Shona McCarthy: Our vision for a better Fringe and how we’re going to get there
22 March 2022
This piece was originally published in The Stage on Monday 21 March 2022.
Last August, we celebrated something that felt almost impossible. In the face of restrictions and challenges, and after two years of cancellations and loss, the magic of the Fringe returned to Edinburgh. It was incredible to see live performance return and to watch our sector make its first steps towards recovery.
But amongst the relief, the emotion and the celebration, I made a serious commitment. I promised to do everything in the Fringe Society’s power to ensure that our continued recovery wouldn’t amount to business as usual. I want us all to rebuild something better, and so do the vast majority of creative people who make the Edinburgh Fringe happen every year.
In recent weeks, there has been a renewed discussion about fair work at the Fringe, best practice with volunteering, and what this means for our commitments. I want to be clear: there is absolutely no place at the Fringe for exploitation. Where any serious breaches of workers’ rights is reported, the Fringe Society will always investigate it fully. If illegal practices are found to be happening, we reserve the right to withdraw our services, specifically: inclusion in the programme, the website, promotional materials and ticketing through our box office. If any instance of bad practice occurs during the festival, we strongly urge workers to report this directly to us via our purpose-built system. We were founded to support everyone engaging with the Fringe, and we will do so any way we can.
One of our roles as the Fringe Society is to provide as much information to participants as possible to help them make an informed choice about where and how to invest their time and skills. The Fringe is a complex festival with a wide variety of operating models, and it’s important to distinguish the different systems in place. A significant number of venues use only paid staff, and these can include pop-ups and rented spaces, as well as permanent venues. Some spaces are not-for-profit and run exclusively by volunteers. Others are run by performers’ collectives with a profit-sharing model. Some use a mixture of paid staff and volunteers, with the understanding that the model’s viability is not dependent on volunteering (ie it’s not mission-critical). Done right, both volunteer and staffed models have a part to play across the festival landscape. Similar programmes are embedded – and valued – in many of our sister festivals, as well as within countless cultural organisations across the country.
The important thing is that every opportunity is fair, rewarding and has value for those taking part.
We have clear guidelines on working conditions for employees and best practice for volunteers, developed in consultation with BECTU, Volunteer Edinburgh and EQUITY. We ask that Fringe companies and venues subscribe to these guidelines. Venues that are following the guidelines will be clearly indicated on our website and in the programme, to allow participants to make an informed choice as to where they bring their show or where they apply to work.
In order to have a fully representative picture of the experience of workers at the Fringe, we need a fair and trusted mechanism to gather that information. In 2017, we commissioned an independent survey of Fringe workers, with the aim of developing a more detailed picture of the working lives of the many individuals that make the festival happen each year. 497 people took part from 60 different organisations, representing the largest survey ever undertaken into working conditions at the Fringe. It was encouraging to hear that 90% of respondents would choose to work at the Fringe again, and that 83% were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall Fringe experience. Our work since then has been focused on improving on anything that impacted the experiences of the other 17%.
In 2022, we will recommission this survey, and we will repeat it every two years. We encourage everyone working and volunteering on the Fringe to share their open, honest views. We will never stop striving for better, and we will never stop rooting out bad practice.
But we will also hold up good practice when we see it. A recent survey showed that – of the venue respondents who use a paid staff model – 70% pay Real Living Wage and 20% pay Living Wage. Many of those that use volunteers are continually looking to enhance their offering: some have reduced volunteer shifts with more flexibility around length of commitment; another has created and published a set of Volunteer Values. Other positive initiatives include a late-night travel provision for staff working later hours and access to employee training and engagement programmes.
These are steps on a journey, but that journey is far from over. Because, as I stated again at the beginning, there’s a much bigger piece of work to do around making the Fringe the best version of itself. And there is a serious question at the heart of this: how can widespread meaningful change be supported at an open access festival?
In June, we will be publishing a new Blueprint, outlining core principles for Fringe makers to subscribe to. It will have clear goals and pledges against key areas, including accessibility, diversity and sustainability. We’ve been working on this values piece with venue managers and creative representatives from across the Fringe, who are as passionate about moving forward with positive change as we are.
It’s crucial to us that our new vision comes from a place of clear understanding and fact, and that we take on board the viewpoints of as broad a range of stakeholders as possible. For some months now, we’ve been gathering views from artists, producers, venue managers and more. An independent research company has also been speaking on our behalf to Edinburgh residents, community organisations and government agencies to help us really understand the heart of the issues facing the festival. This is the first time there has been such a widespread series of conversations, and we’re not shying away from any hard truths. It's exactly what's needed for us to create a real vision for our future, with shared ownership and responsibility.
I do, however, want to take this moment to ask for understanding as we work towards this. It has been an extraordinarily difficult two years. So many of those who create work and make the Fringe great have either lost their livelihoods or are carrying huge loans and debts. The Fringe is not publicly funded, and our artists, venues and companies have been hit extremely hard. Our timeline and goals will be reflective of the situation we’re all in, and we ask for your support and acknowledgement of that.
I want to thank everyone who has shared their views on the Fringe so far, or has raised any thoughts or concerns. Creating a shared set of values for an open access festival that involves this many stakeholders is a challenge – but the process has already been embraced by so many, and with excitement. I am hopeful we will have a route map towards a better future, and one that has the Fringe’s values at its heart: inclusion, open access and freedom of expression.