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Learning from the 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Recommendations for Festivals and Performing Arts in Navigating Covid-19 and New Digital Contexts

Elsden, Chris; Piccio, Benedetta; Helgason, Ingi; Yu, Diwen; Terras, Melissa

When it happened, the announcement that the Edinburgh Festivals would not go ahead was both predictable and shocking. Cruelly, so many aspects of what makes the Edinburgh Festival Fringe unique, appeared suddenly impossible and unpalatable. How could this festival work remotely? What would happen, when the Fringe doesn’t happen? As researchers on Creative Informatics - a project to explore data-driven innovation in the Creative Industries – we wanted to record these remarkable circumstances and study the role(s) of digital technologies in response. In particular we sought to reflect on the pivots artists, venues and festivals would be required to make, and perhaps identify longer term shifts in the performing arts sector.

We planned two studies. The first endeavoured to document a broad public response to whatever did (or did not) happen; the second sought to gather the experiences of intended Fringe 2020 participants whose shows had been cancelled or reworked for an online audience. If nothing else,  we hope this report serves as a testament to the difficulties, perseverance and ingenuity of artists and performers who have endured and continued creating work during this time.

Our findings aim to offer both a broad description of what and how performances took place in 2020, while also developing some of the specific challenges that performers faced. Our interviews with performers were both hopeful, inspiring and sombre. Some artists we spoke to had been unable to do their work, had put projects into deep freeze, and had grave financial concerns for their companies and colleagues. On a personal level, being able to create new work, and to perform with live audiences is also utterly bound up in many performers’ identity and daily practices; in this respect, being without a stage is more than just the economic or professional disappointment of being without a way to make a living. However, ironically perhaps, it is this same desire to be creating and performing that drove many of our participants to find new ways to perform and connect with audiences. In turning to and investing in digital means to record and share live performance, considerable investments have been made in new technologies, skills and collaborations. These have expanded viewpoints, and challenged assumptions, pushing performers and audiences towards new experiences that will change practices and expectations. In particular, the lack of a stage has encouraged performers to look again and highlight much of the hidden work that goes into a show, and to find ways to engage and transact with audiences beyond a single live performance. Furthermore, performers are suddenly in competition with Netflix, broadcasts of Broadway shows, and TikTok trends as performance becomes digital ‘content’, subject to the logics and economies of digital media. There are certainly opportunities here for some performers, but understanding and preserving the unique values of live performance in digital spheres is a considerable outstanding challenge.

To this end, we have developed three broad areas of recommendations; for performers; for festivals and venues; and finally for researchers and designers. Though derived from the context of the Edinburgh Fringe - a quite unique event – we hope that they may be of service across the sector.

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