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A CITY EMBRACING CREATIVITY AND CULTURE

Shona McCarthy

10   July 2024

 

Edinburgh doesn’t just celebrate culture; it crafts an immersive, lively experience that captures hearts and minds alike. Museums, theatres, and galleries grace every corner, showcasing a rich tapestry of literature, music, and visual arts.

Shona McCarthy took the helm as CEO of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over eight years ago, and she’s here to share why Edinburgh continues to stand out as one of the absolute best cities for culture and the arts. Plus, she gives us a sneak peek into what awaits us at the 2024 Fringe…

 

You’ve been in your role as Chief Executive since 2016 so you must know the city as well as a local! Why do you think Edinburgh is one of the best cities for culture and arts?

It’s partly to do with the geography of the city, Edinburgh is one of the prettiest cities to visit, let alone live. The light and skyline, the green spaces and Edinburgh Castle on an imposing volcanic mound, the stunning Firth of Forth; it’s a bit of a muse as a city. I can absolutely see how it must be an inspirational place to be an artist and creative. It’s perfectly suited to being a festival city, walkable and full of discovery, so it makes sense for eleven major festivals to call Edinburgh home.

 

If you’ve got a free weekend to spend in Edinburgh, where do you like to visit?

I spend so much of my life inside theatres and venues with my job and I love it, however it means I crave the outdoors in my free time and I’m fairly addicted to Leith, where I call home. It’s an incredibly lively area but has a strong sense of local pride and community which I love. Personal highlights for me include visiting the market at Custom House and I adore the Leith Comedy Festival. There’s usually some great music to enjoy, seeing the Proclaimers sing Sunshine on Leith at Leith Links was a particular highlight of 2023. For a great meal, you’ll often find me in Karen’s Unicorn for delicious Chinese food or Giuliano’s on Leith Walk. It’s a fantastic family owned, local Italian restaurant where Mr Giuliano will usually be there with a warm welcome and excellent food.

 

What does the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have in store for 2024?

It’s always so hard to say, you just never know what the next year will bring! There are elements which are here every year like world-class new writing for theatre, emerging comedians, and the established names testing new work, incredible street performers and repeat performers who come back year on year with their acts. Then you’ve got over 1,000 premiers every year and you’ve no idea what they will look like, that’s one of my favourite parts, the unexpected talent. I’ve got no idea what 2024 will hold, but it will be a huge range of dance, music, comedy, theatre, cabaret, circus, spoken word and everything in between.

 

What do you think sets the Edinburgh Fringe Festival apart from any other cultural events, why do people return year after year?

For me, there is nothing else like it in the world. A lot of other festivals are curated arts festivals where they are funded by their local arts council and they have a budget to select, say, 50 shows to run that year. Edinburgh Fringe Festival is very different, it is an open platform, there’s no single curator of the Fringe with final say, instead, we have hundreds of different curators who help with putting together an incredibly diverse programme year on year. We’re held to high standards of inclusion and representation so ultimately no single curator has the final word, really the customer is the main curator and they vote with their feet. There are so many options and ways to do the Fringe for independent talent, nearly three hundred venues and many different models from ticketed to pay what you want, as well as Free Fringe which takes over bars and restaurants throughout the city for up-and-coming acts of all genres. Finally, street performers tie together the whole vibe of the festival, that’s where Eddie Izzard herself started so it’s a vitally important aspect of the Fringe.

 

What would be your advice to anyone looking to perform at a future Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

My first question would be, have you been to the Fringe before, and do you know what environment you’re coming into? We’re the best source of impartial and neutral advice so any questions, we’re absolutely here to help, but there’s nothing like experiencing it firsthand. Come and see other shows, understand what the Fringe is all about, what people want to see, the huge variety that’s available. I’d also say be clear with your objectives and what you want out of the festival. Do you want to just have a go, test yourself and see that you can do it? If so then brilliant we’re here to support that! Are you driven by wanting to get exposure to TV executives or theatre producers, using the Fringe as a platform for hopefully the next step? We can also help facilitate that. We’ve seen so many talented people make it onto National TV or the West End from their Fringe shows, so it’s absolutely a possibility and we can help match-make between the two. Then for others, it’s about peer review and winning those sought-after accolades or awards. It means a lot both nationally and internationally to say your show has won an Edinburgh Fringe award, which we’re really proud of.

 

Do you have any must-see picks you can share at this stage?

Very rarely do I give out recommendations for specific talent, it’s like picking a child! On a general basis, every year I’ll catch some cutting-edge, brilliant theatre between Summerhall, The Lyceum and The Traverse theatres. Then I always love the underground comedy scene on offer at The Stand and Monkey Barrel. I love to visit all the amazing venues that don’t exist year-round but put on an extraordinary show of cross-genre productions for the festival. One name I will happily drop is Jason Byrne, we love going to see his show year on year as a family, and it never disappoints. There will always be brilliant guides and ‘what to see’ roundups in the press so I’d suggest looking at those ahead of attending the Fringe to scope out what best works for your tastes.

We always have diverse audiences who bring such a buzz to the festival, especially our Fringe Friends – the superfans who get 2 for 1 tickets and end up being an expert source of word-of-mouth recommendations, becoming a friend of the Fringe is a great way to get the scoop.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival returns from 02 – 26 August 2024.

 

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