Edinburgh Festival Fringe chiefs rule out full scale return until 2022

Organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have admitted it is unlikely to return any kind of normality until 2022 - amid fears that audiences are unwilling to pay to watch shows online and are suffering from "digital fatigue."

Picture: David Monteith-Hodge / Photograp
Picture: David Monteith-Hodge / Photograp

The Fringe Society has revealed it does not expect a full-blown festival to transform the city until it is due to celebrate its 75th anniversary year due to the prospect of social distancing rules being enforced for any indoor live events which are allowed next summer.

It has suggested that many venues will not be able to reopen next year if two-metre social distancing restrictions are in place for indoor events and predicted the most likely format for the 2021 Fringe will involve the staging of both live and digital events.

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Festivals Edinburgh, which oversees the capital’s cultural events, has warned it may have to "live with" staging hybrid festivals which rely heavily on digital content, as well as pivot marketing towards younger audiences, and encourage greater events throughout the calendar and across the city.

The normally-busy Royal Mile was all but deserted during Edinburgh's peak tourism season this summer. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The impact of the pandemic on Edinburgh’s festivals and their future planning was explored during an international events conference hosted online this week by Edinburgh Napier University.

Oliver Davies, head of marketing and development at the Fringe Society, said: "The difference between two metre and one metre social distancing made the difference for some venues between breaking even or making a small profit, and having absolutely nobody in the space at all. How you plan that becomes quite a challenge.

"Looking to the future, the honest answer at this stage is ‘who knows?’ I don’t think any of us have a crystal ball for where this is going to go.

"The reality is, speaking horribly practically, that a lot of the spaces that are most iconic within the Fringe, are the least ventilated, most difficult to get in and out of, and would be most difficult to manage queues with social distancing. It is going to require a complete rethink.

“We are currently planning for all options for 2021. Effectively these are a physical physical - albeit on a reduced skill - with social distancing measures in place, a mixed model, which is probably the most likely at this stage, and a digital-only festival, much like we had this year, with the very big exception that we will have a full ten to 12 month run-in time.

"We will always be keeping one eye on 2022, the 75th anniversary of the Fringe. That is an opportunity, hopefully, when a vaccine is in place and things are returning to a degree of normality, to be able to animate Edinburgh’s streets.

“I really want to draw attention to audience fatigue in digital channels. I think we have all felt a kind of Zoom-fatigue. Our audiences are getting frustrated.

"There is also a real challenge around online content. People are inclined not to pay for it.”

Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour said: “Live events do need rethinking. We need to reimagine what these events could look like. We need to support artists and technicians to be able to do that experimentation.

"We need to find ways to make sure that audiences can value work, whether that is through ticket donations or subscriptions, we need to look at all of that."

Ms Amour added: "Digital is not the whole answer. For many people it is an integral part of the future. But it is already clear it is not sustainable in the long term as a replacement, especially for festivals whose very essence is based on the interaction that happens on the fringes of an event or outwith the event itself.”

“The host community is absolutely crucial. We need to reconnect in a fundamental way with audiences and creatives in Edinburgh and across Scotland.

"We may be looking at the festive season to be spread further, may need to refocus live audiences on younger generations, because older generations will not necessarily feel comfortable coming into crowd, and the yo-yo nature of planning and opening and closures is going to mean that people will have shorter planning lead times and will hedge their bets. That’s obviously going to have an effect on artists and audiences.

“We will probably have to live with a hybrid offer for the foreseeable future, where a digital officer sits alongside any possible real world programme, certainly for 2021.”

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