How’s your festival going? Are you thrilled to bits at the world’s largest arts festival being on your doorstep? Are you overdosing on culture in one of the 200-plus festival venues? Or do you spend August grimacing as it takes twice as long to get anywhere and the city centre is taken over by hordes of impossibly enthusiastic young people.
Whatever your view on the summer festivals, there’s no doubt that they’re here to stay. So maybe the question we ought to ask is how can we make them work better for the city all year round. We need to get away from the festivals being something that are done to the city, to a place where they are a product of it.
In these debates, attention normally focuses on the Fringe – probably because it’s the biggest and therefore the most invasive. Maybe also because it’s the most diverse and – in the best sense of the word – amateur. But actually, the lion’s share of our public money is spent elsewhere, especially on the International Festival. So those in charge of the summer festivals need to work together to rise to some big challenges.
Some of the appalling conditions and pay for festival workers have finally hit the headlines. Such is the scale of the problem that it’s regarded as newsworthy when a venue pays the minimum wage. Not meaning to rain on anyone’s parade but isn’t that the law? Shouldn’t employers be in jail if they don’t pay it? What’s really required is a commitment to pay the real living wage. I’m sure there’d be exceptions but we ought to make it the rule.
Wages are only the start. We should also look at how the vast economy of our summer festivals can be used to boost training and employment opportunities within the city – especially for younger people and those who have difficulty getting a job.
Working with Edinburgh College and the Conservatoire, festival organisers could design programmes in a full range of technical, production and marketing skills – a sort of Festival Academy – linking year-round courses to six weeks of properly paid work in the summer. As well as offering new opportunities for people in Edinburgh this would benefit venues by not needing to bring so many workers into the city.
We’ve been through the arguments about festival dates before but the case for changing them gets stronger with each passing year. It is, frankly, ludicrous that the festivals are timed so schools go back in the middle. Aligning the festival dates with Scottish school holidays would allow many more local people – kids, parents and teachers – to take part, not just watching but participating.
Here’s the other thing we need to do – use the world’s largest arts festival on our doorstep to stimulate and develop the city’s cultural scene. The International Festival did a great project at Castlebrae High School – school students got involved in staging world-class performances. But this was an add-on, a social inclusion project for which they received extra funding. It should be the norm.
Festivals should be working with the city’s secondary schools all year round aiming towards the stage in the summer holidays. This would give the school play a facelift. And not just the play, but music, comedy and dance shows too. Venues could be linked with individual schools so students are acting, directing, producing and promoting. They could be rubbing shoulders with the brightest and best in the world.
Creating these links between the festivals and their host city requires a commitment from those who organise them – many of whom make good money. But it also requires a change of attitudes from us – the ones who live here all year – to seize this opportunity that many other cities would die for.
Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East