Fringe spotlight is a series of articles where you can find out more about the people we work with and the charitable activities we support. We'll be publishing more of these over the coming months to give you a deeper insight into our work and theirs.
The Fringe Society is the registered charity that was founded by artists to act as custodian of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In addition to providing services such as the Fringe box office and programme, we work with individuals and organisations in Edinburgh to make the Fringe as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
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Fringe spotlight: Lizzie Ashworth, The Welcoming
My name is Lizzie and I coordinate the Group Befriending activities at The Welcoming, a charity based in Gorgie in Edinburgh that aims to help newcomers settle in the city by offering friendship, community and diverse learning experiences. We work with asylum seekers, refugees and individuals from a diverse range of countries and ethnic backgrounds around the world.
I’ve attended the Fringe for many years with friends and family. I hadn’t come across the Fringe Days Out programme – making the Fringe more accessible to minority ethnic communities and other isolated individuals – until I started working at The Welcoming. I really value and credit the Fringe for bringing arts and creative learning opportunities to all sectors of society, not just those who have previous experience or the money to afford it. Making the Fringe inclusive is absolutely wonderful.
My earliest and one of my favourite memories of the Fringe was attending a show by Nick Cope with my then four-year-old, to listen to great music for children. Nick Cope is so human and down to earth, and his children’s songs are inclusive and often very funny. We listened to them in the car and in bed for years after!
I love how the Fringe offers really diverse and whacky arts experiences. Bringing culturally diverse performances to the Fringe makes it feel both exciting and like there’s a place for all people, from all cultures.
The Fringe Society approached The Welcoming in 2019 to both offer Fringe tickets, but also to ask myself, volunteers and participants to take part in a short film about Fringe Days Out, to share the word about inclusive Fringe performances for communities in Edinburgh. A Syrian participant and her befriender and I took part in the filming. The Society staff and the filming crew were absolutely wonderful. It was relaxed and supportive and most of all fun.
Working with the Fringe Society is a privilege; the staff are friendly and approachable and professional. We recently were offered a terrific online dance and movement class in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Julia James-Griffiths. It was inspiring and thought-provoking. I really value our collaborative work.
The Fringe Society allows participants at The Welcoming to feel like valued and equal members of Edinburgh. The free tickets for Fringe shows allow those who couldn’t ordinarily afford them to see exciting shows. In 2019, attending some Fringe dance and music performances with large groups of female participants was a real buzz. I look forward to that again in the future a great deal.
Fringe spotlight: Dan O’Donnell, Redhall School
My name is Dan O’Donnell and I am a class teacher at Redhall School, teaching Primary 3 – Primary 7 composite classes since the school opened 12 years ago. Redhall is a primary school for children with complex long-term additional support needs primarily associated with learning disabilities. Many of the schools’ pupils have an autistic spectrum condition.
I first came to Edinburgh to visit a friend in August 1994; when I arrived, the Fringe was in full swing and I was instantly taken by how full of life and creativity the city was. I fell in love with Edinburgh and, despite my firm attachment to and affection for my hometown of Manchester, I moved to the city the following autumn. Aside from a five-year stint in the States, I’ve lived in Edinburgh ever since and have looked forward to and enjoyed its festival season transformation every summer.
I recall being amazed by the sheer number and variety of shows it was possible to see any time of day or night and the atmosphere everywhere – in venues, pubs and on the streets – being good-natured and fun. I remember being especially thrilled by the street performers, there were comedians and musicians performing everywhere (it was much smaller and less regulated then). I also remember constantly being happily lost around Edinburgh and getting stuck on George IV Bridge trying to make it to a show in the Cowgate on time.
Once, years ago, I took a class from another special school to see the street performers in the High Street. A very witty singer noticed us and proceeded to teach my pupils the chorus to the Pink Floyd song, The Wall. They all joined in and were very pleased to learn that they didn’t need ANY education!
In 2020 the Fringe Society enabled my class to embark on a much-needed creative adventure during these strange Covid days. A very talented and patient artist held weekly video meetings with my class and, through his own demonstrations, encouraged them to develop their own circus and performance skills, particularly with balloons! It was a real highlight for my class and the pupils would look forward to each session with great anticipation every week.
It has been a pleasure to work with the Fringe Society. From the very beginning of the project, it has been a collaborative experience and I truly feel my suggestions, especially concerning the style of artist that would elicit the maximum amount of participation and engagement, were considered. This cooperative approach resulted in my class having a wonderful experience and was very much appreciated.
This is the second time I have worked with the Fringe Society. Doing so has allowed the young children I teach to access live performance in a safe and fun way and has resulted in all my pupils expressing a desire to visit the Fringe in years to come; this is especially remarkable as many would not have otherwise been able to be a part of it or, in some cases, even be aware of it. As a teacher, collaborating with the Fringe is a highly enjoyable and effective way for me to meet curricula targets while building up my pupils’ creativity, self-expression, self-confidence and resilience.
Fringe spotlight: Mike Penny, Lothian Autistic Society
Lothian Autistic Society is a local charity established by families with autistic children. Our aim is to give young people with autism access to the things everybody else can take for granted, to give them the confidence and opportunity to get out there and explore the world in a safe and comfortable way, so it’s not scary or difficult. I’m keen to see our families do the same things as other families, reducing some of the stresses and strains you feel as the parent of an autistic child.
I’ve been an Edinburgh resident for some time and have a daughter with autism, so I do understand the challenges that families with autistic children face attending the festivals – the busyness, the complete manic-ness of what goes on and how difficult it is for young people with autism to feel comfortable in that busy, busy setting. So we decided to try and find ways to take away some of the anxiety the families face.
A lot of what we do as an organisation is to help people overcome the anxieties associated with the new and unknown, such as the stress of getting into a show. But sometimes this gets turned on its head. Some years ago, a social worker colleague was working with a young man who really loved a particular show – there was a particular moment where the performer disappeared from sight and then came out of a hidden trap door into the middle of the audience, a big surprise. This young man really loved that moment. Some people with autism have an episodic memory, so things are fresh for them every time they see it, even though they’ve seen it before. The young man used to sit and wait for the point when the artist came out of the floor, and chose a seat next to the hidden exit. He was there every performance for a week and it began to make the performer quite anxious, probably slightly dreading seeing the young man in the audience. So, the anxiety was switched onto the performer, seeing this young man leap up in the air with joy every time he came out of the floor. Moments like that change the dynamic in how we look at autism in a particular setting and the impact they can have on others – I like that sense of switching things around.
It’s fabulous to see people enjoy themselves, this strong, uninhibited expression of joy and pleasure, it’s great for everyone to see and feel. Sometimes it can look a little unnerving or uncomfortable to others, but seeing people get that unfettered delight from new experiences is wonderful. It’s something you tend to forget about when you look at people with disabilities. So finding and facilitating ways that they can experience the same excitement that other people have and express themselves, it’s a wonderful thing to see.
Our links to the festivals initially came through Fringe Days Out, a community programme where tickets are made available for community organisations to attend Fringe festival events. In 2019 we ran a pilot programme for young school-age children with autism where we dedicated a week to getting them involved in the Fringe. We had artists come and visit young people during the school holidays at Easter and summer. During the Fringe they also got to see a number of different shows. Most had never seen anything like this previously.
The Fringe Society has also introduced its own initiative with ‘sensory backpacks’ (containing a fidget toy, earplugs, water bottle, stress reliever, ear defenders and a list of relaxed performances) to give the families some way of managing the ‘in-your-face’ stimulus that people experience.
I think the festivals bring an immense amount to Edinburgh, they bring a dynamic you don’t get in that many other places in the UK. It brings a liveliness to the streets, a different buzz to the city. I think as it’s grown the city has become proud of it. I’m not one of the residents who think it’s a nightmare time of the year. I used to work on the High Street and found that difficult, but other than that it brings a massive influx of a whole range of cultures and ideas and thoughts to the city – I think it’s a wonderful benefit. I’m excited to see it again next year.