It’s tense times in Fringe circles these days. Almost everyone associated with the August jamboree has some gripe with it – the costs, the tourists, the working conditions, the stress. To hear the criticism, anyone would think the world’s greatest cultural event wasn’t also – sometimes – a whole heap of fun.

‘Twas ever thus of course. Complaints about the Fringe are as old as the event itself. Somebody has complained that it’s become too big and too expensive every year since 1948. Yet it has survived and kept growing. 

But there’s something about the current set of circumstances that is qualitatively different. We’ve had a decade of austerity, political unease, culture wars and social media spats. There’s heightened awareness of everything from abuses of power in the workplace to cultural appropriation. Everyone’s on a hair trigger. Mental health problems are rife. Chuck all that into the cauldron of the Fringe and that’s quite some toxic stew you’ve got cooking.          

And there, sat in the middle of all the chaos, is the small charity that, against all odds, somehow keeps the whole show on the road – the Festival Fringe Society

The Fringe Society is a beautifully anachronistic institution – a neutral, membership organisation that anyone can join, tasked with upholding a value everyone should appreciate in the world’s biggest arts festival – open access. Because of the Fringe Society, it is still possible, if you can find a room to perform, for anyone to perform at the Fringe. No permission required. There’s other barriers of course, which we’ll come to. But in principle, the Fringe now is as it was in 1947 – a festival that needs no invite. That’s down to that small institution on the High Street. They produce the brochure, they support performers, they operate the main box office, but above all they are upholders of the original Fringe spirit. They are the bulwark against total commercial domination.

Yet you wouldn’t know that from some of the public discourse in recent months. That toxic stew that has been cooking? It has been ladled onto the doorstep of Fringe HQ with an expectation they can clean it up. 

For example, when the Fair Fringe campaign went to war over what they saw as exploitative employment practices at venues, it was the Fringe Society they called upon to do something about it, even though the Society is simply not set up to be a business regulator. When residents get their dander up about over-tourism, as they frequently do, it’s often the Fringe Society that shoulders blame, even though they’re not the ones programming shows or planning concerts in Princes Street Gardens or leading silent discos down the Royal Mile. 

This benign, charitable organisation has become simultaneously the cause of and solution to every ill visited upon Edinburgh in August, much to the frustration of Chief Executive Shona McCarthy.     

“I was mind-boggled how people couldn’t see the bigger picture,” she says of recent furores, as we chat over tea in her modestly-sized office behind the Fringe shop on the Royal Mile. “People think that the Fringe Society is the Fringe. It’s that fundamental confusion that gets us all the time. The Fringe is so massive and way beyond this small organisation. So many influences and so many stakeholders have the ability to influence it. We do our best!”

“We do our best!” – it’s the kind of comment that might invite the retort “well, do better” from critics who think that Edinburgh is broken and that it’s McCarthy’s job to fix it. But there’s a lot underpinning those four words of exasperation – a lot of thought about the role of the Fringe Society, not to mention personal commitment and emotional investment.

For a start, McCarthy is clear on what the Fringe Society’s “best” is – the things that it is within their power to change. And it’s not that different from what most people involved with the Fringe would choose. In her words: “It’s all around access, and into that comes affordability, disability, diversity, social background…” You sense from conversation with McCarthy that the egalitarian ideal of the Fringe is never far from her mind.  

Equally, though, she’s clear on what the Society can’t do.

“You often find that some of the criticisms that get levelled at the Fringe are because people have absolutely no idea how the Fringe works. They just think it’s another subsidised arts festival. They think that we programme it or curate it. They don’t realise that it’s made up of all of these tiny moving parts. And every single one of them has a different business model.” 

“That lack of understanding can be really frustrating at times. I think it’s extraordinary how many times with stakeholders from local councillors to MSPs to business in the city, how many times I have to spell out what the business model is and how the whole thing works and people still don’t get it.” 

McCarthy’s view of the Fringe has deep, personal roots. Her outlook has been shaped by formative experiences in the arts of her native Northern Ireland. Although her roles there included heading up Derry’s successful, profile-boosting stint as UK City of Culture, it’s clear that cultural “wins” like that were hard-earned. The projects she worked on needed starting from scratch, funds needed scraping together, and timescales were time-limited. It wasn’t an easy operating environment. By contrast, Edinburgh’s ambivalence to its embarrassment of cultural riches has been something of a headscratcher.   

“I came from a place of real conviction about how active engagement in cultural activity can make people’s lives better. Whether that’s naive or optimistic, I don’t know, but it’s definitely something I’ve seen up close and personal in Derry and Belfast – how ownership and involvement in the arts can be transformational.”

“One of the things that has really surprised me is the reverb of negativity around something that, from the outside, coming from Belfast and Derry, we would have looked as the Mecca and envied everything you had. We’d have gone ‘Oh my God, the Fringe is phenomenal. A festival that can sustain and grow and be this amazing gathering place, but it doesn’t even require public subsidy!”

So how did it feel coming from the background she did to take up her role here? 

“I wouldn’t have come here for any other job. There was something about the Fringe. I loved the whole idea of what this festival was built on, I loved the open access principle. I love it that everybody gets an equal amount of space in the programme. There was a cultural democracy underpinning the Fringe.”

These convictions have found their way into the Fringe Blueprint, made publicly available this time last year, which sets out the vision for the Fringe as it approaches its 75th anniversary in 2022. In homage to the Original Eight – the eight companies who first turned up uninvited in 1947 – there’s eight pillars to the Blueprint, including, most importantly given current concerns, The Open Fringe and The Affordable Fringe. 

“I spent a lot of time in the first six months or a year just listening,” says McCarthy. “We used that 70th anniversary year [2017] as an opportunity for a conversation with as many people involved in this festival as possible. All of that has been set out in the Blueprint. That is exactly where we want to see the changes.” 

“It’s everything from ensuring that fundamental principle of open access is retained and nurtured and at the same time [dealing with] the questions around how affordable it is, where the barriers to access are, and what can we as a Society in the middle of it all do about that.” 

These are the right questions to be asking, of course, but to hear the chatter on Twitter and Facebook performers’ forums, you’d think they weren’t getting answered, especially around affordability. There’s the cost of being in the programme, of getting a venue, and especially accommodation. Recently someone shared a screengrab of a four-bedroom Marchmont flat being let for £20,000 during August, the latest in a long line of “how much?!?!?” social media threads posted by performers struggling to get an affordable room for their trip.

McCarthy’s acutely aware of these issues and while the state of the housing market is something way beyond the Fringe Society’s sphere of influence, that isn’t stopping them doing the things that are within their power. In spring, the Society announced a partnership with theatredigsbooker, an online accommodation platform pairing theatre workers with beds, and encouraged Edinburgh residents to let their spare rooms at more reasonable rates. A similar arrangement has been struck over the city’s many student residencies. McCarthy thinks that these affordable accommodation initiatives can make inroads into one of the Fringe’s most persistent problems.      

“I’m not being completely naive about that because it’s starting to work. We’re seeing already players like QMU put up 300 rooms at £180/week this year, which is what artists are telling us is affordable. Every single one of those rooms is an individual room. It is en-suite. They also provided free access to rehearsal space and free access to gym facilities. We’re working with the transport infrastructure group who are saying ‘we’ll work with you to make sure there’s a constant loop of transport so people can get in and out’. QMU were the first, now Napier and Unite Students are doing it. Individual residents are signing up through theatredigsbooker because they want to host an artist but they want to do it through an ethical provider.”

“All of this is slow burn. You can’t expect something that’s been going for 72 years to completely change within 6 months. We only just launched this affordable accommodation, much against everything that everyone was saying to us – ‘There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s market forces’. Our response was if we don’t even name it, if we don’t put it out there that this is a massive problem then we’re definitely not going to be able to do anything about it.” 

“We’ve got 750 affordable rooms already just by putting this call out. For all the negativity that is around, when you actually name the problem, there are good enough people out there who will respond with a positive. Just let us get into our stride with all these things that we’re doing. 2022 for me is the moment for us to look back and go ‘has any of it being achieved?’ I want to be judged by our results in 2022, not 3, 6, 9 months in.”

It’s not just the influx of performers McCarthy wants to help either. A major gripe within the city is the almost complete disconnect between its cultural heart and its neglected periphery. The issue for residents goes beyond frustrations about tourists and extended journey times. For some corners of the city, the Fringe may as well be in London. It offers little appeal and fewer benefits – a middle-class love-in in a city that, despite what the tourists see, is not all picture postcards of the castle. The Fringe Society are alive to these issues too.

“We tried to take a proper analysis of our box office. Who is coming to the festival and more importantly, who isn’t? It showed us who really wasn’t engaging from around Edinburgh and it was no surprise whatsoever that it mapped directly on to the areas of high social deprivation.” 

“We then got some backing from Big Lottery to identify 26 community groups across those areas. We just decided to do something really simple in the first instance, which was to take £50,000 out of our reserves and invest it into giving people [from those groups] access to the festival – £60 passes for a family and a £12 pass for individuals. Sometimes these things can be a bit cynical – ’we’ll just give 40 free tickets to the show that is selling least’. It was nothing like that at all. We put no restrictions on it whatsoever. The response was absolutely phenomenal, because we were working with groups that no-one had engaged with before from a city centre cultural organisation. We’ve now made a commitment to doubling that.” 

McCarthy is also keen to emphasise the work that is being done to make the Fringe work for artists who are here to sell their work and build careers.

“Last year we piloted a new programme called Fringe Forward. We managed to get round our impartiality by recruiting for independent brokers, really experienced producers, for them to identify work which is tour ready that curators from different parts of the world are looking for. That’s been amazing. It’s cut through so much.”

“Last year there were 1,420 curators and programmers from around the world. That’s just the ones who are accredited through us. We took a random sample of 63. Out of those, they booked 388 shows.”

You can see McCarthy’s enthusiasm for listing the positives, but it’s hard to say everything is rosy in the Fringe garden when talking to people, especially Fringe performers and staff, it clearly isn’t. How does she feel about the fact that the Fringe still isn’t working for everyone? And if the Fringe Society is doing all it can, where does the problem lie? 

“There are things about the Fringe that are broken but they can only be fixed if all of the stakeholders play a part in that fix. It’s about reinvestment, and about recognition of the cultural, social and economic value of this extraordinary thing that exists.”

“I want to nurture a greater level of supportive partnerships from the wider stakeholders. From the City Council, to the Universities, to the hotels and businesses, all of whom benefit so much from the festival. I’d like to see a greater recognition that the Fringe is something that needs to be nurtured, supported and re-invested in, so that it can continue to be a phenomenal cultural event, loved and adored by the large majority of residents in Edinburgh – in fact over 600,000 tickets are sold to local residents.” 

“Everybody needs to stop looking at this festival as a cash cow, as something that they just take out of and start looking at it as the amazing thing that it is. Start putting something back into it. This is my real big thing at the minute. It’s a non-subsidised festival that has grown to become this incredible melting pot. We’re at pains to remind people that this is a phenomenal thing!”

And if those stakeholders continue to milk the cash cow?

“There is a breaking point that it could come to. It totally depends on artists wanting to take a risk and bring their work here. The moment they decide that it’s not worth it any more or that the city’s taking too much, the city’s being too greedy about it, then they can absolutely choose to take their work elsewhere and they would be right to.”

Which brings us to the big question, given how important it seems to her – open access. Does she feel the openness of the Fringe is potentially under threat?

“I don’t. I don’t see it under threat. Well, I don’t see it as under threat in the time that I’m here because the day that the Fringe stops becoming open access, it stops becoming something that I want to be involved with. It’s what I think is incredible about it.” 

“What we will forever work towards is ensuring that whether you’re performing in a show, tech support, you’re employed in one of the venues, your experience in Edinburgh in August is extraordinary and life-affirming. That’s what I would want. Then there’s loads of layers beneath that like alleviating the financial cost, especially for those wee companies.”

“My optimistic side tells me that there is going to be change and there is going to be a shift in understanding just what an economic powerhouse, what a cultural powerhouse and potentially what a social powerhouse the Fringe is, because of the work we’re doing with communities. I think there is a recognition of all of that which is building and growing. I properly believe there will be that shift in thinking.” 

“This is part of the solution for the city, rather than a problem.”