Andrew Eaton-Lewis: "this year you can participate in the world’s biggest arts festival from anywhere"
You might think that actually being in Edinburgh is a crucial part of experiencing something called the Edinburgh festival. But we live in exceptional times. In theory, this year, you can watch or participate in the world’s biggest arts festival from anywhere, and in most cases your experience will be no different from anyone else’s – a positive thing, by the way, in terms of inclusion and accessibility.
I am, for example, editing Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman’s festival coverage from a village in the Outer Hebrides. This is not a joke. Our chickens are roaming around outside my window as I write this. If I take my laptop out into the garden, they too can watch an Edinburgh festival show in the same way as everyone else.
This is my 19th year doing this job – the editing, not the chicken-keeping. I never thought I’d carry on doing it this long, but the Edinburgh festival is remarkably addictive, as a lot of regular performers will tell you. One thing that has kept me coming back is the element of surprise – the new artforms, the new ideas, the new venues, the hit shows that seem to appear out of nowhere, the thrill of being among the first people anywhere to discover something or someone.
This year the surprise has been a bit different, to say the least. Yes, the Edinburgh festival is constantly reinventing itself, but is what we’ll be covering on these pages throughout August really the “Edinburgh festival” at all? The Fringe and the internet do have obvious things in common. Both are vast, open access platforms for expressing almost any kind of idea, where you can feel completely lost without a trustworthy guide. There are powerful gatekeepers – Google, or the Big Four Fringe venues – who inspire both loyalty and resentment. A performer going from obscurity to sold out shows, five-star reviews and awards in the space of a couple of weeks is very much like a YouTube clip going viral. What happens, though, when the festival and the internet merge?
The oddness of all this is something we’ll explore quite a bit over the next few weeks, beginning with Mark Fisher’s opening feature on this page. In the meantime, given that this weekend is when most festival folk usually arrive in the city, perhaps we should take some time to acclimatise? If you have a family member, partner or flatmate to hand, try shoving hundreds of small bits of paper in each other’s faces all day and shouting things like “FIVE STAR SHAKESPEARIAN IMPROV, KITCHEN TABLE, SEVEN O’CLOCK”, or put on headphones and dance past each other to music the other person can’t hear. If it’s lunchtime, grab some fast food from the freezer then throw 20 pounds out of the window. Recreate the thrill of spotting festival performers on the street by texting each other pictures of TV actors from the Eighties whose names you can’t quite remember.
I’m only being snarky for comic effect. I love the noise and the colour and the madness of Edinburgh in August. Its absence this year, while inevitable, is heart-breaking. I suspect that even the locals who claim to hate it will realise that they miss it. It’ll happen in the small moments, when you’re walking up the Royal Mile and there aren’t lots of keen young people desperate to get your attention, or around 9pm each day when you realise you can’t hear fireworks in the distance. Ah well. We can always find some fireworks on YouTube and listen to them from the other end of the house.
This year The Scotsman will be publishing a 12-page Festival supplement every Saturday from 1-29 August inclusive, and there will also be comprehensive coverage in the paper from Monday to Friday, in Scotland on Sunday and online
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