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As the staple of my summer each and every August, since the light-up trainers and jelly bracelets of the noughties, I am utterly devastated at the cancellation of the Edinburgh Fringe. Even more so at the thought that the financial burden it is now under might mean that its survival isn’t certain.

When I think about what the Fringe means to me, I’m not sure that I have the words to describe it. Imagine a city-wide explosion of the Cambridge ‘thesp' scene, with tens of thousands of performances squeezed into every nook, cranny, subterranean dungeon and, quite literally, phone box that’s on offer.

The Fringe is an integral part of Edinburgh’s identity and it’s integral to my identity as well. As a kid, I was taken on summer excursions to the Royal Mile where I was subsumed by crowds of circus performers and acapella harmonisers, so much so that I had to take a break to cry on the corner. I’d never experienced so much life in one place before.

As I stumbled ungainly through my brief foray into acting, the Fringe was where I and my more talented peers got a taste of the spotlight. It strikes me as no small coincidence that many of them have chosen to pursue theatre as a career. Soon after, I put on my own piece for the first time and experienced the euphoria of actually creating something. I couldn’t quite believe it was real; that, somehow, I’d actually got the chance to craft a story and have it out in the world. Despite my Fringe education, theatre still felt like a lofty ambition, performed only in the ivory towers of proscenium arch theatres. But that wasn’t true, anyone could do it, and so could I.

No more than a year later, the festival taught me how easy it is for something you create to be truly god-awful. On top of that crushing revelation, I found out how depressingly difficult it is to get people to come and see a show you’ve just realised isn’t anywhere near as good as your enthusiastic ten-second spiel on the street.

"The Fringe is utterly magical"

When we were old enough, the Fringe was where my friends and I started working, as bartenders, flyerers, front of house, anywhere to be close to the action and still get paid. We met people from all over the world, solidifying fleeting but memorable friendships year after year, toasting our 2-star reviews as much as our sell-outs.

The opportunity to be at the centre of an explosion of creative expression is seductive. Even when you realise that the pay is abominable, and the hours are exhausting and unsociable. Trust me, the perks of free shows and discounted drinks aren’t quite as rosy when you can’t remember the last time you had 4 hours of sleep. There’s uncertainty, hard work, fatigue and never enough money.

So, what is it that makes people keep wanting to come back? Well, alongside all the effort, the barely being able to afford a watered-down pint at criminally overpriced, albeit aesthetically appealing, open-air bars; the Fringe is utterly magical.

Your average (read: earning) tourist will see plenty of the great professional theatre that has come to dominate the space but, with average salaries of £5 an hour, I usually can’t afford to see much high-budget stuff. Thankfully, it’s in the depths of weirdness that the festival shines. I’ve seen every kind of show you can imagine and some you almost certainly can’t.

"The Fringe gives us the freedom to try, to make mistakes and try again"

I’ve watched a juggling show morph into a chilling commentary on sexism; experienced my own death in warped ASMR; mediated a heated debate about cannibalism on a double decker bus, and seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done: sh*tfaced.

'I've... seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done: sh*tfaced'Twitter/TicketmasterUK

In the wake of these resounding successes, there are also plenty of failures, mine included, where things didn’t quite go the way they were envisioned. There’s a fine line between controversial and chaotic, and sometimes revolutionary think pieces require just a little bit more thought.

In a way, these are reassuring. Without pieces that are unsuccessful, how are we to judge what works? The whole point is that the Fringe gives us the freedom to try, to make mistakes and try again. There are no rules, no regulations, and sometimes no audiences, but there’s always opportunity. Anyone with a story is welcome to tell it.

In recent times, this freedom and accessibility has become more and more restricted. Like almost everything, the festival has become a numbers game, with massive organisations monopolising that most important of commodities, the audience. Instead of big names seeing the Fringe as a place to test out new material, they use it as a kind of guaranteed income. The smaller, experimental, ‘fringe’ performances that gave birth to the festival have become marginalised, threatened with extinction.


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The event started because a group of performers who were not invited to the newly established Edinburgh International Festival just showed up, found venues and put on their shows regardless. It was local, expressive, experimental and anything but commercial.

Perhaps there is a positive message to be found amidst the horror of cancellation. There is no guarantee that the Fringe will be exactly what it was, but I’d say it’s fairly certain that it will grow again. Already some venues have announced they would happily house shows in August, government restrictions permitting. Regardless of what form those performances might take, it is evident they will come directly from performers committed to the creative freedom of the Fringe, not from its profit margins.

If you’re looking for artists willing to push the limits of live performance and try something new, risky or weird, then there is no place better suited than the Edinburgh Fringe - and you simply can’t keep them from performing.

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