EDINBURGH Post-war pragmatics
This month more than four million visitors will descend on Edinburgh for its International Festival and its Fringe, but what does it mean to the venues beyond August? Simon Tait looks at two of them
The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was founded in 1947 in a post-war yearning to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”, and its Fringe began at the same time when eight theatre companies gatecrashed the official programme to put on their own event. Together they are now the largest arts festival in the world, and for many of those 69 years the two elements have been at war – in the 1990s there were fears that the Fringe would actually take over the official programme.
On one side were the great permanent theatres and concert halls of the city presenting music and drama of an international standard, on the other the scratch venues of church halls, disused warehouses and open spaces offering comedy, chaotic theatre and even circus.
That war is over, and the EIF and Fringe now work together, so that in 2015 for the first time the periods of both programmes were synchronised and together they welcomed 3.3m visitors to the >> city in August, a record.
The importance of the festival to Edinburgh and its cultural venues cannot be exaggerated. One of the great venues is the King’s Theatre, a 1,350-seat Edwardian palace once the property of the city council but now owned by Festival City Theatres (FCT) along with the former Empire, the Festival Theatre. Both are presenting houses with the King’s specialising in drama, the Festival in op- era and ballet, and both are leased by the EIF for the fes- tival and programmed by the EIF. The rental, says FCT’s chief executive Duncan Hendry, gives the King’s, which sells around 215,000 tickets a year, a vital guaranteed core income in a period of the year notoriously difficult for theatres. “It keeps us viable through the rest of the year” he says.
But what the festival programme also does is intro- duce the year-round audience to the kind of international work that it could not usually see. “The festival gives us the ability to bring major international work which in the normal run of the year we could not afford to do” Hendry says. “They (the EIF) can get the sponsorship and individual support that makes international work possible. It’s all good news for us. We have an Edin- burgh audience that has become sophisticated in its taste so that we can programme work that other cities would struggle with”.
The EIF and the Fringe remain independent bodies and run separate programmes each year. In more recent years various other annual cultural festivals have been created in Edinburgh, again by separate organisations, though taking place at around the same time.
The Pleasance is now one of the four major Fringe venues, alongside the Assembly Rooms, the Gilded Balloon and Underbelly. It was established 31 years ago and in its first year made £200. Now it has an an- nual turnover of almost £4m, a Fringe audience of over 400,000 and last year had 23 spaces and 250 shows.
But the chief beneficiary is Pleasance’s London venue, created in an Islington warehouse complex in 1995, which now has two major stages and three rehearsal spaces. The Edinburgh building is owned by Edinburgh University Students Association and leased by Pleasance for August. Fringe shows are worked up in the early weeks of the year in London to go north in August, and successful productions are brought back to London. “We are a festival organisation, it’s what we’re keyed up to do, and the two venues are completely symbiotic” says Anthony Alderson, Pleasance’s director. “The London establishment gets us from one festival to the next, so that the box is ticking over for the other 11 months of the year”.
But the pressure on venues has also eased because the internecine war between them has ceased, too. While they are fierce rivals for the product, by August they are in harmony with centralised tickets and venues selling tickets for each other’s shows. “It’s a real shift, it has sud- denly meant we could create enormous programmes and sell tickets right up to the last second because of the so- phistication of the technology” Alderson says.