When things collapse, it can feel like they’ve been teetering for a long time, but the final crumbling usually comes quickly. I think we’ve finally reached that tipping point with the Edinburgh Fringe.
People have been saying the Fringe is unsustainable for years now, and yet it’s gone on not only sustaining itself, but posting bigger numbers in every column year on year. Round about this time every year we usually see the news that once again audience numbers are up on all previous years.
That’s not going to happen this year. We’re yet to see any hard data but reports that audience numbers have dropped are rife. It’s hard for me to say from my own show, because it’s an incredibly limited capacity so it sold out reasonably quickly. But looking around, that seems right. It's somehow quieter around Summerhall and the Pleasance Courtyard. Comedians who've had a steady, consistent audience for several years (this barely ever happens in theatre) are seeing a steady, consistent, smaller audience this year. There are of course hit shows selling out. But you can get tickets for things you wouldn’t expect.
The reason is easily identified. Accommodation costs have gone up about 35-40% this year. That sounds like such a ridiculous increase on already ridiculous costs that it can’t possibly be true. But it is. Our three-bedroom flat this year costs £1500 more than the one I was in two years ago. A change in Scottish tenancy laws gave more power to the tenants over their departure dates - a good thing - but led to the unintended consequence of far fewer properties available for the month of August. The resulting squeeze in supply of course created higher demand, and - who'd have thought it! - landlords were emboldened to considerably increase their already sky-high prices.
People who’d already made plans to bring shows up to the Fringe had no choice but to find ways of weathering these increased costs. Audiences are in no such corral. Those who usually come for a fortnight have come for a week; those who usually come for a week have come for three nights; those who usually come for a couple of nights often haven’t bothered at all.
Journalists and promoters have also found it harder to get up and see as much work as they might usually. There’s been less press covering the festival this year, and there’ve been fewer promoters shopping for shows for their venue. In some ways this is worse for artists than the drop in audience numbers: many are at the Fringe in order to sell a tour, impossible without some decent reviews and a good number of programmers.
Everyone already knows that you’re guaranteed to lose a packet at the Edinburgh Fringe. The size of that packet has increased, even if you already budgeted on a conservative box office assumption. In the past, a sufficient number of artists have assessed that risk and considered it a worthwhile investment in the potential future life of the show.
This is without even beginning to address the huge barriers to access created by the necessity of this assessment, and the position of privilege enjoyed by those who are in a position to make it. I don't want to suggest that I think up until now things have been rosy: clearly not. It's been impossible for a lot of people for a long time; it's in the process of becoming impossible for many more too. And even to those for whom it remains possible, will it continue to be worthwhile? Losing an increasingly large packet might make sense if you've got one to lose, so long as you can book a tour off it. If you can't even do that, why bother?
Don’t be surprised if next year show numbers are down with audience numbers. The feedback loop that kept it all growing year on year will work the other way too, and the air could go out of the balloon very quickly indeed.
It seems churlish to be writing this towards the end of a successful Edinburgh run. In fact, in lots of ways this Fringe has been a lot less stressful for me than ever before. My show doesn’t have a venue: I take it to the home of whoever books it, with capacity determined by the size of your living room. So although I’m doing two shows a day, that’s still less than 500 tickets to sell across the course of the run, far less than I’ve sold in any Fringe run for over a decade. With that release of pressure on box office comes a release of pressure on reviews: it’s lovely if they’re positive, but my pocket doesn’t so keenly feel the need for them. And the show’s not going to tour, so I’m not worried about promoters either. It makes me wonder why I'm here at all.
This show exists because of a slightly ridiculous concatenation of circumstances and has been made quite quickly as a result. I had four other projects, all of which moved out of this summer in the course of two catastrophic weeks in March. Suddenly I had five empty months ahead. I had a bit of producing and project planning to do on other upcoming projects, and a lot of applications to write. But there were no project budgets from which to pay for that work.
Over the past seven or eight years, the theatre company that bears my name has built up a small reserve. This is mostly from theatre tax relief claims, along with a couple of budget underspends or better-than-projected box office. In theory that money's there in order to be able to put some of it into grant applications as match funding, but it's also there for when the day gets very rainy: if I have no other paid work, it means I can continue e.g. writing grant applications as might be the case if I were AD at an NPO (albeit on a much lower salary).
(As an independent artist this is a position of extraordinary privilege and I've used as much of this time as I can to support the work of younger and emerging artists - over the past five months this averages out at a little over half a day a week.)
(I'm also concerned that the weather front we're currently facing mean there'll be more rainy days ahead than not, and there isn't much of this money left.)
The project producing, grant applications, and so on, were going to amount to at most a couple of days a week. And meanwhile, with a lot of creative projects delayed, some indefinitely, I was feeling a bit frustrated. So, shortly after 10am one morning in early April I said to my wife, I could just make a new solo show on a shoestring and take it to Edinburgh. She said, what about that idea we had about a home show with Dot when she was a baby? We could make that with Arthur. So we had a look at the Fringe website to find out the registration deadline. Answer: 5pm that day. Game on.
We wrote a budget for a show that had no venue costs, no flyers and no posters. Apart from our time, our costs were someone to do PR, about £50 in props, a couple of train fares, and thousands of pounds in Edinburgh accommodation. For the budget to balance, we needed to sell 70%, and although we had fewer of the usual methods available for trying to make those sales, that figure still represented far fewer tickets than I'd usually expect to sell. It felt worth the risk.
Why it felt worth the risk, I'm still not sure. This Edinburgh run hasn't been an investment in future touring. We just did it for us, just because we wanted to make this show. Its success has been unnecessary. It's been an exercise in lightness, in intrinsic over extrinsic motivations. I'll reflect further on the show itself when the run's over: although it's gone well there have been some absolute shockers along the way. But on the whole, this month has disproved the theory that artists need a gun to their head in order to do good work.
The format of the show has also inadvertently resulted in me being much more able to remain outside the Fringe bubble. I’m not tied to a venue and we have no flyers or posters. And I spend a lot of time being welcomed into people’s homes in parts of the city I previously knew barely or not at all. Escaping the orbit of the big venues feels like freedom, even when I’m escaping to do a show. It's been even better when I'm escaping for a run.
I've said before that I'm mystified by runners who come up for the Festival and then do all their running round and round the Meadows. I mean, you do you, and if you're enjoying yourself I have no wish to dissuade you. But I'd go mad. There are so many great places to run in this city and almost all of them (with the exception of Arthur's Seat) are an escape from the melee. I've done most of my running over the past week in the woods around the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill. This is closer to Marchmont than is Holyrood Park, but I'm yet to meet a festivalgoer who's even heard of it, let alone been there. Craiglockhart and Braid Hills are barely any further, but if anyone's heard of either it's because of Siegfried Sassoon and again, most wouldn't know it's even in Edinburgh.
There are loads of these green hilly places, so this is a great city in which to be a runner, and last week was the heaviest training week I've ever had. Sixty miles, 10,500 feet of climbing and that's without counting the innumerable miles traipsing round Edinburgh carrying a baby. The endurance athlete Ian Sharman is a huge advocate of weight-vest hiking as training for ultra runners and I've thought about that a lot during long walks to shows in Leith: I'm exhausted by this festival, as always, but everything about it is good training. According to my phone, my average step count for the month of August is just over 30,000. In March I ran a good 10K; since then I've run a marathon, a trail ultra and a long fell race and not been well-trained for any of them. Next weekend I run another trail ultra and for the first time since March I feel ready.
I do need to catch up on some sleep, though.
In the spring of next year Boff and I will premiere These Hills Are Ours and there's an open debate about whether we bring it to Edinburgh. It feels like a good Edinburgh show for loads of reasons but my current inclination towards is obviously emotional: I've had a lovely time this year, and I want more of the same. That is utter foolishness. I don't want to be the last artist in Edinburgh when the Fringe finally collapses. It's become, for most, and under the normal circumstances to which I'd be returning, a sort of nightmare vision of itself. Still, it's been a big part of my life and I think I'll miss it when it's gone.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will