Edinburgh Festival Fringe is back (and it’s better than ever)
The world’s biggest performing arts festival opens today in all its high kicking glory. CEO – and founding member of CWH Edinburgh – Shona McCarthy, shares her intel on the run of show
Friday 5 August 2022 By Soho House
Shona McCarthy has been championing arts and culture in all its forms for the past 30 years – most recently as chief executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society, a position she’s held since 2016. With the annual performing arts festival cancelled by COVID-19 in 2020 and only a very much scaled-back version staged last year, 2022’s full-size Fringe Festival is set to be one of the best the city has seen.
Here, McCarthy gives us the inside track on what it’s taken for her and her team to get this far – and why she, as the first and founding member of CWH Edinburgh, thinks fellow creatives everywhere should be there.
We’re just days away from the festival opening – how are you holding up?
‘Surprisingly good is the answer. We have 3,300 shows that are going to burst onto the stages of this festival from now until the end of August – and that’s the thing that makes me want to wake up every day, and restores my energy and faith. So, I’m tired but happy and really just looking forward to the month of work ahead. I could not be prouder of my team, and the whole Fringe community and family for the work that’s gone into getting ready for this year. It’s now or never. We’re as ready as we’re going to be, so we’ve now just got to deal with it and roll with it.’
This is the first full-scale festival since 2019. What’s changed?
‘This year, we’re probably going to be on 75% of what the Fringe looked like in 2019. There was perhaps too much and it felt too busy then, so for me that feels comfortable. In 2021, there were still restrictions, social distancing, all of that. I think this year it’s going to be very bespoke and personal. Thankfully, there is enough in the whole Fringe offering for it to be able to respond to people’s way of wanting to socialise and interact with the performing arts.’
What are you looking forward to this year?
‘One of the things that excites me most is the new work, the emerging talent. We have more shows than ever from Scotland and Northern Ireland – two places I’m equally passionate about – and it’s really inspiring to see the emerging talent and writing that’s coming out of there. The arts can explain something to you in such a unique way or articulate it in a way that reaches us differently to how newspapers or politics do.
‘Also, this year is the first ever Deaf Festival at the Fringe. There’s going to be an underground rave at the car park at the new St James Quarter shopping centre. It came out of a discussion we hosted in 2018 that really spoke to me, because we always talk about how this festival gives everyone a stage and everyone a seat, and sometimes people challenge you and say: “For me or for my community that’s not true.” So, to see a group of people take that on, make it accessible and do it for themselves is absolutely brilliant.’
Any personal highlights?
‘I’m dying to see the street-performance community back and taking over the streets. We’ve expanded their space to include St Andrew Square, Cathedral Square and East Princes Street Gardens, so that families from Edinburgh can just come into the city with their kids and see the joy of world-class street performers.’
You were the first and founding member of CWH Edinburgh. What do you think CWH will bring to Scotland?
‘To me, it’s a lifesaver when you arrive in a city and don’t know it; you want somewhere where you’re going to connect with your tribe. To be able to come to a place or be from a place and know that there’s somewhere you can book a table, have a drink, stay in a room, socialise in, but know that it’s going to be more than an individual experience, and that you have more of an opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Scotland doesn’t have that history of those private social spaces in the way that, for example, London or Paris or Berlin has, so I think this is a really good moment for Scotland to dip its toe in the water.
‘You have the ultimate melting pot in this city, as those that visit from across the UK and around the world bring their creativity and talent to the spaces, streets and stages of Edinburgh, alongside all of the local talent. And just in the Fringe alone, 900 shows are from Scotland, so for me it’s the perfect platform for CWH that aspires to have this connectivity. It would be an entirely missed opportunity not to be here.’