‘Edinburgh is everything’: The Fringe Festival may be cancelled but the spirit is alive

It’s the most important cultural festival of the year, but in 2020 it has been cancelled. But far from being left for dead, comedians and performers are finding new ways to keep the festival alive, writes Alice Jones

Wednesday 19 August 2020 10:49
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Shedinburgh Fringe Festival at the Traverse Theatre
Shedinburgh Fringe Festival at the Traverse Theatre
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avid Chapple began planning his trip to the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe Festival a year ago, since you can’t be too prepared when you hold the world record for the most Fringe performances attended in one season.

Having seen a record-breaking 304 shows in 27 days in 2014, he was planning another Fringe viewing marathon this year for his wife’s 60th birthday. But in early April, the event – the world’s largest arts festival – was cancelled for the first time in its 73-year history, because of the coronavirus.

For Chapple, a civil servant who estimates that he spends half his income on watching live comedy and keeps chickens named after British stand-up comedians, it was devastating. “Edinburgh is everything, really,” he says. “It’s the focal point of our year.”

The festival’s cancellation has been a big blow to long-term fans – and to the 30,000 performers who travel to the Scottish city each August to show their work. To fill the gap, some artists have gone online to try to capture the anarchic, diverse and somewhat overwhelming experience of being at the Fringe.

Among them is Francesca Moody, a London-based theatre producer who took the original stage version of Fleabag to the Fringe in 2013 and had planned to stage three plays in Edinburgh this month.

When the festival was called off, her fellow theatre-maker Gary McNair joked that he would have to stage a “Shed Fringe” from his garden instead – a pun that “set cogs whirring” in Moody’s producer brain. Six weeks ago, she came up with Shedinburgh, an online festival of comedy and drama that streams live from a garden shed for three weeks starting Friday.

In fact, there are two sheds, each measuring 6ft by 8ft: one onstage at London’s Soho Theatre, the other at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Both venues have been closed since March, when the British government ordered theatres to shut to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Francesca Moody had planned to take three plays to Edinburgh this month

Setting up the sheds inside is a nod to the questing spirit of the Fringe, which takes over every corner of the city of Edinburgh each August, transforming pubs and gardens, gyms, parking lots and lecture theatres into performance spaces.

“The cancellation of the Fringe has left a massive hole,” says Moody, who has attended the festival for 17 years. “This is an opportunity to acknowledge how magical the festival is, how important it is to me and to a lot of the artists who have had success there.”

Thanks to social distancing rules and space restrictions, the “Shed-ule” is dominated by one-person shows from artists like Jack Rooke, Deborah Frances-White and Tim Crouch. Audiences will watch on Zoom after donating at least £4 per ticket, and profits will go towards a fund for artists aiming to stage a show at the Fringe next year.

Before planning was halted because of the pandemic, this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival had confirmed more than 2,200 shows from 48 countries in about 230 venues, says Rebecca Monks, a spokeswoman for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. They were preparing for a similar-scale festival to last year’s, in which more than 3,800 shows were staged and more than three million tickets were sold.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers performing on the Royal Mile last year (Getty)

“Edinburgh is the way that arts organisations, venues, TV production companies find new work; the fact that it doesn’t exist this year will have a significant impact,” says Moody, who knows how life-changing a successful Fringe can be.

Having staged a number of marathon shows, Watson now plans to host a 24-hour Fringe gig from his sofa in south London at the end of the month to raise money for comedians

When she and Phoebe Waller-Bridge took Fleabag to a dank vault under Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge seven years ago, they raised money on Kickstarter, didn’t pay themselves and gave away tickets for the first week to fill the 60-seater room. It became one of that year’s most talked-about shows, which led to a run at London’s Soho Theatre, where it caught the attention of the BBC’s head of comedy.

This year, such opportunities have essentially vanished. “For all those artists who were taking their first shot at the Fringe this year,” Moody says, “that work might never resurface because they might not have the strong foundations or the support to carry on.”

“Shedinburgh” is just one way theatre-makers are keeping the Fringe flame burning. Fringe on Friday is a weekly hour-long cabaret streaming from performers’ homes; Edinburgh Unlocked is a comedy festival in audiobook form from Penguin Random House featuring 15-minute sets from stand-ups whose shows were cancelled; Zoo TV is offering on-demand streaming of past Edinburgh performances; and Fringe of Colour is screening daily films by artists of colour.

Corrie McGuire, a comedy producer and agent who has staged the raucously interactive midnight show Spank! at the Edinburgh Fringe for the past 15 years, estimates that her agency lost £60,000 “overnight” when the theatres closed in March. One-quarter of that would have come from Edinburgh.

Last week, she staged the first online Spank! with stand-up comedians Lauren Pattison and Emmanuel Sonubi performing from their bedrooms; Magical Bones, a break-dancing magician, doing tricks in his kitchen; and Vikki Stone singing songs from her attic.

Comedian Mark Watson plans to host a 24-hour Fringe gig from his sofa(Getty)

To combat the “Zoom fatigue” that many people are feeling amid the plethora of online events and meetings during the pandemic, McGuire says, she created a virtual front row in which 10 audience members could volunteer to “sit up front” and have their microphones taken off mute so that performers could hear their reactions.

“Being able to have people from all over the world watching the same gig gave it real Edinburgh energy,” she adds.

Comedian Mark Watson – who made his name in 2004 with a 24-hour comedy gig in a basement in Edinburgh’s Old Town – has embraced the festival’s madcap, have-a-go, collaborative essence more than most over 20 years of performances.

Having staged a number of marathon shows, Watson now plans to host a 24-hour Fringe gig from his sofa in south London at the end of the month to raise money for comedians whose livelihoods were flattened by the pandemic.

His plan, which he describes as “insanely ambitious,” is to recreate the feel of the month-long festival in a day – its “general mayhem and the wild outpouring of ideas” – by hosting the gig on the livestreaming platform Twitch, with guest spots from well-known comedians and newer talents.

“The Fringe is a sort of state of the nation for comedy,” Watson says.

“I don’t think we can let something like the Fringe die,” he adds. “It’s gone for now, but the spirit of it needs to stay alive – for good.”

© The New York Times

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