This August saw the return of Edinburgh’s famous, long-running Fringe festival. Over the years, since its inception decades ago, the world renowned event has become a hellscape for working-class artists aiming to ‘make their break’.
Emerging in 1947 alongside the city’s International Festival, which focuses on ‘high art’ such as opera, the pioneers of the Fringe took aim at the blatant elitism in the arts.
With theatre companies barred from the official event, they instead set up shop in the nearby vicinity, occupying a range of alternative venues.
Against the backdrop of the postwar boom, the Fringe played host to a sprawl of emerging working-class talent. Comedians would soon hold up a mirror to the greed, corruption, and ineptitude of the ruling class in their searing sets.
From its showings of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to The Anatomist, a story about Edinburgh criminals: ordinary people were inspired to create and engage with culture through the festival.
The Fringe has since reached dizzying heights, growing to become the world’s biggest arts festival. In 2019, it reached its peak – hosting 60,000 performances, over 300 venues, spanning 25 days.
But this has come at a heavy cost. Participation at the festival is increasingly sealed off from the working class. The time, money, and resources needed to plan and prepare a performance have become a ‘luxury’ that most cannot afford.
Empty shows, empty wallets
Before the pandemic, a survey found that performers would lose just shy of £1,000 over the month-long festival.
Pressure has been mounting for years, leading to intensifying calls for the event’s organisers to take steps to ensure that the Fringe does not become too fringe – with artists and locals priced out of enjoying the city’s annual celebration of culture.
Last year, for example, an open letter was signed by 1,600 artists and agents to the Fringe Society, lambasting their failure to keep down accommodation costs.
But the situation has gone from bad to worse. With the skyrocketing cost-of-living crisis, this year’s festival has brought into sharp relief the constraints on working-class talent and its ability to flourish.
Performers face an uphill battle to afford rent, travel, and food. Show producers have therefore become a lifeline for poorer artists hoping to attend at all. Underbelly Theatre, for example, saw over 5,000 applicants for their support at the festival.
On the audience’s side, many people have been put off from attending the event. Thanks to privatised rail, travel costs are extortionate. And finding accommodation in Edinburgh during festival season is a challenge, to say the least.
The result has been empty shows, empty wallets, and the crushing of many young artists’ dreams.
Artists are literally spending their life savings, only to be met with venues offering box office revenue splits that take advantage of performers and the desperate situation they find themselves in.
Who you know
From personal experience, I have found that these trends have become widespread in the arts and culture sector.
Like thousands of others, my theatre company poured hours into perfecting our show. We were also expected to put in additional work on publicity, in order to increase sales and break even. This left us drained before we could even begin. But it was preferable to big producers squeezing us for every penny.
Many artists are forced into the GoFundMe gimmick, with financial pressure weighing down on their minds. All of this is seen as a ‘necessary evil’ in order to find a backer.
In the past, there was the potential of being scouted at the Fringe, giving the festival paramount importance. But as one producer explained to the Financial Times: “Arts funding has taken a significant cut post-pandemic, so producers and programmers literally don’t have the money to go to Edinburgh to look at new work.”
The arts have clearly become an exclusive jaunt for the rich. It’s increasingly a question of who you know, or faking it until you make it.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides a prime example of this. Coming from a wealthy family, the screenwriter and actor had no trouble funding all her theatrical runs at the Fringe.
Today, many other aspiring performers are searching for their own ‘Fleabag’ success story. But the opportunities offered to Waller-Bridge and the like are reserved for a minority of a minority.
For those without wealth behind them, the message is clear: don’t quit your day job.
New peaks will rise
There is a deep crisis in culture under capitalism. Funding for arts has been subject to swinging cuts. The potential for creative expression amongst ordinary people is being criminally squandered from an early age.
Cultural institutions are first on the chopping block as capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis. Festivals like VAULT are closing down. Prices for venues to practise and perform in are soaring. Artists – exhausted and drained – are increasingly turning their backs on the industry and its exploitation.
Fringe festivals used to be seen as avenues for daring and radical art, giving the impression of a level playing field in the sector. But these illusions have turned to dust.
In a society where art is the monopoly of a few, genuinely radical art will struggle to blossom. In the words of Leon Trotsky, the decline of capitalist society calls forth “an ever more burning need for liberating art”.
The profit-driven system continues to rob us of the ability to genuinely engage with the arts. The barriers in the way of people both enjoying and contributing to culture are one and the same: time and money.
We must put the key levers of the arts and culture industry into the hands of the working class; expropriate the big theatre and production companies; and take the wealth of the bankers, billionaires, and profiteers, and use this to fund the needs of artists and the community.
Only by hastening capitalism’s denouement will we see the arts thrive to new heights. Under socialism, as Trotksy wrote:
“Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”