Edinburgh Fringe – All Year Round?

Joyce McMillan - Online / Joyce McMillan

AT SUMMERHALL, once known to Edinburgh as the old Royal Dick Vet College, they’re rushing against a start-of-Fringe deadline to build a brand-new entrance to the rambling 100-room building, all fresh wood and glass doors. It won’t replace the fine old stone doorway facing out towards the Meadows; but it will provide a new way in and out at busy times, complete with a wheelchair lift, and more space for a foyer and coffee bar.

And when the Festival is over, Summerhall’s new entrance will still be there; a visible sign that the place which has become the most exciting new venue on the Fringe, since its improvised debut last year, is not going away for the winter, but is set to become part of the city’s cultural landscape all year round. In the story of the Edinburgh Fringe so far, the Traverse Theatre has always occupied a special place, as the Fringe venue – first opened as the Cambridge Sphinx Club 50 years ago this week – that got away, and became a permanent theatre. Now, though, it looks as if the Traverse may be joined by several other Fringe venues with year-round aspirations, as the long property boom that put so many city-centre Edinburgh buildings out of reach of artists and producers shows no sign of returning. The Roxy, the Forest, The Underbelly in the Cowgate, and the newly-refurbished Assembly Rooms in George Street, all have ambitions to develop a year-round presence in the arts in Edinburgh.

It’s Rupert Thomson at Summerhall, though, who is ready to dive into an autum programme – albeit a fairly fluid one – almost as soon as the 2012 Festival is over; and that’s because he currently holds large positive balances of the two factors that are essential for success on the Fringe – cash and inspiration – and the one factor that makes it possible to spread that success through the year, which is a profound commitment to, and knowledge of, Edinburgh’s cultural scene. For several years now, Thomson has been working as a theatre and arts producer in the city where he was raised, most notably at the Roxy, before the collapse of the University Settlement charity from which he rented the space; and there’s a sense of history coming full circle, in the fact that his Summerhall project has the enthusiastic support of one of the original Traverse founders, Richard Demarco, who intends to house his archive there.

“The potential here at Summerhall is just immense,” says Thomson. “We are lucky to have tremendously generous support from the owner of the building, Robert McDowell, who has created a company to buy Summerhall outright from the university, and financed the upgrading of the building, as well as creating a fund to support our programme.

“In the long term, we do have to find ways of supporting ourselves, whether that’s through renting out studios and rehearsal space, or through our cafes and bars, or through events. I have to say, though, that I haven’t thought too much about who the audience is, because I am just conscious of such a huge hunger among young artists in Edinburgh for this kind of flexible, open, sometimes almost semi-derelict space, where the best of local and international artists can come together, and for the support we can give them, in terms of rehearsal space and performance nights. I suppose we’re operating on a kind of Steve Jobs principle, that if you do something brilliant, then people will want it; and that seems to have worked so far.”

Yet if there’s no other Edinburgh venue quite so plugged into the 21st-century zeitgeist as Summerhall, Thomson is not the only Fringe-venue boss who is feeling upbeat about his year-round prospects. William Burdett Coutts of Assembly – now based at George Square, after Assembly Productions lost the contract to run the transformed Assembly Rooms during the Festival – recently formed a company with two friends to buy up the Roxy and Forest Fringe buildings, both of which came onto the market at knockdown prices following the collapse of the University Settlement. And although Burdett-Coutts freely admits they are still “making it up as they go along”, in terms of the year-round use of the buildings, he has high hopes that the Roxy, in particular, will soon have an out-of-Festival life again, perhaps starting with a presence at the Edinburgh Winter Festivals around Christmas and New Year.

Yet for Edinburgh comedy and theatre producer Tommy Sheppard, who won the Festival contract at the Assembly Rooms, and for Charlie Wood of the Underbelly, there still seem to be plenty of reasons for caution about the year-round potential for more venues in Edinburgh. “Given the rentals they are charging, this can really only work under Festival conditions,” says Sheppard, as he watches the set for the National of Theatre of Scotland’s Appointment With The Wicker Man being built on the stage of the 700-seat Music Hall. ‘It’s all viable in August, when there is this huge audience available, all through the day; but in November, the economics of it are terrifying.”

And Charlie Wood agrees. “We would love to be in Edinburgh all year round,” he says. “We love the place, and we sell 86,000 tickets in the Festival every year, 70% of them to people from Edinburgh and central Scotland. But think about the Edinburgh scene, for a moment. There’s no need for more small-scale theatres. There’s certainly no need for another large theatre; and there’s no real need for more small-scale music venues. So it’s a question of what Edinburgh needs, and what it’s prepared to invest in. I’ve calculated that it would take between £1 million and £1.5 million to upgrade each floor of the Underbelly into a permanent venue, and there are five floors in there; so you can work out the numbers for yourself.”

In the arts, though, the really exciting initiatives are almost always started by people who decide to ignore the figures, and take a chance on an idea they believe in. On the Fringe, artists and promoters do that all the time; some win, some lose, and it’s all over by the beginning of September, bar the shouting about unpaid bills.

Making it work all year round, though, in a small-c conservative city like Edinburgh, is a different matter. For that, you need the overwhelming power of an idea whose time has come, to unleash patronage, to delight artists and audiences, and create something completely unexpected, that immediately meets a need no-one had yet articulated. For the moment, that project is Summerhall, and the force is with Rupert Thomson; but in a Fringe landscape currently being shaken and stirred by one financial earthquake after another, there’s no telling what new landmark will emerge next, to transform first the Festival, and then the reluctant, fortunate, and inimitable city where it makes its home.