programme, including plenty of work made in Scotland, it will be successful, both during the Festival and all year round.
“And yes, I think it is time for the Fringe to be getting back into the New Town, and out into other parts of the city. It’s an organic thing, and you can see it shifting all the time. Although it’s worth remembering that in the end it is all about the work. If you put on shows that people want to see, or feel they have to see, they will come to see them, whether they’re in Bristo Square or at St Stephen’s or wherever. So that’s what we try to do – put on shows that are unmissable, and the Fringe audience will come and find you, no question at all.”
The 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 4-28 August, www.edfringe.com