Tommy Sheppard: Providing a fitting stage for the world’s top arts festival

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With a revamped Assembly Rooms and plans to close George Street to allow bars and cafes, promoter Tommy Sheppard outlines his exciting plans for the Fringe

Our company, Salt ‘n’ Sauce Promotions (yeah, we had too many chips in those days), has been keeping Edinburgh entertained for more than 15 years. We’ve come a long way since we started the Stand Comedy Club in the 1990s.

Now we’ve won the contract to run the newly-refurbished Assembly Rooms in George Street as a Fringe venue.

The building is set to open in July and it will look magnificent. I’ve had a sneak preview and the gold leaf is in all the right places. We’re looking forward to being the first occupants of this wonderful Georgian pleasure dome and helping it start its new life as one of the most opulent and comfortable public buildings in our city.

At the moment, we’re busy putting together a programme of theatre, music and, of course, comedy that will do the building proud. By our estimates, we should have as many as 150,000 tickets available, some of them going on sale in just a few weeks’ time.

We won’t sell them all but we expect something like 5000 people a day to come to the building.

That’s 5000 more than last year and each of them will need to eat and drink – and many shop – along the way. So as well as creating a great new venue, we hope to provide a major economic boost to that part of the city centre, badly needed in the middle of a recession.

But there’s more. Call us crazy but we got to thinking about how to really launch the new Assembly Rooms with a bang.

It struck us that rather than have all these people crush in the front door, see a show and then hightail it out of there, what if we could let them hang around for a bit?

What if we created an outdoor terrace in front of the building where people could meet before and after the show, enjoy an al fresco drink and soak up the Festival atmosphere? That would mean that not only would thousands visit the area, they would also stay there for a bit – an even greater boost to George Street.

Of course, people like nothing better than watching people, so my guess is we’d attract loads more who weren’t going to a show (not that day anyway) but who just wanted a pleasant outdoor place to chill out in the middle of our historic city centre. This is only an idea at the moment but it could be fantastic. If it works, the outdoor area could be expanded in years to come and the entire focus of the Festival could be drawn back into the city centre, but that’s for later.

Of course, it could be a God awful mess if done badly. That’s why we’re determined to do it right.

We want to create an outdoor terraced area that is in keeping with its surroundings. A perimeter will be set out with hedges rather than aluminium fences, seated areas will be comfortable and shielded from the elements, and the whole area will be family friendly. We hope to provide quality entertainment, some of it free, with the emphasis on acoustic rather than amplified performances. We want to give you a decent coffee in a cup not in a paper carton, and chilled wine in a glass not a flimsy plastic container.

Sure there will be some discreet sponsorship – you can’t make the figures add up without it – but we promise to outlaw the makeshift security fences covered in posters which despoil this World Heritage site that we’re lucky to have as our home.

Now, it’s true you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. This idea – and it is still at the ideas stage – would mean the closure of part of George Street for the Festival and through traffic would have to be re-routed, so I can’t pretend there will be no disruption. We’d probably lose a dozen or so parking spaces, although in time most of these could be relocated.

Edinburgh must be the world leader now in re-routing traffic and this time we’d get a pretty big benefit out of it. Traders would get a boost and residents would get an excellent new amenity.

A wonderful new Festival hub would be created, providing a pleasant comfortable space to relax outside. At the heart of it all would be the Assembly Rooms, turned out in its best bib and tucker and ready to party.

Like I said, call me crazy, but isn’t it time we brought the Festival back to town rather than have it compressed into tents and lecture theatres around the university? It is the world’s greatest arts festival. Let’s give it the world’s greatest city centre as a backdrop.

• Tommy Sheppard is director of Salt ‘n’ Sauce Promotions Ltd