Fringeless

There was something strange about being in Edinburgh during August, for the first time in 73 years that the Fringe wasn’t. A small part of me mused that by telling a single joke to a seagull, then maybe I’d be able to say I had a sell-out run this year. Another thought was that this festival breather for the city after years and years of being swamped by audiences keen to sit in a show with their arms crossed wishing they were dead, could actually be a good thing. A time to reset and rest, work out how to change things for the better. But mostly, it just felt odd. The streets — usually filled with people handing out flyers as though they want to aggressively paper cut you, posters covering every lamppost, wall, billboard, bus and occasionally a student who picked the short straw, and venues in every possible crevice — felt oddly empty. It wasn’t so much like thousands of people taking a break but more like the scene you’d find if you arrived somewhere just after an announcement to take shelter because of an oncoming nuclear threat or the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. I have been in Edinburgh many times outside of August, and it’s a beautiful city even when the shards of ice rain are ploughing into your face at a horizontal angle that no outerwear can possibly protect you from. I have seen it when it’s not besieged by performers and punters before. You know, when the name ‘Edinburgh’ is used correctly for the city and not just how comedians say it, as though the entire area is just beamed in for one month of the year. But this was different. The air rang with the feeling that something was missing, and it was wholly unsettling being there.

I haven’t been to the Edinburgh Fringe since taking a show there in 2017. Since then parenthood happened, and the toll of two years of my daughter insisting nights were not for sleeping meant that writing a new show was not something my increasingly fractious brain could manage. On top of that, justifying spending a lot of money that I didn’t have, in order to be away from home for a month, wasn’t the sort of alluring prospect to present to my wife that you might think. Not that I could justify in years previous to child wrangling. I’ve never had a ‘good’ fringe. None of my solo shows have received critical acclaim or landed me a TV show, or award, or anything that could help me say ‘well I’m glad I put all my effort into that.’ On the contrary, I’ve definitely had bad fringes. Not the ones everyone talks about as an example of why the Fringe can go wrong, but worse, the sort of ones no one talked about at all. My show in 2011, which received a handful of lovely reviews and sold ok for a show that was hidden in a turret in a building no one knew comedy was in, somehow left me with a debt of over £7k. This was slowly paid off through shows and work for the next three years, leaving me unable to pay my own bills or afford to buy petrol or train tickets to get to those gigs in the first place. That was the supposedly necessary cost of venue hire, tech hire, PR, posters, printing, accommodation, surviving for the month while not earning anything, and all the while still paying rent for my flat back home. I didn’t return to EdFringe for 3 years because, well, I couldn’t. Instead I filled those summers with actual paid work, something that had never occurred to me in my comedy career until then. I got acting work as the summer is when a lot of filming happens, I got booked at gigs that wouldn’t usually have me, but now all their favourites were in Scotland they had no choice. I saw the sunshine, and I only paid one lot of rent. Yet, despite all of that sounding preferable to setting fire to cash and a vitamin D deficiency, it was still completely ingrained in me to miss the Fringe. There was always this niggling feeling that I should have been there instead and by not being, I was definitely doing something wrong.

This year’s trip was mainly to see friends and that part of it was worth it. The sheer excitement of escaping our local area even for a few days was an unbelievable thrill after the previous months of lockdown and then, the weird limbo that followed. In many ways it was odd to have spent several months trapped in the same few rooms, with an often uninterested audience (or as you might call them, my family), while it rained heavily outside, and then think the best way to shake that off might be a trip to where the Fringe should be. But it was. No, driving a toddler for 8 hours to Scotland is not on my list of recommended ways to calm constant feelings of anxiety and restlessness, but luckily the views of the sea from our Leith flat were. The air smelled better, the water actually tasted good and the feeling of being somewhere familiar, but different was entirely healing. As was finally getting to see good friends for the first time in far too long. Then on one day, we said we’d all go together to look at the sites where the big Fringe venues should be, strolling around the Old Town while our unsympathetic children kept asking when we were going to the playground. That was when it all hit home. Looking at looked up parks that usually have big tents in and buildings that would normally have queues round the block, just closed up and grey. It wasn’t just because the Fringe wasn’t there, but also because the realisation that it probably can’t be again, not how it was all came hurtling along too. Comedy in the UK, wherever it is, won’t be the same. This is partly because the very thought of the average dank, windowless, cramped, air absent Fringe space is enough to cause a second wave by itself. But it’s also because with the time it will take to get the industry back on its feet, I’m not sure there will be the scale of acts performing that there used to be anymore. Live comedy is starting to return but it’s not clear yet by how much. How many venues can survive a lower capacity? Lots of Scottish performers are calling for a lifeline for comedy, in England venues are already disappearing. There are of course outdoor gigs, but they won’t last much longer once the Great British Autumn floods most of them. There are not enough shows to go round and might not be for some time, meaning that most that are happening are choosing the same famous comedians to perform every time, especially as suddenly, they’re all available (and let’s face it, it makes total sense from a business point of view). But how will the other acts earn enough money from gigging and performing to pay their bills unless they are already wealthy enough to do so, let alone pay to go to the Fringe? How will tech staff afford to be there for the month if they’re only working on a fraction of the shows they used? Will venue staff actually get paid ever?

A lot of the discussions about how things will be at next year’s Fringe sound inviting. A regulation on the overpriced accommodation costs during August which are often debilitating. More things online to increase access which is so helpful to many, with Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and stair-only buildings highly useless for those with mobility issues. There would be only 20–30% of the amount of shows there were in 2019, which sounds great because everyone knows it had grown to being just too much for audiences and acts alike. On the other hand, will it just mean that those who are guaranteed to get those show spaces will be acts who’ve already made it big and can sell tickets, so the venues can profit as much as possible with a smaller increase? Won’t that just remove any last vestiges of it being a fringe that it has left?

Walking around a grey skied George Square, filled with only the occasional passer-by, it felt like a microcosm of the world. It’s been nice to assume that this sudden change in our lives, this moment to breathe and take stock for a few months, might lead to a better world. Better environmental care, a greater understanding of the support people need, how best to adapt work and life to where we are now to the benefit of all of us. None of that is happening, and instead, if anything, the ‘New Normal’ seems largely like it’ll have kept all the worst bits of the old one and streamlined the rest. Like a washing product, the plan from the government seems to be that this ‘New Normal’ will just be more expensive than ever, and depressingly, whiter than white. Schools have to re-open for ‘moral duty’. Everyone must return to their workplaces because they always have done, contemplating change is hard, and spending time with family can’t be that good for you obviously. We should all continue to fly and drive and pollute because I’m sure it’ll all just sort itself out and no one liked hearing all that noisy bird song anyway or being hopeful about our grandchildren’s future. Oh we’re all aware that now should be a turning point, but can see that instead it’s full circle leaving us facing the wrong way again, and we’re all letting it happen because we’re too exhausted to fight it. On a much smaller scale, the Edinburgh Fringe should come back next year having smoothed out all the things we’ve all known have been wrong about it for years. It should be more accessible for everyone, a proper hub for exciting and breakthrough, industry changing art. That’s what should happen. But I have this overwhelming hunch that instead, like the rest of Britain, it’ll just now be even more for the select few. Of course, I hope I’m wrong and walking round the empty streets, I could think of nothing better than them filled up once again with people barking at me to see shows I have to think of excuses to avoid so I can eat a baked potato the size of my head and bump into several people I can’t remember the names of. Fingers crossed the good bits return with less of the bad. Not least so I can put on my posters next year that I had a sell-out run in 2020, even if you and I both know that that seagull did looked bored out of its tiny mind.

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