The Edinburgh fringe festival is attempting to quell a rebellion by hundreds of comedians and producers who accuse organisers of mismanaging this year’s event.
More than 1,600 people, including comedians such as Joe Lycett and Jo Caulfield and some of the UK’s most senior theatre producers and agents, signed an open letter criticising the fringe for scrapping its ticketing app, a lack of transparency, and failing to help with soaring accommodation costs and cuts in train services.
The unprecedented revolt overshadowed the launch on Wednesday of the programme for this year’s festival.
The fringe celebrates its 75th anniversary in August after being largely shut down by the Covid crisis, and will feature stars such as Sir Ian McKellen, Stewart Lee, Nina Conti and Nish Kumar.
Pax Lowey, the chair of the Live Comedy Association (LCA), which coordinated the letter, said performers felt the fringe had mis-sold this year’s event. The organisers only revealed there would be no app and no half-price ticketing huts a few days ago, Lowey said, despite producers being charged the full £300 registration fee.
“Until this week, the messaging was this year would be [back to] a big normal fringe, and then all of a sudden we learn of the lack of an app and the half-price huts,” Lowey said. “It really does feel like it will be a 50% year.”
Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Fringe Society, said she was frustrated the LCA had not talked to her first before publicising its concerns. Lowey said the LCA was now arranging a conference call with McCarthy.
McCarthy said: “Normally, you would expect people to talk to you first, to reach out and to kind of ask the questions before going into that sort of nuclear mode. [Our] modus operandi is to collaborate, be collective, collegiate with people, to get the best results.”
She defended the fringe’s planning, saying it had been trying to manage an unprecedented industry-wide crisis, which had left the event destitute and understaffed, and that she had to make difficult decisions on what to prioritise.
Despite the impacts of Covid, Brexit and the financial crisis triggered by the Ukrainian war, this year’s programme would deliver nearly 3,200 shows, 80% of the productions staged in 2019, McCarthy added.
She said fringe-goers needed to enjoy “the sheer wow of this extraordinary festival” on its 75th birthday: “I genuinely think it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that it’s here, that we’ve got to this point, and it should be a day of celebration.”
The app, McCarthy said, was used by about 7% of those attending the fringe and that it needed a total overhaul the festival could not yet afford, while the £300 registration fee had not been increased for 15 years.
The fringe had never been responsible for organising performers’ accommodation or running trains, but after hearing of their complaints had arranged for the University of Edinburgh and student halls’ owners to set aside 1,200 rooms capped at £250 a week for festival professionals.
McCarthy said the fringe was constantly lobbying Scottish government ministers and ScotRail to improve train services to Glasgow, where many performers stayed during the festival as rent was much lower there than in Edinburgh.
Lyndsey Jackson, her deputy, said the best solution to the crisis was to produce a successful festival: “I think some of this is just exposed because we’ve had two years of no fringe. I’m quite hopeful that the fringe will be quite cathartic and healing, that we sort of need. We haven’t had any celebration or joy.”