The producers of the Edinburgh festival fringe are hoping for a “joyous, beautiful experience” after unveiling the schedule for a far smaller season of theatre, dance, comedy and music.
Tickets for this year’s fringe went on sale on Thursday morning with producers favouring outdoor venues such as beaches, city squares, courtyards and pedestrianised streets, as they adapt to Scotland’s stricter Covid lockdown rules.
Street performers will return to the Royal Mile in August, but without the bustling chaos of previous years. Instead, audiences will be invited into open-air auditoriums with entrance and exit points, and fixed audience numbers.
Shona McCarthy, the festival’s chief executive, said that after last year’s event was entirely cancelled, there was a “frisson” and a “muted, celebratory” tone among organisers and production companies that live arts were taking place.
This year’s festival, historically the world’s largest, would be much smaller and more intimate. Many events would be online, with tickets sold for live-streamed performances and on-demand films on the festival’s fringe player platform.
“I don’t think we’ll see hordes of people coming across the border. I don’t think we’ll see hordes of people coming from abroad. This will be much more for local audiences, having things on a smaller, more managed scale. It will be a joyous, beautiful fringe experience,” McCarthy said.
“Even if it’s such a scaled-back one, we’re going to be able to see some live performances – cabaret, comedy and circuses; some will be outdoors and some indoors. Some of it will be digital, but it’s the first time in such a long time.”
The shows will include a Traverse theatre production, Move, on Silverknowes beach on the Firth of Forth; a participatory comedy, Community Circle, and live music by acts such as Stanley Odd in the courtyard of Summerhall on Edinburgh’s southside; Treasure Island at Musselburgh racecourse; live standup at the Corn Exchange and Myra’s Story, an Assembly production in George Square gardens.
McCarthy and fringe production companies had been highly critical last month of the strict physical-distancing rules imposed by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, which led some to fear this year’s event could not take place.
But Sturgeon recently announced the 2-metre distancing rule should be replaced by 1-metre distancing on 19 July, with the goal of entirely lifting distancing rules on 9 August. That has allowed venues to put shows on indoors, with the Scottish government providing emergency funding to help with costs.
McCarthy said, however, that the recent upsurge in Covid infections in Scotland fuelled by young football fans watching matches in the Euro 2020 tournament was a warning those plans may change.
Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance, one of the fringe’s “big four” venues, said it was staging a tenth of the normal fringe season. Many performances would be one-offs, adding to a sense of spontaneity. And new shows were still being added to the schedule.
He said: “It could be an exciting festival. It’s happening at breakneck speed because we’ve only just had the nod. It will be much smaller, but could be extremely interesting.”
Bill Burdett-Coutts, founder of the Assembly, agreed. “I’m delighted that we’re doing something,” he said. “It’s better to keep the flag flying and look forward to next year. It’s disappointing Scotland hasn’t opened up at the same level as England, but we’re going to make the best of it.”