Will the Edinburgh Festivals go ahead this summer? And if they do, what will they look like?
There’s a lot riding on the answer to those questions – the livelihoods of thousands of artists, the fate of hundreds of businesses in the Scottish capital, the health of the UK’s performing arts industry as a whole.
If a 2019 report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research is to be believed, it is a billion-pound question. That’s how much the August events are worth to the Scottish economy – £500 million in direct spending, and £500 million more to local businesses in Edinburgh and the surrounding area.
Over the winter, with the second wave of coronavirus sweeping across the country, the prospect looked black. In January, when Glastonbury Festival – an event of similar size – was cancelled, the chances of another festival-free Scottish summer still seemed high. With Spring, though, has come the success of the UK’s vaccination programme and just as the buds are beginning to blossom, so too is hope that the Edinburgh Festivals – the International Festival, the Book Festival, the Art Festival and their sprawling sister the Fringe – will be back in August.
The Scottish government’s current “roadmap” states that “small-scale outdoor and indoor events” can resume on May 17th, “subject to capacity constraints”. From the end of June, a month before the beginning of the Edinburgh festivals, the restrictions on capacity will be eased. All of that is heavily caveated – a sudden surge in case numbers remains a real danger – but none of it precludes large-scale live events occurring in August. Crucially, though, none of it is set in stone – the dates in the roadmap could be brought forward, but they could just as likely be pushed back.
We have a plan
The difficulty for organisers is that the Edinburgh Festivals are enormous events that involve hundreds of venues, require millions of pounds of investment, and need months of preparation from parties across different sectors. Calls for a government-backed insurance scheme seem far-fetched, so without certainty over what will and what will not be legally allowed in August – and with organisers still reeling from the financial hit of a 2020 largely without live events – little concrete planning can take place.
Positive signs do keep coming, though. On March 25, the government confirmed it was actively working on a plan for “major events” to return in the summer. The next day, Glasgow’s TRNSMT, Scotland’s biggest music festival, revealed its plans to go ahead in early September. Another event, the brand new Out East music festival in Longniddry, announced its intention to host 6000 people over a weekend in early August.
The official Edinburgh festival organisations remain tight-lipped about their return. All of them – the EIF, the Book Festival, the Art Festival and the Fringe – insist they will go ahead in some form, but none will confirm how confident they are about in-person events being part of the package. Francesca Hegyi, executive director of the EIF, the venerable granddad of August’s events, said: “We are still optimistic that the EIF will go ahead this summer and are working closely with our colleagues in public health, local authorities and Scottish Government.”
Bridging the digital divide
The smart money, at present, is on this year’s festivals being some sort of hybrid involving both online and in-person events – not purely digital like they were last summer, but not on the same scale as they were in 2019, either. There just isn’t the confidence in Scotland’s coronavirus recovery for the level of investment that would require – and certainly not in the global situation. The festivals, it is worth remembering, are international events, involving audiences and artists from dozens of different countries.
“I can’t say that there will definitely be shows on here in August,” says Gareth Nicholls, artistic director of the Traverse Theatre. “There are lots of conversations happening between all sorts of partners across the city to see what is viable, and we are just one of the voices in that room. My job, at the moment, is to look at work that is suitable to be presented in several different contexts.”
“Digital is going to be a big part of what we do this August, definitely,” he continues. “Hopefully live will be as well. But if it is live, it will be a pared down version of what we usually offer. I think it will be a lot more local than it usually is, but the digital aspect will give it the international reach it usually has.”
David Greig, artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, is slightly more positive – although he is not responsible for the venue in August, when the EIF takes over its stage for a month. Speaking ahead of the release of Mark Ravenhill’s Angela, the first audio play in the Lyceum’s new Sound Stage series, he said that he was hoping to open his building to audiences in July.
“And then I would like there to be shows on of some sort during the festivals,” Greig continues. “Everybody wants there to be theatre in Edinburgh in August and is pulling out all the stops to make that happen. The difficulty is that there are just so many ifs and buts surrounding that. Right now, everything is a shot in the dark, and shots in the dark are risky when you are on the breadline financially. You can’t afford to miss so you’ve got to hold fire until you are really confident.”
Festivals for whom?
The thing organisers need most is clarity – but clarity is one of the many things in short supply. And, amid all the uncertainty, another question looms large. Not will the Edinburgh Festivals go ahead this summer, but should the Edinburgh Festivals go ahead this summer?
The August events have grown year-on-year. The biggest of them all, the Fringe, hosted 3841 shows in 2019, up nearly 300 from the year before, and ticket sales topped three million for the first time in the festival’s history. The argument that it has grown too big for a city of 500,000 people has become more and more credible with each annual increase. Many have pointed out that the pause caused by the pandemic could be used as an opportunity to reflect and redesign the festivals to better suit the city that hosts them.
The objections extend beyond the common complaint that thronging crowds make life impossible for locals. The festivals’ record on environmental sustainability is poor – its carbon footprint is huge, as the amount of waste it produces. Exploitation of workers is rife, too – low pay, long-hours, and appalling work conditions are everywhere. Then there is the issue of accommodation – the annual August Airbnb boom is one of the driving factors of Edinburgh’s housing crisis. Then there is the issue of profits being sucked elsewhere by companies based in London for eleven months of the year.
These are valid concerns that should be addressed with more urgency by the Scottish government and event organisers. Their counter-argument is to recognise how extraordinary the Edinburgh Festivals are despite their flaws, and how fortunate Edinburgh’s residents and businesses are to have the world’s largest arts event arrive on their doorstep every August. Even conservative figures from 2015 estimate that the festivals represent one percent of Edinburgh’s GDP. Without them, the city would be poorer, both culturally and financially.
You’re having a laugh
This paradox – the brilliance and beauty of the festivals on the one hand, the ugliness and exploitation of them on the other – has defined Edinburgh’s summer for decades. Will they go ahead this year? Almost certainly. Will there be in-person events? Probably, but certainly not on the scale of previous years. Should they go ahead? The answer depends on who you ask.
Speaking as someone whose professional and personal life owes a lot to the Edinburgh Festivals, I recognise that they have big problems to solve, but would be devastated were their in-person element to be delayed again to 2022.
The clincher, for me, is laughter. When I think of August in Edinburgh, I think of weird and wonderful theatre shows, pints of cider in plastic glasses, and sweaty strolls down a jam-packed Royal Mile. Most of all, though, I think of laughter. In 2020, when the festivals were forced into vastly reduced online offerings, I thought of the laughter lost to coronavirus.
Three million tickets were sold at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe to 60,000 performances. Assuming the 2020 edition would have been just as big, and assuming every show lasted an hour and made every member of its audience laugh for just one minute of that hour, that’s three million minutes of laughter. 50,000 hours of laughter. 5.7 years of laughter. All lost to the pandemic. If we can safely start to reclaim some of that laughter this summer, we should.
[Update 13 April: Edinburgh International Festival announces a return in August, with shorter events in outdoor venues BBC Scotland ]
Featured image: Whiteout (2016) by David Monteith Hodge © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Two lower images also by David Monteith Hodge © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society; 2010 street scene © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, CC BY-SA 3.0