Chief Executive’s introduction
2020 was, to perhaps understate it, an unforgettable year. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns was keenly felt across the globe – including the Fringe community.
It still feels unreal to say, but on 01 April 2020 we announced that, for the first time in its 73-year history, the Fringe would not go ahead as planned. While undoubtedly necessary, this was a devastating moment for everyone who makes up the Fringe ecosystem: artists, venues, programmers, producers, journalists, tech teams, front-of-house staff and many more, including of course the whole team at the Fringe Society. In a year where the arts sector was gutted by a pandemic that seemed to prey specifically on the things that make it dear to us – communality, the shared experience, laughter – the absence of the Fringe was another crushing blow.
Despite all the storm clouds, however, some rays of hope did pierce through. After an initial period of furlough for three-quarters of our team, we regrouped to focus on our core objective of supporting artists. We recognised that, with limited ways to perform and earn income, many Fringe creatives were in dire straits – and it was our job to support them, Fringe or no. A Crowdfunder campaign we started in July ultimately generated an incredible £360,000 in donations across the Fringe landscape, including £76,000 for our central recovery fund to help artists and venues return to the Fringe in 2021. As part of that fundraiser, we staged AJ Bell Fringe on Friday: cabaret-style performances on each Friday of what would have been the Fringe, starring talented acts from a range of genres. In Fringe Central and Fringe Exchange, we created online spaces where creatives could tackle the issues facing their industry and connect with fellow artists and professionals, keeping their careers progressing while the world was at a standstill.
At the same time, we fought for the survival of the Fringe Society, a registered charity. We engaged with governments in both Scotland and the UK, securing a £1m loan from Scottish Government and various other funds made available through government schemes. Those funds have mitigated the huge losses incurred by the festival not going ahead, and have given us some much-needed room to breathe and plan for a more resilient future. It is going to take time for live performance to be possible again and it’s going to take time for the Society and the Fringe to recover. But we will be ready and the future of the Fringe and the Society will be underpinned by our core values of equity, diversity, inclusion and sustainability.
We’re not entirely out of the woods yet, but I want to take this moment to thank everyone who has demonstrated such an outpouring of generosity and encouragement for us so far. In addition to helping us support artists this year, you’ve enabled us to lay the groundwork for the Fringe’s return in 2021.
There will be a Fringe in 2021, be it in person, digital or a hybrid of both. While it’s still too early to say exactly what shape the festival will take, we know it will remain an unparalleled celebration of talent, creativity and freedom of expression.
The role of the Fringe and Fringe artists in our collective recovery is going to be more important than ever in the year (and years) ahead. At the moment we’re all sharing in the unpredictability, fear and seeming relentlessness of the pandemic. But one day soon, live performance will be possible again and we’ll be able to meet and reconnect and feel joy together. We at the Fringe Society will continue to prepare for that, by talking to artists, venues and anyone with ideas to help us find our way through this.
Take care of yourselves, and I can’t wait to see you in August.
Who we are
The idea at the heart of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is simple: anyone with a desire to perform and a venue willing to host them is welcome. No individual or committee determines who can or cannot perform at the Fringe.
It all began in 1947 with eight companies – six of them from Scotland – taking a risk, turning up uninvited and performing on the ‘fringe’ of the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival. Over 70 years later, the Fringe is a globally renowned celebration of arts and culture in all its forms; an essential go-to event for creatives, curators and people who love the performing arts.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society is the charity that was established by artists to act as the custodian of the Fringe. We exist to support, advise and encourage everyone who wants to participate; provide information and assistance to audiences; and celebrate the Fringe and what it stands for all over the world.
The Fringe couldn't go ahead as planned in 2020, but the Fringe Society's mission remained as important as ever.
The Fringe Blueprint is a list of eight commitments we made in 2017, informing all the work we do ahead of the Fringe’s 75th anniversary in 2022. The Covid-19 outbreak may have temporarily hindered progress in some areas, but our work has continued apace in others: in 2020 we connected programmers from all over the world to Fringe artists, and explored how the Fringe can be more environmentally sustainable when it returns. We’re also working with an independent panel to ensure that our artist and venue recovery fund, aimed at helping artists and venues return to the Fringe in 2021, will be distributed in line with our Blueprint objectives of improving diversity, accessibility and sustainability at the Fringe. You will find more details of this work throughout this review.
We remain dedicated to these commitments and will continue to strive to make the Fringe the best possible experience for all who take part and attend.
The eight commitments are:
1. The open Fringe
Remove barriers to entry to ensure that everyone is welcome at the Fringe and anyone can take part.
2. The world’s Fringe
Develop the Fringe’s international reputation as the place to discover talent.
3. The affordable Fringe
Tackle the rising cost of attendance at the Fringe to ensure the festival is affordable for all.
4. The Fringe home
Secure a new home for the Fringe to provide year-round assistance to participants and support a vibrant Fringe community.
5. The inspirational Fringe
Foster a lifelong passion for the arts among Scotland’s young people and champion creative learning in our schools and colleges.
6. The street Fringe
Support and develop the world’s greatest street festival at the heart of the Fringe.
7. The green Fringe
Reduce the festival’s carbon footprint and champion initiatives that limit our impact on the environment.
8. The Fringe story
Tell the remarkable story of the Fringe and build awareness of, and support for, our charitable mission all over the world.
The culture sector and the creative industries have been among the hardest hit by the economic downturn following the Covid-19 outbreak, with the Fringe landscape alone facing estimated losses of over £21m. One of the Fringe Society’s core objectives is to support Fringe artists and venues, and it was fundamentally important for us to create a platform that provided them with the opportunity to raise vital funds.
In partnership with Crowdfunder, we developed FringeMakers, a Fringe-wide fundraising campaign that all artists and venues could take part in, keeping 100% of funds donated for their own causes. Participants could offer rewards for donations, such as access to their own livestreamed shows, custom merchandise and exclusive gifts.
Crowdfunder generously waived all fees for this project, and provided participants with tailored support – including dedicated webinars, how-to guides and one-to-one training for Fringe artists and venues – to enable them to raise as much money as possible during the month of August. Nearly 100 artists and venues took part, including Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Greenside, Just the Tonic, Monkey Barrel, Pleasance and Summerhall.
With matched funding from sponsors AJ Bell, the Fringe Society also raised £76,000 via its own campaign on the FringeMakers platform. This money went to a central artist and venue recovery fund to support their return to the Fringe in 2021. These funds will be distributed in line with our Fringe Blueprint objectives, and a percentage of funds will be reserved for artists and venues registered and based in Edinburgh.
Overall, projects on the FringeMakers platform received 7,000 donations and raised £360,000 to support Fringe creatives. Our heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed.
FringeMakers raised £360,000 to support Fringe creatives.
AJ Bell Fringe on Friday
We created AJ Bell Fringe on Friday as a weekly digital variety show and fundraiser, streamed every Friday night in August, with a bonus highlights edition released in September. The show, curated by Scottish-based producers Lucky Cat and Michael Fraser, aimed to showcase a snapshot of the festival across a range of genres, including comedy, cabaret, dance and music. As well as providing a means of supporting Fringe artists and venues, we intended that AJ Bell Fringe on Friday would give Fringe-goers a chance to experience the fun and joy of the festival, albeit remotely, at a time when fun and joy seemed in dangerously short supply.
A different guest act hosted each of the four episodes: Suzi Ruffell, Jayde Adams, Nigel Ng and Courtney Act. The shows featured performances from Fringe artists including David O’Doherty, Briefs, Magical Bones, Lost Voice Guy, Tiff Stevenson, Abandoman, Erika Ehler, Kid X, Fern Brady, Reuben Kaye and more.
Tickets for each show were available through FringeMakers for £9 (£1 less than the cost of the average Fringe ticket). To help with collective fundraising efforts, registered Fringe artists and venues were able to sell tickets through their own crowdfunding page and keep 100% of the proceeds. Alternatively, audience members could buy tickets through the Society’s FringeMakers page, with proceeds going into the central artist and venue recovery fund.
Almost 4,500 people bought tickets to AJ Bell’s Fringe on Friday.
AJ Bell Fringe Pick n Mix
AJ Bell Fringe Pick n Mix provided a creative platform for Fringe fans and artists, and meant that everyone, everywhere, could experience the magic of the Fringe in their own front rooms. Repurposing technology from last year’s Inspiration Machine, artists and audiences were invited to upload 60-second films that captured the spirit of the Fringe in miniature – from snippets of what would have been 2020 shows to snappy set pieces staged in a shed. Just like the Fringe, everyone was welcome to participate.
With guaranteed front-row seats (on their own sofas), viewers could either pick which genre of clips they wanted to watch or enjoy a mixed stream of continuous Fringe entertainment, with the ability to interact and comment on videos as they played. Audiences showed their appreciation by donating to the artist and venue recovery fund.
Over the month of August, artists and Fringe-goers uploaded nearly 400 videos to the platform, with clips of everything from flamenco dancing and group drumming to singing sock puppetry and bathtub-based performances.
Fringe show listings
In true Fringe spirit, artists and venues continued this year to make and present work for a variety of online platforms, much as they’d usually create shows that would be staged across a variety of physical spaces in Edinburgh. Although traditional Fringe Society services such as show registration and box office had been suspended due to the Covid-19 situation, we responded quickly to create a centralised page of show listings, giving audiences around the world a way to engage with the wide range of work still on offer in August.
Free of charge, we listed almost 300 shows from venues and creatives, with everything from throwback Fringe performances to brand-new, lockdown-inspired creations. These included a one-person show about an opera queen, a virtual disco for babies, a (socially distanced) improvised musical, an online dance-a-thon, a soundscape of a Stirlingshire sheep farm and plenty of Zoom-based comedy, theatre and dance.
We continued to host these listings well beyond the scheduled end of Fringe, providing artists with the best possible chance of connecting with audiences.
We built relationships with new partners this year, supporting Fringe artists to pursue opportunities beyond the festival. Penguin Random House released Edinburgh Unlocked, a comedy festival in audiobook format, showcasing more than 20 Fringe performers while generously donating 10% of royalties to help support the Fringe Society. Comedy Central delivered a series of seven-minute stand-up episodes across their social media channels, spotlighting up-and-coming comedy talent. Highlights were then screened in a 22-minute TV special on Comedy Central UK.
Fringe Central Virtual Hub
Fringe Central is a home from home for the Fringe artistic community each August and hosts an extensive programme of creative and professional development events for artists. Although a physical space wasn’t possible this year, we recreated this important gathering point through a dedicated online hub, encouraging artists to come together to share ideas, collaborate and connect with the Fringe Society team.
In partnership with 18 industry experts including COMMON, Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts and The Sick of the Fringe, we delivered more than 50 digital events to over 1,700 registered attendees, including panel discussions and skills-building workshops. These events explored pertinent challenges such as digital skills development and touring post-pandemic, alongside wider industry themes such as the underrepresentation of black and brown creatives, the wellbeing of working-class artists and making Fringe performances more accessible. These and many of the other events are still available as recordings through the hub, allowing those who missed them to benefit from the conversations and resources.
To emulate the social nature of Fringe Central and encourage peer-to-peer support, we invited artists to keep the conversation going in chatrooms and hosted networking sessions throughout the month. All events were BSL-interpreted and completely free to attend.
Feedback from event attendees and delivery partners has been very positive. Many found the Fringe Central Virtual Hub to be an important space for creatives to come together to share experiences, exchange ideas and receive support – from their peers and the Society – at a very difficult and uncertain time.
We delivered more than 50 digital events to over 1,700 registered attendees.
Fringe Marketplace and Exchange
In addition to being an incredible festival for performers and audiences, the Fringe is the world’s leading arts marketplace – a place where artists can connect with programmers, producers and other members of the global arts industry, and forge the professional relationships that will enable them to take the important next steps in their career.
Our Arts Industry Office exists to enable artists and industry members to make the most of the opportunities presented by this unique festival, and we recognised that the lack of a Fringe in 2020 would be incredibly damaging for both groups. In addition, hundreds of theatres and festivals rely on content and talent honed at the Fringe, which in turn leads to long-lasting careers for creatives both on and off the stage. Without this vibrant marketplace, many theatres – already in a precarious situation due to lockdown – would struggle to programme shows in the future, negatively affecting both creators and theatre staff. With this in mind, we set about creating a means through which these pivotal interactions could still take place.
Fringe Marketplace is our new online showcase platform designed to connect arts industry members to professional work intended for the Fringe. More than 120 tour-ready shows were viewed on Fringe Marketplace by 400 programmers from 34 countries; these shows will remain live on the platform until June 2021.
Alongside Marketplace, we launched Fringe Exchange, an online events platform hosting international showcase events, provocations and panel discussions. We were delighted to welcome more than 2,500 industry delegates across the 24 events in August, and continued hosting events beyond the traditional Fringe period. Both platforms were invaluable in helping us support and connect artists locally and internationally and we will continue to develop them for 2021 and beyond.
More than 120 tour-ready shows were viewed on Fringe Marketplace by 400 programmers from 34 countries.
The Fringe Society engages regularly with government and other organisations at local, national and international levels. As the impact of the Covid-19 crisis became clear, we increased the frequency of these meetings, advocating passionately for both the Fringe and the wider arts ecosystem it supports. We continue to ensure that the voices of all those who make up the Fringe community are heard loud and clear, by providing evidence to the UK and Scottish parliaments, having direct conversations with elected members and funding bodies, and through the media.
In June, we secured support from the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) to ensure we could continue fulfilling our charitable objectives. The Scottish Government subsequently set up a resilience group to meet with us consisting of themselves, Creative Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and CEC, and later including EventScotland. We found their support invaluable and particularly welcomed the flexibility to adapt existing sources of funding for more urgent projects.
As well as addressing the immediate issues caused by the pandemic, we’ve kept an eye on the future of the Fringe too. We’ve stayed in touch with our national and international partners, generating new ideas and new ways of working. In August we supported Staging Change, Greenhouse and University of Edinburgh to carry out a consultation with a wide range of Fringe stakeholders, exploring how we might return with a better, more sustainable future for the Fringe. Aligned to our Blueprint, we will use the results of the Future Fringe consultation, alongside feedback from our extended Fringe family, to inform how we work in 2021 and beyond.
Diversifying Fringe Society membership
The Fringe Society is a registered charity and open membership organisation. It is governed by its constitution and board of directors, three-quarters of whom are elected from the Society membership. As laid out in our Fringe Blueprint, we are committed to ensuring the Fringe is inclusive, accessible, diverse, equitable and affordable for everyone. It is therefore essential that Fringe Society members and our board of directors reflect these values and the Fringe communities we represent.
Ahead of the 2020 Fringe Society board elections, we made an explicit and public plea in our communications to members and potential members to help us build a more representative board, including people of different ethnicities, young people, Edinburgh residents, working-class people and D/deaf and disabled people. We reached out to a range of organisations and community groups to spread the word and encourage candidates within their networks to apply, including Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland (BEMIS), the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (CEMVO), Fringe of Colour, The Sick of the Fringe, Equity, COMMON Theatre, Scottish Refugee Council, Euan’s Guide and Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts.
To help ensure as diverse a range of voices as possible, we have reduced the cost of membership in 2021 by 50% to £5 a year.
The 2020 Fringe Society Annual General Meeting was held digitally, enabling a wider number of members to participate. In light of members’ feedback, we hope to provide both physical and online AGMs in future.
Community and education engagement
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe wouldn’t exist without the support of Edinburgh and its residents, which is why the Fringe Society works hard to make sure that local communities can connect with the festival, particularly those that might normally face barriers to taking part.
These same groups were severely impacted by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, so we worked hard to adapt and continue our activities with them in 2020. We reached out to group leaders and community ambassadors to better understand how we could help; following these discussions, we trialled in-person events and digital activities, and looked at what resources we could supply to community group members.
We partnered with the Edinburgh Art Festival to send out 456 art packs to more than a dozen of our Fringe Days Out community partners. We also piloted a series of digital Fringe in Communities workshops in West Edinburgh, where young people worked with a Fringe artist to create a digital cabaret extravaganza. We’re currently in the process of helping even more Fringe artists connect digitally with Edinburgh communities beyond August, ensuring the positive effects of the festival are still felt, even in its absence, and that our work in this area continues to grow.
Working with our partners, North Edinburgh Arts, we were able to pilot a socially distanced performance. Six families and four staff members enjoyed a short magic show, with one staff member remarking, "This was just what we all needed". The show was a welcome reminder of the important role the arts (and the Fringe) can play in providing both respite and a medium for imagination.
Our commitment to working with education partners has remained important throughout 2020. While artists are unable to visit schools to provide face-to-face activity, we have pivoted our offer to encourage digital interaction for teachers and learners. We adapted AJ Bell Fringe Pick n Mix – a streaming platform capturing the Fringe in miniature – for schools to get involved, and in October 2020 we began our Fringe in Schools digital pilot, partnering four schools with Fringe artists to create online classroom Fringe experiences.
In September, we collaborated with the Creative Bravery Festival, a new event that celebrates creativity as a tool to revolutionise the ways we educate. Our team delivered a session on how the Fringe experience can support young people's emotional resilience, and encouraged questions around the future Fringe environment as a playground for learning, experimentation and discovery for young audiences.
There is no Fringe without Edinburgh, and our community and education work is focused on keeping the Fringe ethos alive for future generations, nurturing the creators of tomorrow and maintaining that vital interchange between artists, communities and audiences to encourage new stories from all aspects of life.
The PLACE funding programme, which is a partnership between the Scottish Government (through Creative Scotland), the City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh festivals, contributes significantly to our community and education engagement work.
A piece of Fringe history
This year, for the first time in the Fringe’s seven-decade history, the Fringe Society made the difficult but unavoidable decision to not publish a Fringe programme.
By the time we made our announcement in April, we’d already developed our theme for the 2020 campaign and programme cover image. Working with pop culture illustrator and visual artist Butcher Billy, our plan was to shine a spotlight on the heroes of the Fringe, from the amazing variety of artists on stage to the backstage crew who hold it all together. Little did we know how prescient the theme of heroes would be in 2020.
We felt that the heroes of the Fringe deserved to be celebrated in 2020 – we'll need their creativity and spirit more than ever as the world recovers. We immortalised our programme cover stars on a range of limited-edition Fringe merchandise including t-shirts, hoodies, posters, prints and even a Fringe jigsaw. We also published Fringe Uncovered, an art book of Fringe programme covers from throughout the festival’s history.
The public response to our merchandise range was phenomenal – hardback copies of Fringe Uncovered sold out within hours of their announcement, and favourites like the Fringe jigsaw went out of stock almost as fast as we could replenish them. Funds generated through merchandise sales provide vital support for our charitable activities in helping Fringe artists, so we’re incredibly appreciative of the generosity shown by our Fringe family.
Thank you to everyone who helped make the 2020 Fringe happen and to all those who embraced it.
Looking ahead to 2021, the only thing anyone can say for sure is that the Fringe won’t be the same as we’ve known it. And while it’s natural to feel some trepidation about the uncertainties that lie ahead, we also feel inspired and invigorated to meet them head on, motivated by the same spark of defiance that ignited the Fringe spirit more than seven decades ago. This festival has never existed as a stagnant entity; rather it has evolved in line with the needs of all those who embrace it.
As we develop our plans for the next Fringe, we’ll do so with the health and safety of our participants and audiences at the forefront of our minds. Any direction we take will be informed through continued conversation with all our stakeholders: from artists, venues and audiences to Scottish and UK governments and public health officials. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be asking people – citizens, artists, communities – to help shape what the future of the Fringe looks like. Whether you have been part of it every year or you're considering your first visit, we’d love to hear what the Fringe means to you and what you would like it to be. We need your help to ensure that the Fringe remains a platform for the arts to develop and thrive.
Whatever the future holds, we know from lifelong experience that artists and performers will be vital in helping the world make sense of it. The Fringe spirit will remain to inspire, energise and motivate; we will continue to support artists to tell their story, and support audiences to hear it.
To find out how you can support the Fringe Society, please visit edfringe.com or contact us on +44 (0)131 226 0036.
Photographers: Duncan McGlynn, David Monteith-Hodge
Illustrator: Butcher Billy
Thanks to: Dr Love (Todd Various) at North Edinburgh Arts, Reuben Kaye, Bernie Dieter, Le Gateau Chocolat, Sacred Paws, Lost Voice Guy, Courtney Act, Magical Bones, Valentina's Galaxy.