The unsung heroes of Edinburgh International Festival

While industry spotlights shine on Nicola Benedetti in her first season as Festival Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, IAM goes backstage to meet her supporting cast

Kate Carter – Director of Audiences

Kate Carter

This is your second season, having joined last March from Scottish Ballet. Can you tell us a little about your role and how your past experiences are shaping this?

The role of Director of Audiences is a new one for the Edinburgh International Festival [EIF], and I have quite a broad remit. It sounds a bit like I tell people where to sit, but really it encompasses everything from considering how people first find out about the festival to how we take care of their experience at every step of the journey and (hopefully) keep them coming back for more. 

I have worked in a variety of cultural roles and organisations – everything from the British Museum to Shrek The Musical. While the same questions and challenges inevitably arise about how to reach new audiences, communicate key messages, measure success, etc, I have found that each context is so different, each organisation has its own culture and, ultimately, every arts brand has its own special sauce – what makes it treasured and remembered by audiences. My job is really to dig into that and make sure it’s a thread that runs through and connects all aspects of the audience experience.

What do you see as your main challenges?

EIF is in a privileged position, with a rich heritage and an incredible programming team that brings together the greatest artists from across Scotland and the world. 

One challenge is that the festival ecosystem we have created here in Edinburgh (and particularly the enormous scale of the Fringe) has grown to dwarf us. We really need to focus in the coming years on clarifying our small but mighty proposition and attracting significantly more public attention. Another undeniable challenge is our precarious financial position and the crisis in public arts funding. We know how much economic, cultural and social value we bring to Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK but, like so many arts organisations, we’re being expected to do more with far less. 

Is there anything you’ve developed since last year?

This is our new Festival Director Nicola Benedetti’s first year. She has brought an ambitious and energising new vision to the festival and a real focus on the audience experience. In a nutshell, we’re aiming to offer the deepest experience of the highest quality of art, for the broadest possible audience. 

There is an exciting tension in that sentence – how to balance effort and investment in all three directions. This year, we’ve experimented with a range of initiatives to try to offer audiences a warmer welcome, a greater sense of hospitality and communal celebration, and a deeper level of context and dialogue around what we are putting on stage. It will be fascinating to see the results!

Can you reveal any future plans for the festival?

We will very much be informed by audience and artist feedback from this year to help us shape and build future plans, but we’ve made some big commitments around continuing to invest in audience experience. One particularly important area is our Learning and Engagement programme, which is being woven much more closely into how we think about long-term audience development, moments of mass community participation and celebration, and opportunities for emerging Scottish talent.

Callum Madge – Access Manager

Callum Madge

Can you explain what your role entails? 

My role as Access Manager is to work across all of the different departments within the Edinburgh International Festival and identify and remove barriers for disabled people, whether they are audiences, visiting artists or staff.

This year I’ve been developing a trailer promoting the different ways we are increasing access, providing transcripts of audio content, liaising with and developing relationships with local Edinburgh organisations like Deaf Action and a macular degeneration support group and reviewing the steps required for the festival to progress to the second level of the Disability Confident Employer scheme.

This is a new role for you, what are you most looking forward to?

One of the things that most appealed to me about this role was the scale of the festival. I was excited to take the practices and processes to remove barriers for disabled people that I learned at my previous job with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company [BOP] and begin to apply them to work that involves national and international artists and a large audience. 

The creative industries have made some great steps towards increasing accessibility over recent years but there is still a long way to go, and this role puts me in a great position to be able to push forward that work in a way that can make a significant impact.

How will you use what you learnt at Birds of Paradise Theatre in this role?

One aspect of my work with BOP had been delivering Disability Equality Training to organisations such as Wigtown Book Festival, Summerhall and Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This year I have been able to use some of that knowledge to brief the front of house and box office teams of the various festival venues with an overview of accessibility best practice.

The final piece of work I did for BOP was editing a report looking into Relaxed performances in Scotland, House Lights Up. I’d like to use the findings from that report to build on the offer of Relaxed events the festival has this year and in previous years, further removing barriers to neurodivergent audiences.

BOP’s work is underpinned by the disability rights movement’s slogan of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, and as a non-disabled person I am very conscious that I am working to remove barriers of which I have no lived experience. To that end I am keen to consult with lots of different D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people at different stages of the work I am doing, to ensure that it will actually achieve the intended aim.

The festival takes place in a mediaeval UNESCO World Heritage status city which wasn’t built with access in mind. How do you plan to make the festival more accessible to all and what do you see as the main challenges?

I think one of the main challenges is the architecture of Edinburgh; it involves a lot of hills, cobbles, narrow pavements which become quickly crowded with other tourists and old buildings without adequate access. 

I was at a Fringe Central event for disabled people last year where one person mentioned that although each of the Edinburgh festivals has access information about their own venues or hubs, navigating the city between venues or spaces can still be very difficult. They suggested a map which identified routes with good level access or avoided cobbled streets, to support people in getting around Edinburgh. I can see the value in doing something like this and I’m keen to explore ways to remove barriers outside the immediate vicinity of the festival’s spaces.

Are there any other challenges?

There are plenty of other challenges, some of which I can work on from a festival perspective, some of which will require some joined up thinking from across the Edinburgh festivals and some of which require input from bodies like City of Edinburgh Council or Creative Scotland.

There is a challenge around being able to provide accessible performances for a festival with such a large programme. One aspect of this is due to the number of productions which means it can be difficult to find access providers to work on a performance; a problem compounded by the fact that many of them are also working on Edinburgh Festival Fringe productions. Another aspect is that due to the short time frame a visiting company is in Edinburgh and the limited time available for them to rehearse in the city, the time an access provider gets to rehearse their role with the full show is often less than if they were preparing for a traditional touring piece of work. 

A third aspect of this relates to the technical equipment; some venues have their own captioning units or audio description headsets but not all of them do. This then requires careful planning around moving equipment between different venues to ensure each of the accessible performances that have been programmed can take place. Despite these challenges the access providers work incredibly hard and do a fantastic job of removing certain barriers to productions to enable disabled people to enjoy them.

An example of a wider challenge would be the cost of attending the festivals. It’s well known that accommodation in Edinburgh during August can be very expensive but if you have specific access requirements, your ability to find a cheap room on Airbnb will be limited by the fact that many Edinburgh homes are not accessible – meaning some disabled people have to rely on pricey hotels. In general, across the UK population, disabled people are less likely to have a qualification at a degree level, which impacts on their ability for income generation. On the flip side of this, disabled people often have higher living costs as they may need to pay for items like specialised equipment. For me, this means that when we think about removing barriers for disabled people, we need to consider financial barriers too.

What is EIF doing to help with access?

The introduction of the Access Pass and the Access Shuttle are two of the main ways we are working to remove barriers this year.

The Access Pass is a ticket booking membership scheme for anyone who identifies as D/deaf, disabled or neurodivergent. When people sign up to the Access Pass, they can share details of their specific access requirements, which means we can tailor an experience suited to them. This information is then available to our box office team (so people don’t have to explain their access requirements each time they book) and to venue staff (so staff are aware of the access requirements of people attending each event). The Access Pass also allows people to book wheelchair spaces, essential companions or touch tours. 

Signing up to the Access Pass is free and can be done via the Access page on our website. D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent audience members also qualify for a 30% discount on full price tickets.

Last year some audiences fed back that they experienced barriers in getting to our venue, The Hub. This is partly because The Hub is at the top of a hill connected by cobbled streets and being next to Edinburgh Castle, so it is always surrounded by a throng of tourists. The access issues are compounded by road closures making it impossible for cars or taxis to drop off passengers outside the building. To mitigate these barriers, this year we are offering a free Access Shuttle bus service to The Hub. The Access Shuttle has space for two wheelchair users and nine additional passengers and will ferry people between The Hub and where the road closure begins.

Caroline Donald – Head of Learning and Engagement

Caroline Donald

You have a vital role both during the festival period and throughout the year. Can you share with us what it entails? 

I genuinely believe I have the best job at the festival. I work with the most amazing team of people and whilst August is a time when the biggest spotlight is shone on what we do, all throughout the year we are constantly working on projects to connect with people and create pathways to and from our festival and those live moments in August with the artists we present. 

We really enjoy the work we do with children, young people and communities, and we meet the most brilliant and inspiring people. I am also really passionate about the work we do investing in the festivals of the future, supporting and spotlighting emerging talent and creating innovative training and employment opportunities in the industry. 

It is really hard to describe what my team and I do as no two days or months are the same; we have core projects we run year-round, and each August programme gives us fresh and infinite possibilities to explore with people. All I can say is that I create every project, meet every challenge and start every day with the question: what is our WHY and WHO are we doing it for? In the answer lies the joy and vitality of our work. 

What are the main challenges of your job?

Balance and barriers! We are a multi-art form festival and as much as we work to connect with our wider audience across our whole programme, we do have to balance and prioritise where we build deeper engagement. We aim to create and build meaningful connections and often have to balance this with our capacity and ability to make projects focused and meaningful. 

We are a festival proud of the excellent work we present. Excellence does not have to mean exclusivity. We are committed to opening doors, and if we encounter any barrier to participation we endeavour to remove it. Generally, people think a barrier might be economic or cultural but some of the biggest barriers we face are those of perception and inclusion. We want everyone to have the equitable right to access and to feel welcome; this is a challenge we will meet with a passion.

How do you see the role of learning and engagement as an investment in the future? 

We are committed and passionate about the work we do investing in the festivals of the future, supporting and spotlighting emerging talent and creating innovative training and employment opportunities in the industry. Over the last few years, we have delivered different projects in this area, both on and off stage. 

For example, last year we worked with our residency high school Leith Academy, Grid Iron Theatre Company and our team to train up young people, work on a National 5 in customer service with the school, and offer the students paid employment as front of house on our ground-breaking production of Muster Station Leith. This year we have offered two opportunities for emerging artists and an opportunity for established dance artists. In partnership with Dancebase and with the support of the British Council we have been able to hold a vital and visceral week of development of artists from Scotland and Senegal to connect and collaborate. 

The space to share practice, make international connections and play without a performative outcome have been invaluable and the artists have all reflected on how monumental it has been to each of them personally to participate. 

For those emerging into the industry and starting their professional journey we wanted to create opportunities for them to take to the world stage in a supported way, and we are committed to creating the best possible debut performance opportunities for them as future leaders. From 150 applicants we cast 22 of the best emerging dancers to participate as a young company performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in a piece called Memoria in the Festival Theatre. 

We will work with them over August to rehearse the piece and are really excited to see them make the most of this opportunity to launch their careers. Similarly, we held open auditions for emerging musicians to form an ensemble The Mendelssohn Octet, with leading musicians [violinist] Stefan Jackiw, [violist] Jessica Bodner and [cellist] Sterling Elliott. Some of the performers are recent graduates and some are still studying. The opportunity for collaboration between world class inspirational musicians and those emerging into the field is fresh and exciting for everyone. 

How are you incorporating Nicola Benedetti’s vision of the festival into the work that you do?

Nicola’s vision aligns with our own goals for the festival and her leadership has already expanded the scope and possibility of what we do. It has been so brilliant to work with her and to know that the heart of her vision is rooted in our shared belief that the arts and creativity are for everyone. 

We are absolutely aligned in the belief and passion in creating the deepest possible experience for the broadest possible audience. To ensure we are opening doors and making space to welcome everyone, to create opportunities to participate, learn and be inspired. Nicola is known as a visionary leader in music education, and her expertise and passion are inspiring. We have really enjoyed working with her on everything from ideas on our audience experience to new ideas to engage people. In developing pathways for new talent, and most of all to inspire curiosity and discovery. 

What are your future plans for increasing engagement at the festival?

I am working closely with Nicola Benedetti and our Director of Audiences Kate Carter to look at new and innovative ways we can meaningfully connect with our audiences and our community in the coming years. 

True engagement for me is about connection and building meaningful relationships from an honest starting point. Our aim is to offer a welcoming environment for first-time audiences and longstanding supporters alike, whilst also nurturing relationships across the performing arts community in Scotland and internationally.

Click here for a preview of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.