‘We need an intervention’: five ways to fix the Edinburgh festival fringe

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA</span>
Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

‘Olympic Village-style accommodation’

Katy Koren, co-artistic director, Gilded Balloon

Gilded Balloon, a “big four” venue, was set up by Karen Koren in 1984 and is now run by her and daughter Katy. Based in Edinburgh year-round, they programme many venues in university buildings

This year’s was the hardest fringe we’ve ever done. We’re doing what we can to manage additional costs. Everything has increased but we can’t raise our prices because they’ll become unaffordable. There are rumblings among artists that unless costs come down, particularly accommodation, they’re not coming back. To convince people to come up, for 20% of our programme we paid their accommodation. Universities should be doing more to provide free rooms to artists – they gain a lot of recognition and cash from venues like us renting their rooms. There should be an Olympic Village vibe for the performers in university accommodation. Artists would get affordable or free accommodation. It would also be a community of artists and staff – it could be a creative explosion.

Related: Edinburgh fringe tries to quell revolt after criticism of 2022 event

‘The TV industry needs to fund shows’

Martin Willis, founder of production company Objectively Funny

Named “best person” in the Comedians’ Choice awards 2022, Martin Willis provides mental health support for fringe participants. Objectively Funny produced nine shows this year

The primary issue for everyone is cost. This ensures a drastic privilege divide. The utopian idea of the fringe is anybody can come back from the festival as a star – that’s not true. People who come back as stars have big agencies behind them or PR. One thing I’d like to see more of, which is a necessity at this point, is external funding. I’d like to see more involvement and investment from TV people – they’re still using it as a showcase, making money out of the acts coming through. And I’d like to see investment from the Arts Council – we are still so far from them funding comedy shows.

Hazel Anderson, AKA Able Mable, performs on the Royal Mile.
Hazel Anderson, AKA Able Mable, performs on the Royal Mile. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

‘Spread out the festivals’

Eleanor Morton, comedian

Eleanor Morton grew up in Edinburgh and moved back there earlier this year. She has seen the impact of the fringe on artists and residents

I always visualise the city creaking under the weight of the festival. Every year it gets a little bit bigger and more intense and you think: is there going to be a breaking point where the infrastructure of the city can’t handle this? With so many festivals all on over the summer, it feels like: can’t we stagger it? I would put the reins on it growing out of control, make it a few days shorter and spread other events out over the year.

There’s a misconception where performers feel like it’s residents making it difficult for them and vice versa, but actually neither of those groups are the problem, it’s big landlords and companies. We need local people and performers to communicate with each other.

‘Help us support local businesses’

Luke Meredith, director of PBH’s Free Fringe

The Free Fringe was established in 1996 by Peter Buckley Hill. It gives free venues to artists, who stage shows on a “pay what you can” basis, and relies on collective volunteer effort

We’re trying to break the gatekeeping over performing at the fringe. We support the most disadvantaged artists. We support Edinburgh businesses. But because we’re not a big company who turns over a lot of money, we didn’t get any government support. We’re not sure we’ll survive because of the hit we have taken over the past two years.

It’s not just performers being priced out, it’s reviewers and industry people too. Speaking to a lot of the bars we work with, it wasn’t as busy. We do our shows in existing Edinburgh bars and night clubs and so on – the money goes back into the city, it doesn’t go to the university or any company from London.

The pop-up stands, the beer gardens … Edinburgh council could be more careful with what they’re licensing, because it’s taking money out of Edinburgh businesses’ hands. There’s a lot of middle-men taking money who don’t need to be there at all.

Stewart Lee in 2019.
Stewart Lee in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

‘Funding is needed – but that comes with conditions’

Stewart Lee, comedian and writer

When Stewart Lee first performed at the fringe 35 years ago, it felt like it belonged to artists and was open to all, he says, thanks to the lack of gatekeeping, but also unemployment benefit, the prevalence of squatting and lower cost of living

The fringe has never been curated or programmed, it grew organically. Things that have altered the arts in Britain have come through it. It has cultural and moral value. If we want to preserve it, we need an intervention. But that’s never been the fringe’s way.

Related: The Edinburgh fringe is too long, too expensive and too gruelling. It must change or die | Brian Logan

Rightly, this year there was talk about supporting working-class artists. That’s Edinburgh as a microcosm of what’s happening generally. Routes for people that haven’t got money have gone. I’m lower middle-class, I went to university, but the things that enabled me to do this don’t exist anymore.

The Stand did an incredible amount of work in the 00s to make it cost-effective for acts, going so far as making sure they were paid, which was unheard of at the time. It’s the model that Monkey Barrel has pushed forwards. The main thing that would help now is intervention about accommodation costs. But you’d have to fund it and once you do that it comes with conditions about what sort of people will get it. Who’s going to be the unpaid volunteer who organises budget accommodation for Fringe performers? Nobody in the culture department of this government is going to help. It’s weird to not know the answer.

If people can understand why the fringe is good, they need to support it. If you go to see Joe Lycett because you’ve heard of him, then go and spend £5 on three other shows that you don’t know.