Every August the world’s performers and entertainers flock to Scotland’s capital. Paul F Cockburn asks just how easy is it for disabled artists and audiences to get the most out of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?
Given that it’s been running every year for nigh-on seven decades, it’s hardly surprising that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has inspired a few traditions. One of the most prevalent – at least among frustrated locals trying to get from A to B through streets suddenly blocked by busking acrobats – is the assertion that the Fringe is now simply too big for anyone to cope.
They’ve been saying that since at least the 1980s, of course, but the headline figures are startling nonetheless; the 2015 Fringe consists of 3,314 shows, a total of 50,459 performances within little more than three weeks — and that’s before you include the independently run programmes offered by three separate ‘free Fringe’ organisations.
Far too much choice? Not if you’re a disabled person, it would seem. Barely more than half (53%) of the listed 313 venues are described as wheelchair accessible, while just one in ten will have hearing loops installed. A mere 47 shows (that’s 1.4% of the total) include signed performances. If you rely totally on audio description, then the 2015 Fringe essentially consists of 19 shows.
It’s somewhat ironic that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, grandmother of open-access festivals, has a pretty dismal record in terms of accessibility. The fact that so many Fringe venues are ‘pop-up’ by nature, and often in hard-to-reach locations, might be an explanation, but in the 21st century it can hardly be an excuse.
“Performing on the Fringe is not easy for anyone; for disabled artists it is even more challenging,” accepts Anthony Alderson, Director of Pleasance, one of the Fringe’s “big four” multi-show promoters. “This was brought into the spotlight in 2006 when Sky TV documented four comedians coming to the festival in Simon Minty’s ‘Abnormally Funny People’. Yet, since 2006, there has been a steady growth in the number of disabled performers visiting the Pleasance."
"It is still a great challenge but by recognising and supporting those challenges and investing in better facilities, we hope to see yet more companies and individual artists meet those challenges and find success.”
To be fair, the Edinburgh Fringe Society, which administrates the festival every year, has been aware of access issues for a while – accessibility information has been included in the published Fringe programme for several years.
Despite the continued growth of the Fringe, the overall proportion of accessible venues and shows has also risen since The Guardian reported on the issue just two years ago. There’s still a lot to be done, though.
“We’ve already taken the first steps in improving the services we provide to people with specific access requirements,” explained Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Chief Executive Kath Mainland at the launch of the 2015 programme in June. “Our box office team includes Access Coordinators who can help deal with individual enquiries about what is available and how accessible specific venues are. This year we’ll be extending this service by integrating it across our box office and customer service teams.”
Financial support for this has come from Visit Scotland, Attitude is Everything, Deafinitely Theatre, Touretteshero, and Edinburgh-based Euan’s Guide – which has been delivering equalities training to Fringe staff since 2012. Financial support from the Festivals Innovation Lab, supported by Scottish Enterprise with matching funding from Arts and Business Scotland, has also ensured the online delivery of Accessible Festival Training to all of the Fringe Society’s staff – which will also be made available to staff and volunteers within the Fringe’s 300-plus independently run venues.
Disabled performers, too, are making more of a ‘splash’ than ever before: performers/ choreographers Claire Cunningham and Ramesh Meyyappan are bringing new work to Edinburgh, as part of both the British Council’s annual Edinburgh Showcase and the Scottish Government-funded ‘Made in Scotland’ strand. Recent acclaimed productions Wendy Hoose (Birds of Paradise/ Random Accomplice) and Edmund the Learned Pig (Fittings Multimedia Arts/Krazy Kat Theatre/The Royal Exchange) get an Edinburgh showing, while Pleasance and Zoo Southside host new theatre from 'The iF Platform (Integrated Fringe) featuring Artificial Things (Stopgap Dance) Easy For You To Say (Rowan James), Backstage in Biscuitland (Touretteshero aka Jess Thoms), Alba (Jo Bannon) and For Now I Am... (Marc Brew). Other shows at the Pleasance feature Cian Binchy and Access All Areas and Graeae Theatre Company.
“There is no doubt that if we are to succeed, further investment needs to be made,” insists Anthony Alderson. “By ensuring the practical facilities are as good as they can be and allowing performers a level playing field on which to present their work, the challenges faced by disabled performers will greatly reduce. This includes highlighting and saving suitable accommodation, better backstage and front of house facilities."
“Many old buildings in Edinburgh make accessibility difficult, and no single Fringe operator is likely to have budgets big enough to support large changes to buildings where they have no long-term tenure,” he adds. “There are, however, a large number of smaller investments and changes that can easily be made that make the experience for disabled performers and audiences that much easier.”