Nica Burns, West End producer, theatre owner and the founder and organiser of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, a great proponent of the art of live comedy in the UK, today launched the 2019 Fringe with the following speech to a room of industry guests.
Today is the official opening day of the Fringe and it's already kicked off with a lot of opinions piling in about a number of issues. Some fun, provocative headlines: Is the Fringe too big? Does it need to be limited? Are the working conditions unacceptable? Are people being exploited? Should it be more regulated?
Everything goes back to the original founding idea which we all love, the Spirit of the Fringe. Started by performers, constantly reinvented by them, uninvited, unfunded, uncurated, unrestricted by anything except talent, determination and how they fund themselves to participate. For me, the Spirit can be summed up in the word, CHOICE. People come because they choose to, they want to participate. This goes beyond performance to embrace all those who come to work here, to help deliver the fringe and drink it all in.
Real entrepreneurship, self-investment and a lot of risk taking. And always, hopes and dreams. Some of which will be fulfilled and some of which will come to nothing or worse. For performers it offers incredible career opportunities, for everyone else it's not just a temporary summer job. I know many people with successful careers in entertainment, who started here - working front of house, on street teams, really mucking in. It's a life changing experience. Should all this opportunity to participate be eroded or taken away through restriction and limitation? No! It's a month. It's a festival, a celebration. It's insane and marvellous. Then we all go back to the real world, to study, to work, less hours, better pay, better conditions, but not half as much fun. Where else in the UK can you just get up and do it? So yes to entrepreneurship. Yes to people's choice. Yes to open access. Let the performers and workers decide whether to come or not. Hands off our fringe!
Here's an interesting thing. If you Google "is the comedy bubble about to burst?" you'll find that it's been bursting every year since the 1990s. In 2012 we apparently had a comedy crisis. Comedy is alive and well and still growing here. This is another incredible record-breaking year. There are over 750 shows eligible for Dave's awards this year. Comedy is by far the largest part of the programme, up by 2%, a whopping 10% more than theatre, double figures for the first time.
When you ask comedians what they want from the Fringe, one of the key things is to be properly reviewed plus a star rating, by an informed, respected critic. There are many more opportunities outside this festival for the best theatre makers; but where else can an up-and-coming or new comedian get reviewed, except here? It is critical to the development of their careers. It's serious. This festival is like a jigsaw, every piece must be in the right place or the whole picture doesn't work. The threat to our newspapers is becoming the missing piece. What has been a concern for some time is now a crisis.
Yesterday, The Scotsman made a statement in its paper. Just before the festival started we nearly lost The Scotsman's daily festival supplement with its huge range of features and reviews and their Fringe First awards. The Scotsman has given enormous support to this festival from day one and has a special relationship with it. Through their Fringe Firsts, they guarantee to see every new play, they champion new theatre makers just as Dave's Edinburgh Comedy Awards champions new and up-and-coming comedians. Losing the Fringe Firsts, and losing the review supplement, would have been a disaster for all performers. Both have been saved by swift and decisive action. The University of Edinburgh is partnering the Fringe Firsts and the four big venues - Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly - are sponsoring the reviews supplement, which has promised a whopping 900 reviews. All whilst guaranteeing the independence and integrity of the paper and its journalists. Quite right. Now, the Big Four get a fair amount of stick but right now as far as I'm concerned they are the Fabulous Four. So just for once, let's say thank you. Let's hear a really big cheer for Bill, Karen, Anthony, Ed and Charlie.
But The Scotsman is in the process of being sold. Dear future owners of The Scotsman: you and your paper are important to this festival. No doubt you have many tough decisions to make. Please renew your commitment to this festival and make your review supplement a central part of your business plan. Please save this wonderful newspaper, expand it online and take it forward. To everyone who cares about this festival, please buy The Scotsman as an additional newspaper - £1.70, and there's a really good deal online. Show the new owners that we value it.
We can't come back in 2020 without having done everything we possibly can to ensure the long-term critical coverage of the Fringe. What happened at The Scotsman was more than just a warning. The time for moaning is over. We need to take action. I'm calling for a summit to address the future press strategy for the Fringe. If sponsorship is the answer, if money is to be found, we must find it. I'm in. I'm looking to the brilliant Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of our wonderful Fringe Society. Shona please pick up the baton and make it a priority for this Autumn and to all the key players at the festival, stand with her. We need to have an action plan to be delivered for the 2020 Fringe and beyond. Together, I am certain that we can ensure that the work performed at this, the greatest arts festival in the world can continue to enjoy the legitimacy that serious criticism gives it. Let's put back this critical piece of the jigsaw.
Please raise your glasses for our annual toast, to the Edinburgh Fringe, to comedy and to Dave's Edinburgh Comedy Awards!