It wasn’t until I left Devon’s hedgerows that I discovered theatre in a ‘cultural’ capacity. Sure, the Queen’s Theatre in Barnstaple offered a varied selection of Robbie Wiliams tribute acts and live-action Peppa Pig, and there was always the Abbotsham village pantomime which, to my horror, my parents both insisted on not only starring in but also making the costumes. August in Abbotsham was script rehearsals full of politically incorrect puns, clumsy choreography and clunkily rewritten Pop songs.
From solstice to solstice, our house would be filled with a glut of gaudy, impractical fabrics and bin bags full of mesh, lace and outmoded duvet covers – the majority of which had come from the posthumous donation of a deceased local hoarder. I would steal scraps to fashion into semi-theatrical clothes for myself, enacting my own performance of maturity at field/barn parties and nights at Barnstaple’s only venue of note, Fever. When I moved to London, I jumped at every opportunity to attend and review theatre productions and the more I spoke to friends involved with theatre, the more I heard about Edinburgh. In my mind, the city’s Fringe Festival was a mythical cultural utopia, where dreams were realised, stars were born and cultural ingenuity was generated.
For those not yet privy to the phenomenon, anyone involved in arts and culture will tell you that if you’re planning a trip to Edinburgh, August is the coolest month. Founded in 1947, the annual Fringe Festival is a calendar staple of comedy and theatre lovers globally, with hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking to buy tickets to a rotation of performances whilst residing in eye wateringly over-priced accommodation, every year.
“It is the most expensive, gruelling and unforgiving process you will encounter in modern theatre-making,” says London-based theatre maker Oli Bates, who has performed at the festival three times with four shows. “Not only is it prohibitively expensive to most who would take part, or even go to watch, but it has increasingly become ruled by corporate interests who worry more about profits than the arts at all. And yet it is a magical place where I have had summer flings, had to file police reports and had to council many people through myriad nervous breakdowns.”
Last week, a video that surfaced on the YouTube channel ‘DISCONTENT’, entitled ‘There’s No Edinburgh In The Festival’. It was shared widely across social media and featured an ashen ‘Bonnie Prince Bob’ who roams Edinburgh’s centre looking severely into the camera, peeking out from behind dark glasses to use colourful phrases like “gaudy theme parks,” “citadels of wealth” and “anarchic bohemian bonanzas” to describe the rampant gentrification of the city which for many, has come to be defined by its annual arts festival.
Between the decorated adjectives and expletives, Bob damningly describes the “physical schism of inequality” which the festival has bolstered through its unrestricted profit-driven annual growth of ticket sales, even garnering corporate sponsorship from Virgin and Amazon. “The Edinburgh festival is not something done by Edinburgh,” Bob capitulates, “It’s something done to Edinburgh. For many local residents, a day trip into town is quite frankly economically absurd.”
Despite all its high-energy passion and pageantry, the reality of Edinburgh’s Fringe festival is far bleaker than the one described to me in London’s theatre bars. To make matters worse, organisers are notorious for overworking and underpaying (if paying) their staff over the intensive month. It’s not cheap living in a city where a two-bedroom flat can set you back £4,000 for the month of August, but the organiser’s cost of labour certainly is. Employees are often worked to a point of total exhaustion through long hours leafleting, commuting and performing. Not only do organisations frequently fail to issue staff contracts to keep employees in the dark regarding their rights, but the Fair Fringe organisation reports that Fringe staff often work for 12 hours or more without proper breaks, and often working the entire month of August without a day off, often without an adequate break to sleep.
By and large, the city’s ‘Big Four’ theatres (including the Underbelly, Assembly and Gilded Balloon) have chosen not to address the organisation’s charter. However, the Pleasance Theatre have stepped up to the mark with its director Anthony Alderson speaking to The Scotsman shortly before this year’s festival, stating that: “Volunteers at the Pleasance receive a subsistence to cover expenses and we provide accommodation at no cost to the individual, with each participant receiving a single private bedroom.”
As a recipient of the Pleasance’s Charlie Hartill foundation, Holly Bond tells me that she feels enormously lucky to have been offered accommodation during her time in Edinburgh. Currently living with her theatre company, Wonderbox, Holly was offered an enviable inner-city location – ideal, she tells me, for leafleting. Their play, ‘A Womb of One’s Own’ is currently at the Pleasance Dome until the 26th August.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where everyone’s into theatre. It’s so overwhelming and that’s all you talk about – shows.” Holly tells me, “I’ve never seen so many plays in such a short amount of time. You end up walking into surprisingly good shows and sometimes you’ll watch three shows in a row, in one evening. I’m finding it really useful to find out about the kind of work I want to make and finding out about how audiences react and what audiences want.”
Whichever side of the debate you stand, the Fringe is an encompassing force. “Scottish hospitality reigns as the creative world visits the capital each summer. For better or for worse, Edinburgh is the Fringe’s during August” says Cleo Goodman, who, after graduating from the University of Glasgow, made the city of Edinburgh her home. Cleo took a job at the Underbelly Box Office, an experience which she describes as being full of “Free tickets and star spotting, spending hours flicking through the booklets so you can recommend shows to punters and being wooed with pints by the acts that want you to flog their show.”
“It was exactly what I was looking for at that time, to be paid minimum wage to experience the world’s largest arts festival,” She tells me, “I enjoyed it, cold toes, splinters from temporary structures, being mistaken for Ian Hislop’s wife and all.”