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A quiet revolution: Edinburgh mourns the Fringe, but a brighter future beckons

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Alex MacPhail

The other day, I languidly strolled through the crooked streets of Edinburgh. Traversing up the steep slope of Victoria Street with relative ease; trudging through George Square, unbothered by smiling strangers. And then I clambered up Prince’s Street, finding myself strangely un-irritated. On any other day this would be a normal occurrence. But it was the 12th of August. An eerie experience indeed. Why? Well, of course, it was because this year, the infamous Edinburgh Fringe Festival is cancelled.

For the first time in mine and many others’ lives, the manic buzz of the fringe is amiss. It would be a gross understatement to say that the Fringe is missed, not just by us residents of Edinburgh, but by many across the world.

A beautifully grotesque array of culture and performance– all compressed within one month of unmatched chaos.

In 2019, the festival was at its peak. 5,000 shows, 25,000 unique artists, 20 different countries, all amounting to a revenue of around £142m. In 30 days.

And it’s not just the performers of the festival. Tourists come gushing in from the airport, filling the city to its brim. Restaurants, independent businesses, B&Bs, taxi drivers. They, and many more, feel the full effect of the festival.

Residents and tourists explore the city – travelling closely together, collecting flyers and posters, eating in, eating out, purchasing tickets, laughing, drinking, crying.

Performers pour their heart into their work, pumping out show after show, receiving standing ovations, going out, writing new work – all while planning for the year ahead.

For many, the festival is depended on as a way of life. It has been the jumpstart for many careers, particularly in comedy (think Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Fleabag, or Flight of the Conchords).

Creatives, comedians, performers, and playwrights depend on an opportunity such as this to showcase their work and express to the audience their core beliefs and passion.

That was a long reel of words, I know, but it is important to first understand the scale of the event, to then understand the effect of its absence upon Edinburgh.

Now we found ourselves at a loss. What do we do? Where do we go?

Eager to find out the reality of the festival’s impact (or lack thereof), I spoke to some of Edinburgh’s businesses

Stephen Preston, Deputy Head of Heritage and Culture of St. Giles Cathedral expressed his sadness at the loss of the festival. “It’s a real shame,” he says, “the difference is quite stark.” He particularly pointed out the environment change. Usually, he and his colleagues would go out after work and enjoy the festival. Even the usual quartet playing in the cathedral is absent. This In turn has affected the morale of him and his staff. The Fringe has been a strong force in his life for 10 years going and has a lot of sentimental value. However, Stephen expressed a certain determination. He and his community work together to support each other in these trying times. Positivity can be found even in the bleakest of times.

I then spoke to Mary Hillard, owner of Mary’s Milk Bar, an independent business. She too expressed disdain towards this month. Though these feelings have been brewing since the announcement of lockdown. After a break, she is back. And in full throttle. Her business has taken a blow this year, making a ¼ of her normal revenue. This, however, has not stopped her. She is taking the bull by its horns and rearing the bull in the opposite direction. She is taking this time to focus on her business. Pumping out new flavours of ice cream, refining her strategies, and even establishing a new chocolate line. She particularly pointed out the help of her local community – personally and professionally. I am happy to tell you that she uses her chocolate to support those around her. Which I find extremely uplifting: a simple gesture of kindness goes a long way, especially now.

Both businesses express the usual rigour of the month of august in Edinburgh. The Fringe’s cancellation is a much-needed break for these businesses. It gives a once in a lifetime chance to sit back, relax, and truly reflect on their craft. It is not a rare sight to see places buckle under the pressure of the fringe. Perhaps, then, this will give time for the Fringe to reform. To better suit the city it resides.

Simply walking around Edinburgh, you will feel as though you are in an alternate reality. Businesses boarded up; streets empty, workers standing idly, and tourists ambling lazily up the Royal Mile. Lamenting bagpipes wail in the distance.

But these businesses are not closed. There is hustle and bustle within. Businesses are lying dormant only because they are preparing for what is to come. They are quietly refining, rebuilding, and remodelling. Workers are supporting their business wherever possible. And tourists… well they’re tourists. Doing what they do best – walking around.

Edinburgh is busy. Just…not the way it was expected to be.

Those behind the curtains, however, have a different story. Performers and artists have been deprived of their environment. Scottish creators are almost at a loss. For many, their income is largely based around live performance. Therefore, being denied the Fringe is like being denied the act of breathing.

A community that is particularly affected by the cancellation of the Fringe is the Queer community.

Obviously, I cannot generalise. But it is important to shed light on aspects of the Festival that are not often discussed, or even advertised for that matter – apart from the lazy mentioning of semi-queer shows during festival season.

I emailed drag performer, artist, and all-round queer extraordinaire, Mystika Glamoor, on the matter.

“Covid restrictions shutting down bars, nightclubs, theatres, and general performance spaces has been a devastating blow to performers and queer people,” she says, “for many of us they [queer spaces] are both a workplace and a second home, a safe space to be ourselves.”

Mystika, who in 2019 ran her show “Glamoor: The Kweer Kabaret” during the Festival, now finds herself unable to perform. Unable to dazzle audiences with fiery purple flair. It’s one thing choosing not to perform, it is another being told you can’t perform. She, and many others inthe queer community, have felt the deep grief of the festival’s absence. Yet, not all is lost.

Queer performers and artists have taken to the online medium. On Youtube, Instagram and Twitter - drag queens are editing videos and broadcasting livestreams. Video performances that carry the same weight of care and passion. A wonderful sight to see indeed. Creativity presses on, even in dire circumstances.

"It’s not the same as being on stage and having people cheering for you, but it’s another way of doing things that is equally valid, creative, and powerful to see.”

For her personally, it has been hard. Like many, she has felt disillusioned with her creative self. The pandemic has both denied and encouraged artistic flow. Though online communication and performance is a great alternative, it cannot be a real substitute.

In light of this, Mystika has turned to local business.

“Although it felt great, it was also becoming ‘just’ a job,” she adds, “this is one of the reasons I’m starting to focus on a project like my queer café and art space, so I can have something to do that is more consistent, and keep drag as a form of artistic expression rather than a full time career”.

Oskar Kirk Hansen, with the help of their business partner, has, in the midst of a pandemic, established a new queer café; taking over management of the Greenwood Café. A café that is to act as a safe, sober space for queer people: of all ages. In September, the café shall open, and stay open every day of the month; selling queer art, queer products, and allowing queer creatives to showcase their work in a cosy exhibition space within the café.

I like to think that this, in a way, is acting as some sort of reconciliation gift for the loss of the Fringe. A space that at its core reflects the original motivations for the Fringe’s founding.

A positive force to be sure. A reflection of the true determination of the people of Edinburgh.

This time should be used to our advantage. Time to look at the bigger picture. And perhaps to ask, who are we? And who do we want to become?

The philosophy of the fringe has largely been fogged over by the effects of late-stage capitalism over time. A festival built on the foundation of amplifying the voices of art has somehow lost its way.

Not wholly, of course, but it was going that way.

It is our duty as a city to grasp hold of what is being lost. To reflect, to ponder, and to realise what it is we are here for.

Perhaps the Fringe will never return to what it was.

But we have been given an opportunity. A chance for reform. A chance to establish a new vision of the future. A chance to return to our heritage in an intimate showcase of the world. A truly global fringe in a truly global society.

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