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Life on The Fringe: Shona McCarthy

Blame a few inspirational teachers or the fact that she was the second youngest of eight children, but, whatever the reason, Shona McCarthy got a taste for the arts early on. Growing up on the Ards Peninsula in County Down, Northern Ireland, her position in the family pecking order allowed those artistic urges to flower. While her elder siblings were prodded towards ‘sensible’ jobs, McCarthy and her younger brother were a little more indulged in following their dreams. 
“I just really loved art from a very young age – literature, poetry, drawing, painting and watching movies became my thing, whereas my younger brother started to play pool. And he’s now a world-class pool player who plays in tournaments all around the world, and I’m the chief executive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe!” 
The most famous pool movie of all time is possibly The Hustler, and there must have been plenty of hustling and scrambling for position when a pandemic put paid to one of the most high-profile arts festivals in the world. McCarthy and her team, however, have managed to steer Edinburgh’s famous Fringe Festival along the green baize of an unpredictable year. The much-loved event has returned, not bigger but, in many ways, better than ever. To do so meant a re-evaluation of everything from the top down. “This year, you’ll see a very scaled-back fringe. It’s probably less than a tenth of the size that it would have been in 2019, for example. And I think that is going to give people a really nice moment to just reflect and have a different experience.”
Part of the challenge of any festival is securing performance space. In a world where venues are closing, or health and safety restrictions along with insurance premiums can make putting on a performance challenging, the discovery of new public spaces is always welcome. With that in mind, SJQ and the Fringe have been communicating since the project first swung into development. “They’ve been building this extraordinary new space in the city over the past couple of years. For me, always the most important thing is to build a relationship with real people. And they are real people, a real team who are hugely enthusiastic about a cultural element to St James Quarter and they have been from the get-go.” There are numerous indoor and outdoor spaces in SJQ with the potential to house shows as part of a wider cultural exchange, something McCarthy sees taking form as that relationship evolves. “I think, next year, you’re going to see some real connection between St James Quarter and the Fringe in terms of live performances happening in some of those spaces.”
With 2022 marking 75 years of the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a good time to reflect on the origins of the festival that started out in 1947 as a response to the Edinburgh Festival, which was itself conceived as a way of reconnecting people after the Second World War. “The Edinburgh International Festival was actually established for this ‘flowering of the human spirit’ after the war. And it was chosen because it was the least bombed City in the UK, and because it was the one that most looked like those European festival cities, such as Salzburg or Vienna.” That initial Edinburgh Festival focused heavily on classical music, ballet and opera. Eight local theatre companies (six from Scotland and two from England) applied to take part but were rejected and set up their own concurrent event at the physical and metaphorical outskirts of the more conventional festival. Thus, the Fringe was born. “So, this term ‘Fringe’ was really conceived in Edinburgh in the late 1940s and caught on. Today, there are now some 300 Fringe Festivals around the world. So, when we celebrate the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next year at its 75th anniversary, it won’t just be a celebration of the Fringe in Edinburgh, but a celebration of the whole concept of Fringe that is now a global movement.”
That global movement is reflected in the shows featuring performers from the 63 different countries that participated in the Fringe in 2019. While acknowledging this, the organisers still have their focus very much on the local community. It is, after all, mainly the citizens of Edinburgh who buy the 850,000 tickets in a typical year. There is always the opportunity to expand the accessibility of the festival and that is something that has been worked on in depth. An audit in 2017 identified where the audience was drawn from, but – just as importantly – where they weren’t coming from. 
The stark reality was that the Fringe wasn’t on the radar of people in areas of social deprivation, so a relationship-building programme with community groups started to try to change that. Ticket schemes, distribution, communication, and free travel from Lothian buses all helped to draw an audience who had never been to the Fringe before. “Thousands of them have now been, and we’re starting to do Fringe in communities and to co-design a Fringe offering within those communities. So that’s been, to me, a properly joyous development.” 
The reset has definitely shown that quality trumps quantity any time. And 2020 was the unthinkable year without a Fringe Festival. For now, the focus is on calibrating the event to be better than ever. McCarthy’s journey from an arts-obsessed child in troubles-era County Down to arts administrator has brought her across the world, with stints working in Jordan, Indonesia and Hong Kong, picking up awards along the way – such as the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship in 2014 that saw her tour the US, discovering how art is funded there, and a Nesta Cultural Leadership Award, which brought her to India for six months. As she now takes charge of reviving the Fringe, all that experience comes to bear in a suitably philosophical approach to the vagaries of international events. At the eye of the storm that the Fringe has become, she is determined not to lose sight of what’s important. “My big agenda for 2022 is: I don’t care whether the Fringe is the biggest performing arts festival in the world or not. That’s never been our agenda and we don’t have a growth agenda for the Fringe. What I’m interested in is it being the best possible version of itself.”
See how the original Fringe Festival develops at