Covid and inflation “putting Edinburgh Fringe in danger”

Leading producers and venues are this week warning of the increasing barriers international artists are facing at Edinburgh Fringe, with some reporting a significant decline in overseas work at the 2022 festival.

As well as a decline in work from countries where Covid restrictions are still in place, (including China) performers and producers have cited the increasing costs of rental and hotel accommodation in the city, especially for the less well remunerated Edinburgh Fringe performers.

Summerhall, a 500-seat venue in Edinburgh’s historic centre, is facing a 41% decrease in international work according to producer Joanna Dong. Dong said 80% of her company’s previous touring business, which includes taking shows from China to Edinburgh, had been terminated due to continuing issues around Covid and rising costs related to the festival itself. At Summerhall, there are 23 international shows out of 105 shows in total in 2022, making up 21% of the programme – a 41% decrease in the number of shows compared to 2019, when there were 39 shows out of 156 in total, making up 25% of the programme. 

Dong, who runs company Performance Infinity, said that 80% of her previous touring business had been terminated, both to Edinburgh and China, citing the impact of Covid, with international travel from China still “extremely difficult” due to the Chinese government’s zero-Covid policy.

Graham Main, Summerhall executive director, told trade journal The Stage that here had been a continual decrease in the proportion of international shows in the Summerhall programme since 2017 – when they made up 35% of the programme.

“Our international partners have come in and out of lockdowns at varying times from the UK, and it has been a difficult two years across the arts industries worldwide, which has naturally led to a reduction in those who are able to travel this year to perform, but when they want to return we will welcome them with open arms and support them,” he told the magazine.

Dong added: “There are more questions about the meaning of international tours, the cultural impact, legacy, the relationship with climate change and the political issues. They always existed though became more urgent after Covid. Inflation is strongly affecting the prices, especially accommodation and logistical costs etc. It may lift the barrier much higher to perform at the fringe,” adding that “we are discussing new methods or formats of touring through licensing, or touring digitally”.

Edinburgh venue group Assembly has seen an increase in the proportion of international shows making up its programme – comprising 40% in 2022 compared to 33% in 2019 –but artistic director William Burdett-Coutts warned there were some “notable exceptions” in this year’s programme due to the aftermath of Covid: “We will greatly miss the Korean season this year to name one, which previously has been a regular fixture in our programme.”

Venue operator Zoo said its 2022 programme contained 14 international shows, comprising around 25% of the programme – which the venue described as a “normal figure”. 

A spokesman said: “The stage is a place for different perspectives, ideas and forms of creativity to be shared, and the fringe must remain a place where people can come to experience them all. Our programme wouldn’t be what it is without our international artists, and neither would the fringe.”

The Fringe Society reports 739 international shows currently registered for the 2022 Fringe. This represents a drop of 7.5% on the total number of international shows registered by the end of the fringe in 2019, pre-pandemic.