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Digital in on the act as Edinburgh festival returns to the boards

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Scotland’s scenic capital will be abuzz with festival goers once more next week as Edinburgh’s summer arts jamboree returns to live performances after a pandemic-forced break last year. But organisers have not abandoned the pivot to digital that kept the world-famous cultural events alive during Covid.

This year’s festivals, which range from highbrow opera and literary criticism to impromptu street performances, will be “hybrid” mixes of live audience and digital distribution after organisers said the experience of online-only events in 2020 had demonstrated how they could engage wider audiences around the world.

“It made us really look at digital and broadcast in a much more serious way,” said Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, an arts jamboree founded in 1947 that this year opens on August 7. “There’s a whole layer of skills and processes that we now have that we didn’t before.”

The Edinburgh Fringe, the more freewheeling open-access festival also created 74 years ago that starts next Friday, has unveiled a digital Fringe Player for remote viewing of shows alongside online platforms for artists and arts industry professionals.

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“You have to really think to come up with positives from the whole Covid experience, but I think this is one of the exciting ones,” said Shona McCarthy, Fringe chief executive. “It’s been amazing just how rapidly those kinds of tools have developed.”

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which opens on August 14, said the embrace of digital technology had made it more accessible not just to audiences overseas but to anyone who could not attend for financial or health reasons.

Digital technology has made events easier to access for those who cannot attend in person © Robin Mair/ Edinburgh International Book Festival 

“We fully intend that the hybrid model of online events and events with an in-person audience will be the model for the book festival in future years,” Barley said. Each festival has its own pricing model for digital performances.

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Digital will be particularly important this year because audience numbers will be severely restricted. The devolved Scottish government has been markedly more cautious about loosening coronavirus restrictions on cultural performances than the UK government has been in England.

Not everything is going ahead. In May organisers of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, announced the festival stalwart would be cancelled for the second year running because of worries about the potential cost of being forced to cancel by any last minute change in public health policy.

Last month, the directors of 11 Edinburgh festivals, including Linehan and McCarthy, demanded that the Scottish government rethink its physical distancing rules, complaining that cultural events were being unfairly subjected to much tighter controls than football or the hospitality sector.

The Scottish government did this month cut distancing for cultural events to one metre to match the rule for pubs and restaurants ahead of what it hopes will be the removal of most restrictions on August 9. But most long-planned festival events will still have limited capacity and many are being held in temporary outdoor venues.

Shona McCarthy, Fringe chief executive © Jane Barlow

Linehan said the international festival’s three bespoke open-sided outdoor pavilions, each with a capacity of hundreds of socially distanced seats, were being equipped with technology aiming to replicate the intimate sound of a classical concert hall while also offering the potential pleasures of summer breezes and unusual locations.

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“Assuming we can get the acoustics right — and obviously we’ve got amazing musicians — it might be just glorious,” he said.

Performances will be shorter to remove the need for intervals when Covid-19 might spread and there will be far fewer participants from overseas, but Linehan insisted his penultimate Edinburgh festival could measure up to pre-Covid outings.

Scottish Opera will perform Verdi’s Falstaff; violinist Nicola Benedetti is in residence and Sir Simon Rattle will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. “There really isn’t a dilution of quality at all,” Linehan said.

While organisers can hope that coronavirus restrictions will not be a problem for next year’s festivals, the climate crisis has prompted a broad reconsideration of the carbon emissions resulting from the annual transformation of Scotland’s capital into a centre of global cultural activity.

Sorcha Carey, director of the Edinburgh Art Festival, said digital technologies that had helped it through the pandemic could provide new opportunities for artists and for international collaboration. “These are new ways of working that we will seek to evolve and develop as we look to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.

The Scottish government is urging people to socially distance as the festival approaches © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Linehan, McCarthy and Barley said there would be a shift toward ensuring that overseas travel for their festivals was more carbon efficient, with participants expected to do more performances per trip.

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The Fringe will this year use only electronic tickets and forgo a printed programme, with no plans to return to the telephone book-style guide that previously helped audiences find their way among a multitude of shows spanning theatre, music, comedy and much else.

McCarthy said the need to ensure sustainability meant the Fringe Society, the famously anarchic festival’s central organising body, might need a stronger role in ensuring participants subscribed to a shared set of values.

This could involve “just maybe having a wee bit more teeth to kind of hold the festival to account”, McCarthy said. But she stressed that while administrators and audiences might be expected to try to limit travel in the future, artists and storytellers should be exempt from such pressure.

The prospect of increasingly online festivals might cheer those Edinburgh residents who complained before the pandemic of summer overcrowding, while worrying others in the city who relish the annual invasion.

But Linehan said digital technology would if anything feed the demand from performers and audiences to come together in person in Edinburgh. “The city is half of the experience,” he said. “The gathering is at the heart of it.”

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