The Edinburgh Fringe is usually months in the making, but organisers this year have had to throw the August festival together in a matter of weeks.
"We've pretty much only started putting this festival together three weeks ago, and normally everything would be finished at Easter time," says William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly Festival, one of the Fringe's biggest venue operators.
Burdett-Coutts is frantically preparing a slimmed down programme ahead of what Scots hope will be their own "freedom day" on Aug 9 .
While the world's largest arts festival may still be going ahead, it is set to suffer badly from the fallout of Covid for a second year running.
A Yellow Pages-sized programme of almost 4,000 shows in more than 300 venues before the pandemic has been stripped down to its bare bones and many comedians are doing far shorter runs.
"I normally run 23 venues and put on about 250 shows," Burdett-Coutts says. "This year, I've got three stages, and I'm putting about 25 shows on. It's a very small event compared to what we normally do but we felt it was important to try to keep the flag flying."
The likes of Ed Gamble, Nish Kumar, Henning Wehn and Basil Brush are back in Edinburgh after the three-week long festival of comedy, theatre and music was cancelled in 2020. While more acts are being added by the day, the Fringe, which begins on Aug 6, will be a shadow of the £1bn event it was, as business frustration at reopening delays builds north of the border.
Festival organisers are concerned of the toll another bad year will take on the city's economy and the UK's wider culture sector, even after Covid has been defeated.
"Some of these businesses – cafes, bars and restaurants – just won't return because they've lost two years' worth of Fringe revenue," says Lyndsey Jackson, deputy chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society – the charity that underpins the event. "The presence of a festival of this size, scale and reputation in a city like Edinburgh, that really supports local business."
While England pushed ahead with its "freedom day" on July 19, Scotland delayed its own target to end restrictions to Aug 9. Nicola Sturgeon will make a final decision on lifting the last measures on Tuesday.
Business leaders and some of the festival's organisers have repeatedly voiced their frustration at a slow removal of rules, with Sturgeon forging a different path to Westminster.
"The delays in announcements and delays in our opening plan has had a big effect and big impact on many businesses," says Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.
"We need to urgently up the pace of the reopening. In Scotland certainly there has been a cautious approach adopted since the start of the Covid crisis but I do believe we're in a different environment now."
The city's labyrinth of tiny, makeshift Fringe venues, typically spanning from a shipping container to a sticky-floored nightclub, mean holding the event in full is impossible if even minor Covid restrictions are in place.
The 1m and 2m rules, and audience size restrictions, have made many performances unfeasible when venues have reopened in the last 12 months.
Even if Sturgeon ploughs ahead, as Scottish ministers suggest, the reopening will come too late to significantly ramp up the Fringe and organisers complain state support has been insufficient.
"It's that constant delaying of decisions that has been frustrating," says Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance Theatre Trust. He expects the Pleasance, a charity that is one of the "big four" venue operators at the Fringe, to be at just 15pc to 20pc of the almost 300 shows it hosted in 2019.
"At least in England, there was a sense of 'right here are the five dates [and] these are the conditions under which we will open if we are able to'," he says. "They're damned if they do, they're damned if they don't. For us, to have made any kind of real difference, we needed a decision back in January."
A stripped down Fringe will mean more pain for the city's economy and Britain's culture sector. Like London, Edinburgh has been hit hard by the double whammy of home working and the international travel shutdown. The city is the second most visited city in the UK behind London but it is more reliant on tourism, receiving more visitors per head than the capital.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that the Fringe, prior to Covid, boosted GDP by just over £1bn, or between a third and a half of Edinburgh's output during August. Around £500m is typically generated in direct expenditure and an extra £560m indirectly.
The Fringe Society estimates it provides almost 3,000 full-time jobs in the city and more across the UK with young workers crucial to running many of the venues. It also accounts for more than a quarter of income for many of the small businesses that service the venues, such as catering, tradesmen and equipment hire, it adds.
The crisis has caused the festival's organisers to question the viability of its business model.
"It's different to a lot of other arts festivals in that the Fringe is not publicly funded and that's a good thing in many ways," says Ed Bartlam, director of Underbelly, another key Fringe venue operator.
"I would describe it as culturally entrepreneurial but that can be challenging in times like this when there isn't that subsidy to lean on. I'm confident the Fringe will return but whether it returns in full next year I'm not so sure."
The Fringe Society has said it will need to consider ways to make the festival more sustainable. Jackson believes the pandemic has highlighted a lack of resilience.
The businesses and charities behind the Fringe will now need to do a "major fundraising campaign of some sort" to secure the festival's future, according to Burdett-Coutts. He says support may need to come from the state, crowdfunding or rich donors.
"We need to stabilise where we're at and we also need to raise money to regenerate the festival. I think it's going to be a mixture of probably trying to get government support alongside trying to find people that care about the festival that would be interested in seeing its survival."
Others fear the fallout from the pandemic will cause deep scarring on Scottish culture in the long term. The festival has helped launch the careers of numerous talents, including Graham Norton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rowan Atkinson.
"Our entire industry is going to be affected by the Fringe not being the place it is," says Alderson, who estimates that some £10m to £15m will be needed to stabilise the event.
"Maybe that hit show doesn't get written, plays don't get written, technicians come out of the industry," he says. "Every theatrical organisation in this country employs somebody whose career started at the Edinburgh Fringe. From the National Theatre to the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Opera House, you name it they all started in Edinburgh."
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