At the time of writing, it’s been a month since the end of the Edinburgh festival season, that strange set of three and a bit weeks in August that feel like both the centre and the edge of the world. 2017 was the first time in some time that I had attended for more than a week, and as a British Council Showcase year (happening alternately), it was perhaps even more heightened in its intensity than usual. Arriving on the first day of the fringe and staying beyond its last as lead writer for The Sick of the Fringe and editor of the diagnoses, I enjoyed the brilliance of the largest arts festival in the world as well as witnessing its problems, blind spots and several of the issues that participation invariably raises.
With many of the other writers I spoke to at the festival, whether mainstream newspaper reviewers, those writing around a particular form or focus, or independent bloggers, the timetable contest was a perennial conversation and obsession. With 3,398 shows in the programme (not including parallel events) the quantity of shows seen in a single day was continually used in conversation as a proxy for the intensity of your festival experience, even though we’re aware it says nothing about the quality of your reflection. I often found myself wondering whose experience at Edinburgh is the most ‘authentic’, someone who might see two or three shows in a day and then go for dinner, or professionals running from one performance to another, forgetting them as they go? And of course, the demands asked of artists are often even more extreme. A relentless duplication of their show over a month, with previews bleeding seamlessly into the run and audience sizes fluctuating mercilessly throughout.
The focus of reflection is often on those at either ends of a spectrum of festival success – those who do very well, breaking through and selling out, and those who don’t, the crushingly reviewed and the empty-seated. But it is perhaps also worth remembering that most companies and artists have an experience pitched somewhere in the middle: selling some tickets with three stars on a poster. Money is lost, energy depleted and with probably no clear answer to whether it’s all been worth it. For artists, I’m not sure if it makes more sense to view Edinburgh as a festival or a trade show - like an investment that might come good, or an experience to enjoy. Both characterisations make sense, and whilst I would always prefer to imagine it as an expansive carnival of art and performance, the fringe can sometimes feel more like a cynical Darwinian ecology of advertising, reviews and sponsorship.
These issues are perhaps internal ones that apply largely to those making at and participating in the fringe. And it’s easy to lose sight, during the weeks there, that the rest of the world is happening outside. For me this year the bubble of Edinburgh, that fugue state of seeing work, waiting for shows, snatching food on the run and almost hysterical drinking, was made even more incongruous by the horrors unfolding outside it. On Twitter feeds and Facebook walls threats and prejudice jostled uncomfortably alongside a parade of reviews and recommendations. Charlottesville, Trump, North Korea and Brexit all intruded, pressing in on conversations in queues and the Summerhall courtyard. In 2017, the politics of the fringe itself were thrown into stark relief amid these horrors, and what might have otherwise been internal debates within the artistic communities represented there were accompanied by new urgencies and anxieties of significance and relevance.
Debates around race and gender were key in both the coverage coming out of the festival and in conversations happening amongst its participants, for example. Incredible work by artists of colour, and women of colour in particular, attracted significant and warranted attention, including Selina Thompson’s salt. (one of the most highly regarded shows of the festival), Rachael Young’s Out, Pauline Mayers' What If I Told You and Julene Robinson’s The Black That I Am. But despite their successes, many of these artists reflected on their success in relation to the whiteness of the fringe and its audiences, and the strange dissonances that occur as a result of this. Thompson writes persuasively about her experience of these issues here, with many also emerging in TSOTF’s Live Conversation broadcast with Robinson and Mayers.
Perhaps similarly, the ‘high’ number of shows engaging with experiences of trans identity was highlighted in much of the media coverage. It is of course a positive step to see powerful and necessary shows like Eve, You’ve Changed and Testosterone attract attention. But the small number of these shows, and any suggestion that there are ‘enough’ or even ‘lots’ of diverse stories at the fringe should be undone by the literally hundreds of shows that are nowhere near as progressive, open or questioning. Realistically, like every other year, this fringe was not the year of the black female performer or of trans testimony, but the year of the white male comedian, as always. There is much more work to be done by organisations, venues and critical organs (newspapers, blogs, etc) to include and engage with people and audiences who might be left outside the Edinburgh bubble, particularly people of colour, those with different gender identities or class backgrounds, those with access requirement and local artists and audiences. When the rest of the world is so terrifying, we as artists, writers, audiences and fans should still continue to question and shape the development of institutions and traditions.
I hope that The Sick of the Fringe and its various activities contributed this year to the consideration of these issues. Our diagnoses brought new and interesting perspectives to bear on artwork that engaged with questions of medicine, mental health, personal experience and identity. Our team ranged from artists to research scientists, science journalists to arts writers, applying their unique skills and knowledge to produce reflection that engaged with the ideas behind a piece as much as its execution. Public events brought artists together, offered producers a space to share expertise, and showcased the conversations happening over the city throughout the month. Building on two previous successful years of activity, and for the first time an expansion of the diagnosis model to other festivals (Normal? and Manchester International Festival), TSOTF has developed and continued to engage with the nuances, contradictions and most urgent aspects of the fringe and those who attend it. Whilst the thoughts and questions I raise here are ones that have stayed with me since getting back home, they also make me want to return. Here’s to next year.
Be sure to read the other prognoses from Edinburgh 2017 here.