Fringes: Assemble

Fest talks to Shona McCarthy and Heather Croall, the directors of the two biggest arts festivals in the world – from Edinburgh and Adelaide respectively

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Shona McCarthy and Heather Croall
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Published 20 Aug 2019

In some respects, the Fringe is similar to an all-you-can-eat world buffet. Performers and locals yearn for it when it seems a distant proposition and dive headlong into the festival as soon as the opportunity arises – but such frenzied participation can produce a kind of sickness and resentment.

Only a few days into this year's Fringe, weary performers could be found deriding the festival from the stage, while a caustic YouTube video from Bonnie Prince Bob titled "There's No Edinburgh in the Festival" made a viral impact among locals.

Clearly, the Fringe is an invaluable, necessary institution, but the toll it can take on the finances and mental health of participants at all levels has been increasingly a focal point over the past years. One of the most exciting aspects of this year's event has been the Fringe Society's focus on providing effective care for the performers here on their loss-making, quixotic journeys.

Festival Director Shona McCarthy—joined here by Heather Croall, her equivalent at the Adelaide Fringe—explains. “Every year, we do over 100 professional development and support workshops for artists and performers in the city, and we work with 57 different partners to do those. This year we've got a particular set of support around mental health and wellbeing. We've got a sanctuary, a respite room, counselling support, massage facilities. 

"It's about love and care for the artists who're here. A lot of the work's self-revelatory. It's people spilling out their life stories in a small space and doing it every night over three weeks.”

Both McCarthy and Croall are animated advocates of the artists that grace their respective festivals. The breadth and diversity of new work being brought to their cities clearly excites them, and neither is above a visit to the bowels of a dank, poorly ventilated basement venue. Both, too, are as engaging as can be expected of professionals whose jobs call for them to follow strict lines of communication, though neither seems keen to discuss the issues increasingly regarded as blighting the festivals. When we touch upon the relentless growth of the Edinburgh Fringe and the detrimental effects it might have on the city's year round ecosystem, Shona's patience is clearly tested.

“We get asked this every year,” she groans. “It's been asked since the 1950s and it's my biggest eyeroll emoji question because we've got no growth agenda. But once you say something is open access... If you really took apart the Edinburgh Fringe, a lot of the growth has been companies and organisations in the city themselves going: 'This happens in my city, how do I take part in it, how do I become a show?' The growth isn't necessarily coming in to the city. The fact is that Edinburgh itself has decided to own it even more and I think that's actually quite an untold story.”

Croall shares McCarthy's enthusiasm for engaging the host city in its Fringe, and is keen to emphasise the buy-in from residents of Adelaide as well as the outreach work her team undertakes both in establishing interest within the suburbs and in matching artists with effective, sympathetic performance spaces.

“We have people registering their bike shop, their laundromat, everything. Old, vintage art deco bathrooms at a cinema [were registered] one time, and they got a show in their bathroom. We're trying to make it easier and easier for artists to find what they're looking for.”

All the same, Croall hits on a troubling aspect of the two festivals' open access policy. “It's like, how many more users can register on Facebook? How many more houses can go on Airbnb?” In comparing her Fringe's apparently infinite capacity for performer and venue registration to that of Airbnb—a platform increasingly criticised for driving up year-round rental costs in major cities—she inadvertantly raises questions as to when a democratic, even playing field gives way to the ills of unregulated neo-liberalism.

Both women are keen to stress the beauty of the Fringes' uncurated open access programming, but skirt around the ugliness that can go hand in hand with it. To their credit, neither plays an active role in soliciting performers, and both even try and deter those on the path to failure. “The first thing we always say to them,” says McCarthy, “is 'know what you want – why are you coming to Edinburgh?' As often as not, we'll tell people 'you're not clear, you're not ready, don't come here, because you are taking a personal risk to come here. There's nobody funding you, there's no grants for this'.” If performers who can afford to take great financial risk are favoured by this model, then this is just the nature of the beast.

As venue and accommodation costs soar, the directors are also striving to lessen the pressure on performers in whatever ways they can, though are most positive when contemplating the strides they're making in reaching audiences.

“It's developing a conversation about how do we use this resource that we have here to benefit [neglected] communities year round, to help them explore their own creativity and possibilities. In the last year, we've been taking the Fringe out to them,” McCarthy notes with palpable enthusiasm. “Out of that we've had groups perform at the Fringe themselves. It's that sort of thing that's really happening through this programme now, and I think it's one of the most exciting things that we've seen over the past few years.”

Concludes Croall: “We're all working really hard on improving accessibility across the board and on inclusivity. We really want the Fringe to continue to be for everybody. That's the thing that we all want. Wherever we can identify audiences that we feel haven't been able to find their way into the Fringe, we're trying to help them navigate their way in, similarly with artists as well.”