So the Edinburgh Festivals are over for another year. I know this because there were annoying fireworks last night and because of the obligatory articles recounting record-breaking ticket-sales (this year accompanied by an amusing – and significant – bean-counter controversy over the inclusion of ticket estimates from the free festivals). This has been the first year I’ve counted myself an Edinburgh resident, having moved to the city in June – and even with that subious pedigree, I can tell you things look very different from the inside.
The short of it is that it feels like the whole world came to party in my home, and I’m left on the morning after eyeing the half-full beer cans strewn on the floor and the torn posters on the walls. This is unsurprising, given that this is the world’s biggest arts festival we’re talking about. The pubs and parks I know have been thronging with tourists and performers, all looking a little lost and like they’re having the times of their lives. Edinburgh’s a quiet and beautiful town – always full of students and tourists, sure, with the hidden poverty and crime problems you’d expect, but with thriving local communities and arts scenes. And then for three weeks of the year it turns into this maelstrom of creativity, noise and spending.
I’ve been coming to the Edinburgh Festivals for years, often as a performer, and it’s always been one of my year’s highlights. The chance to take part in a crazy and exciting temporary community of performers – there’s nowhere else like it. But now that I live here, now that these streets are my home and I’m finding my way round the Edinburgh arts community, everything feels different. The criticisms my Edinburgh friends have always made of the Festivals are starting to make sense.
It’s not just that it’s pretty obnoxious to have to force your way through yammering crowds to get to work every day, not just thatyour public spaces have been taken over by private companie, not just that the streets are littered with a thousands discarded glossy flyers. It’s that the hordes of performers and audiences trample Edinburgh arts in their wake, doing their thing but ignoring what’s already here. Tourists in general are pretty bad at recognising they’re in someone’s home, but Festival tourists are even worse, because they’re turning Edinburgh into their home for the duration, and display all the resultant self-entitlement. It stops feeling like your home any more.
And this business about trampling local arts is serious. Coming to the Festivals as a performer, it feels like you’re really doing something special, taking part in this celebration of the arts, this community of creativity. But my thinking’s changed a bit, and now I see too much of the Festival as self-satisfied and self-serving, as being performed for a false community, unrooted, purposeless. I believe passionately in political performance – and by that I mean simply performance that speaks from where it stands, that recognises the many networks it’s part of and tries to articulate, with the help of the audience, what it might mean to exist in them better. People come to Edinburgh – remember, a city, not a month – to do performances as performances, not as part of something bigger.
The economic structures of the Festivals don’t help this.The big venues – the Smirnoff Underbelly, C, etc. – all come into the city and run private performance empires, with the vast majority of performers, audiences and employees coming from elsewhere. Meanwhile, crucial local venues find it hard to compete – the Big Red Door, for example. a year-round circus and community space, is having to close down permanently at the end of August. And sure, cafés and tourist shops are making a mint, but a three week income boost doesn’t compensate for the glut of voluntary and temporary staff undermining the jobs market. Meanwhile, ticket prices are always rising, with £10 hour-long shows as standard, hiking the majority of the festival way out of the affordability of most of the people who live here. Let’s not even speak about the unbelievably snooty marketing and inaccessibility of the International Festival. And with the programme itself dominated by out-of-town student shows, professional comedians and big budget spectacles, the Fringe isn’t even operating in its original function: as a venue for experimentation and discovery, a laboratory of performance.
There are exceptions, all-the-more precious by their rarity. I’m a firm believer in what the Forest Fringe is trying to do: making unique and otherwise unseen performances accessible, and paying attention to their local roots (even if not always to the building and social centre itself). And the various Free and Cheap Fringes are making brave attempts at carving our niches of creativity. This is all a glimmer of what could be possible. And yes, I did go to a lot of shows when I could afford it, and yes, as ever, I enjoyed myself immensely. But there was a sour taste in my mouth. If something of the spirit of Fringe is going to be recovered, then we all need to pay a little more attention to where we stand.