Edinburgh Fringe will never be the same again, so what next? - Liam Rudden

IT’S incredible to think that less than a year ago most people would not given a second thought to sitting in a cramped, sweaty, make-shift theatre to catch the latest Fringe hit.

By Liam Rudden
Friday, 16th October 2020, 4:30 pm
Updated Friday, 16th October 2020, 8:53 pm
Dan Ireland-Reeves as Sailor in Thief
Dan Ireland-Reeves as Sailor in Thief

The discomfort has, perversely, almost become an integral part of the Fringe experience, along with the close-quarter queuing now required ahead of being herded in and out of packed venues presenting back to back shows. All unthinkable now.

At a time when the arts have been decimated by pandemic restrictions, even our regional theatres and high profile producers are openly admitting that one of the biggest challenges as theatres reopen will be audience confidence. Would you be comfortable sitting through a play or musical right now?

There are some rays of hope, thankfully, with limited seasons now returning to London’s West End. Here in Edinburgh, the Royal Lyceum are looking to present a curtailed Christmas season, reconfiguring the auditorium in a way that has not been seen since their production of Phaedra 20 years ago to allow the audience to be socially distanced.

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And social distancing is key. Without an effective vaccination it will remain ‘the’ issue for most venues. In many ways, the Fringe should have an advantage over its commercial counterparts. The small scale productions that lie at it’s heart come without the high production costs of mainstream theatre – a solo show or two-hander can remain financially viable, even with restricted numbers.

Whatever happens, as the Fringe Society has already accepted next year's event could be very different, one suggestion being a 50/50 online/in person hybrid. My instinct is the programme will not be that evenly split, the emphasis turning to the virtual world.

That the ‘big four’ Fringe venues – Gilded Balloon, Assembly, The Pleasance and Underbelly - are at most risk right now, is not in dispute and already Underbelly and The Pleasance have received bailouts. All must adapt to survive now for the sake of the independent companies that rely on them - many have rolled over their bookings for 2020 to 2021 and should any of those super venues fail, it will, as usual, be the small independent companies, the lifeblood of the Fringe, that take the impact.

There is something very surreal finding myself writing about next year's Fringe already, but preparing for the next one starts as the last one finishes (or not, as was the case this year). The conversations need to be starting now. I've already had venues asking if I intend to bring my award-winning play Thief to them in 2021 and, to be honest, it's not a commitment I can make. All bets are off right now.

However, I’ve also had conversations with collaborators about how we ensure we have something to offer audiences next August, an online alternative that is live, interactive and doesn’t rely on split screen performances. I think we have it sussed. It's an exciting concept, but one I hope we don’t have to pursue. If there is a way to bring Thief back to a stage for the Fringe, we will. It’s about being realistic, not pessimistic nor stupidly optimistic. That said, I can't see Edinburgh ever accepting the return of the Fringe as we knew it. Can you?

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