Thriving and surviving at the Fringe Festival

Marketplace Contributor Sep 1, 2014

Thriving and surviving at the Fringe Festival

Marketplace Contributor Sep 1, 2014

Take a city with half a million people and double its population overnight. It happens each August in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“The Festival City” is currently hosting the biggest arts festival in the world. It’s such a phenomenon it’s spawned copycats, including one in Hollywood.

Spectators stand shoulder to shoulder along the Royal Mile as it snakes its way down from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Street performers from all corners of the world vie for just a bit of your attention.

“It’s 3,000 different shows, all of which run pretty much every day for 25 days. If you went to see every show, it’d take you three months,” says Neil MacKinnon, the Fringe Society’s head of external affairs.

And that’s assuming you don’t take time to eat or sleep. According to MacKinnon, it just keeps growing.

“This year we are 10 percent bigger than we were last year,” he says.

Edinburgh is packed in August. Buses take twice as long. Temporary help wanted signs hang in store windows, and once comfortable pubs don’t even offer room to stand. T-shirt screen printer Norm Richardson tells me he’s been buried with orders.

“August is a nightmare, to be honest,” says Richardson. “As early as you can get in till as late as you can be bothered working. Days and days stretching into the future, like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where there’s just boxes going off into infinity.”

The festival supplies 15–20 percent of his yearly volume. Kat Brogan of Mercat Tours says it’s hard to keep a tour group’s attention with so many other things going on.

“We get clever. So we nip down wee streets and closes and alleyways to make sure that the guides can be seen and heard,” Brogan says.

Some hotels have been completely booked since January, “and their prices go up exponentially as well,” MacKinnon says.

Neil MacKinnon from the Fringe Society says accommodations are hard to come by, but the people who live here have found ways to cash in on the problem.

“There is a long tradition of thousands of Edinburgh residents vacating the city for the month of August,” he says. “They rent out their flats, which are occupied for the month.”

Some apartments require tenants to move out for the month of August. Fringe University’s Andrew Jones says some students he helps place are charged three months rent for their one month stay.

“Edinburgh in August brings out the Adam Smith in everyone,” says Jones. He means Adam Smith, the “Father of Capitalism,” who might be proud of his hometown today.

One group that’s left out of the windfall? The artists who perform. Jones recalls a conversation he had with a theater company at the festival.

“We’ve got a budget of $120,000, and we plan to make about $20,000 back on the box office,” Jones says.

While businesses profit from the festival, Neil MacKinnon says theater companies generally don’t.

“Most companies will either break even or not make a profit,” MacKinnon says. “They are here because it’s an investment in their career.”

A long-term investment that might never pay off. Screen printer Norm Richardson is skeptical about the likelihood of being discovered.

“It’s just a bit harder now to get people to kind of notice you,” says Richardson, “cause everyone’s fire-eating and juggling on a unicycle, so how do you choose which unicycling fire eater to go and see when there’s so many?”

Undaunted, the festival continues to grow, as each year more artists come to chase their dream here in the Scottish Capital.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled  Neil MacKinnon’s name. The text has been corrected.

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