Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Longest-running venue operator says he has ‘lost confidence’ in the Fringe Society

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The founder of the longest-running venue operator at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe says he has "lost confidence" in the body overseeing the event ahead of its first full-scale season for three years.

Assembly’s artistic director William Burdett-Coutts, who has been staging shows for more than 40 years, has accused the Fringe Society of failing to plan properly for the event’s comeback this year and virtually ignoring the venues who put on the bulk of its programme.

He suggested the charity, which dates back to 1958, had under-estimated demand to put on shows this year and had cut back on key services for venues, artists and performers, while being “obsessed” with the future values of the festival at the expense of ensuring its survival.

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Speaking ahead of the opening of venues across today, the venue operator warned the Fringe was facing the biggest “existential crisis” in its 75-year history.

Mr Burdett-Coutts, who runs some of biggest venues on the Fringe, including the Assembly Hall on The Mound, said the society had “wasted” the three years since the last festival, had failed to secure enough recovery funding from the Scottish Government, and had launched its 75th-anniversary programme too late.

Venues, producers, promoters and performers were among more than 1,200 signatories to an open letter raising concerns about the handling of the run-up to this year’s festival. It claimed it was “increasingly difficult to justify the expense of taking part” and demanding “immediate, meaningful action” from the Fringe Society.

Mr Burdett-Coutts said: "I’ve lost confidence in the Fringe Society. I think they've taken their eye off the ball.

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"It’s nearly three years since we last did a full festival. We should have been doing a lot of planning to make sure it is a success.

George Square Garden is one of the most populations destinations for Fringe-goers.George Square Garden is one of the most populations destinations for Fringe-goers.
George Square Garden is one of the most populations destinations for Fringe-goers.

"They’ve been very poor in terms of a marketing plan, launching late was a mistake and they’ve been so obsessed with having a set of values for the next five years they’ve forgotten that the survival of the festival is a priority.

"The Fringe Society has singularly failed in terms of collaborating with those of us that make the majority of it happen, let alone the rest of the festival. That’s why more than 1,200 people signed the open letter.

"I find it very hard to accept the society presenting a set of values for the future of the festival without engaging with those of us that deliver it.

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"They claim to have done the widest consultation ever, but didn’t talk to the group of venues that deliver the majority of the audience.

Assembly runs shows in George Square Garden during the Fringe.Assembly runs shows in George Square Garden during the Fringe.
Assembly runs shows in George Square Garden during the Fringe.

"We’ve been advocating for discussions with them for months and months. They keep putting us off and have said they won’t talk to us until after the festival. It’s extraordinary.

"This event survives on collaboration and they are not collaborators. They’ve become an entity unto themselves. I think there is a real question about their role when they are not discussing and working with those that make the event happen."

Assembly is one of eight Fringe venue operators involved in a new alliance which launched its own website to sell tickets ahead of the launch of the official programme, which was marred by a row over the dropping of the Fringe app.

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Mr Burdett-Coutts said: “The reality is that the venues are not doing anything different or particularly new to what we've done before. We’ve done joint launches for the last 15 or 20 years. The only thing that’s changed is we're focusing our energy on a website, rather than a printed programme.

William Burdett-Coutts is artistic director of Assembly, the longest-running Fringe venue operator.William Burdett-Coutts is artistic director of Assembly, the longest-running Fringe venue operator.
William Burdett-Coutts is artistic director of Assembly, the longest-running Fringe venue operator.

“We’re not after the end of the Fringe Society. We’re after a Fringe Society which works better, which engages with us all and has an active relationship which is to the benefit of the festival. The three years leading up to this year’s festival have been wasted.

"This year is probably the most important in the Fringe's [history] and it is facing its biggest existential crisis. We’ve not only had Covid, but everyone is facing extraordinary increased costs. There is a real issue about the future of the event.

“There is a magnificent programme of shows that have risked their all to be there this year and I don’t think the Fringe Society is providing the support they deserve.”

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Jim Hollington, chief executive of Dance Base, said: “The last two years have exposed long-standing problems within the Fringe Society.

"We can all see that artists, venues and citizens have lost confidence in its ability to support the eco-system.

"We need a Fringe Society that recognises this and is ready to make significant changes to better support this amazing festival. We want to support that to happen.”

Anthony Alderson, artistic director at the Pleasance, said: "It’s been really useful for the eight venues to work together. The Fringe Society has been missing in that conversation a little bit.

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"It’s a difficult situation and I have some sympathy for the fact that they can’t be seen to be working with one group of venues, but we are a fairly significant part of the festival.

"There is always a danger when the Fringe Society sort of holds the centre ground and tries to lead the festival.

“The Fringe Society has got to be there in support of the festival. Sometimes I think the Fringe Society feels that it is leading the festival. There is a subtle distinction between the two things. They don’t actually run venues and put on shows.

"We’ve really got to find a way to come together again to try to solve the bigger problems. They’re going to take years to sort out."

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The Fringe Society said bi-monthly meetings had been held with all venue managers, who were involved in discussions to delay the official programme, which featured 3171 shows when it went to process, with a further 250 add to the online box office since then.

A spokeswoman said: “We have met with the general manager from Assembly on countless occasions in the last year and Assembly has been heavily involved in a variety of our working groups to shape the Fringe and in particular played a lead in the box office working group and in developing our approach to e-ticketing.

"The general manager and programme manager of Assembly are in ongoing, regular constructive engagement with the Fringe Society team on all matters relating to the venue element of delivery of the Fringe.

Assembly was involved in our venue consultation to produce the new vision and values of the Fringe. Assembly attended and inputted to this working group, as did representatives from a range of venues. We also consulted across a much wider range of the Fringe community to ensure that no single agenda or voice dominated.

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“We take any constructive criticism extremely seriously and will treat these comments no differently. Our focus is entirely on supporting artists and venues to deliver a successful, positive Fringe programme.

"Our single focus since the beginning of 2020 has been to ensure the survival of the Fringe, its artists and venues through the Covid-19 pandemic. Key to this goal was securing three separate public investments.

"The first was an immediate loan of £1m from Scottish Government, £670,000 of which went directly to artists to refund their registration fees in the direct aftermath of Covid.

"That was followed by a £1 million fund for venues like Assembly to ensure they could deliver Covid-safe events in 2021.

"And finally we secured a further £1.58m for Fringe operators to meet specific criteria relating to recovery in 2022.”

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