Keith Bruce

WHEN Edinburgh Festival director Fergus Linehan handed me a strictly-embargoed (and perhaps ominously black-covered) copy of this year’s EIF programme, a smidgeon over five months ago, it was with his optimistic opinion that the world would be especially glad to enjoy the 2020 Festival with the threat of the coronavirus epidemic in the recent past.

Alas, the resilience of the disease to swift dismissal is now a fact of which everyone is aware, and the resilience of the sector in which the Dubliner works, and the ability of arts and culture to emerge from the crisis it has created, is under scrutiny. Just weeks later EIF 2020 was formally cancelled, and the 100 pages of the Edinburgh International Festival 2020 programme became an irrelevance.

Linehan’s focus moved to how his organisation could help sustain its broad range of partners, from individual artists to Scotland’s national performing companies, and from the venues his event fills that have now been dark for months to the other festivals that make Scotland’s capital such an unrivalled cultural destination

“After cancellation we needed the month of April to consider where we were and what we had to do,” he told me last week. “It was in May that we started dreaming things up to do in June and July. We didn’t want to start chasing shadows. I actually feel that we have pushed as far as we can in relation to this year and some of the other ideas that were knocking about wouldn’t have happened. We’d have ended up doing all the planning before they proved impossible.

“There were ideas for the Fireworks Concert for example, but we can now see that we would not be able to be doing that. What we have been able to do is support the eco-system but not draw huge crowds of people together. None of us is in the business of that at the moment.

“It took some time for us to decide how we can be useful and how we could make plans that weren’t just good for the Festival but were good for the arts and good for the city. Even within that we have had to walk a very fine line.”

The devastating effects of Covid-19 on the modus operandi of much of the arts may seem to put all of Edinburgh’s Festivals in the same boat, but it also reveals major differences between what they do and how they engage with their artists and the audience.

Director Nick Barley’s book festival programme has been widely praised as exemplary, for the quality of content it has maintained in a move to being an entirely online event. It is true, however, that the nature of the vast bulk of its activity – readings, one-to-one interviews, and an opportunity for questions – was well-suited to digital platforms.

The crisis even solved some of the difficulties the book festival has in its in-tray, including the vexed issue of the remuneration of participating writers attending to promote their books and the sustainability of the New Town’s elegant Charlotte Square as the festival’s principal venue. If it is as well delivered as it has been conceived, some of the Book Festival’s loyal audience may suggest the online experience has much to recommend itself.

The Fringe, on the other hand, looks a lost cause, even if its participating artists include many of the most tech-savvy in the country. Lots of old-school arts marketing wisdom hangs around the Fringe because the world-wide web is relatively useless at serving its unique character. Its audience has very little in common apart from being in the same geographical location at the same time. One of the best ways to reach it remains hand-delivering a printed leaflet person-to-person in the street. Devotees of the Fringe arrive in Edinburgh without any plan for what they might go to see and hear, and stalk the streets with an increasingly dog-eared publication as an always-flexible agenda of cultural consumption takes shape around pit-stops for food and drink. Being an individual in a vast throng, up close with most of the performers, is the essence of the experience, and definably the one that the health emergency prohibits.

“When we were in the deepest darkest bit of this, the only lights that were on in city venues were the ‘ghost lights’ on the stages,” Linehan says. “So we asked people to think about that, and that led to the idea of turning on all the lights in the theatres, and going to the other extreme and lighting up the night sky.

“This is a story of ‘the Festivals’ and not just us. We are utterly interdependent on each other and I think that’s really come across in what we are doing. It is just as important for us to light up Summerhall and Bristo Square as it is for us to light up the Usher Hall and Festival Theatre. I hope it sends out a positive message to the world, when there is someone from CNN standing on an empty Royal Mile and saying something funereal. The artists are all still here; the creativity doesn’t go away.”

The lights will come on across Edinburgh this evening as the Festival’s My Light Shines On gala on BBC Scotland TV and the EIF YouTube Channel ends. Presented by Kirsty Wark and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s hugely popular cello player Su-a Lee, it will include excerpts of work filmed for the EIF’s online presence in Edinburgh venues by all of Scotland’s national performing arts companies.

“And there are some beautiful projects,” says Linehan. “Hope Dickson Leach’s film for the NTS and Paul Lewis playing Beethoven are just exquisite. We also have Jenni Fagan reading in Charlotte Square, and Daniel Sloss doing stand-up in Bristo Square. Alan Cumming and Ian McKellen are calling in. It is all a bit of ‘ra-ra-ra the Festivals’.”

Celebration is only the surface benefit of My Light Shines On in Linehan’s book, however.

“We asked people how we could be useful. We talked to companies who had the capacity to move on to the next stage, and in footballing terms it is the equivalent of playing behind closed doors as opposed to showing reruns of old matches. We are doing Festival projects in theatres and in concert halls but without the audience. It is the first time the orchestras and dance companies have been able to come together and it was incredibly complicated, as it is for sport.

“That has had two big effects. It creates the protocols and the systems for people to be able to come back together again in the venues, and that is the big thing that performing artists have been longing for.

“And practically it meant more than 500 people working on this and being paid to do so, and that is hugely important. To be blunt about it, the process has been just as important as whatever the outcome is. I can’t tell you how complicated it was to put the SCO back together again on a stage, or the dancers of Scottish Ballet.

“Putting all that back together, contracting people and giving those venues rental was our job – and then lighting up the city over what would have been our opening weekend without attracting big crowds. It is a very practical programme built around resilience and solidarity that hopefully will send out a positive and optimistic message.

“This has been a very practical exercise. People need to be engaged and contracted again and what is key is how we give meaningful and valuable work to people over the next year in a way that has value for the widest possible community. That is going to be a big challenge. There are lots of other things we could do in terms of profile, repurposing stuff from the archive, which is lovely, but it doesn’t address the big questions that we need to wrestle with.”

Grappling with the legacy of Covid-19, if and when it is no longer a clear and present danger, also has implications for Linehan personally, who had planned to end his tenure as festival director with the 75th event in 2022.

“One thing we do have is a bit of time,” he says cautiously, “and I am conscious of the degree to which we are normally hurtling towards another Festival and delivering it properly and balancing the books, and that takes a lot of your creative energy.

“The 2022 anniversary celebrations now take on a different tone because I need to make sure that the Festival is as robust as possible. We need to take a slightly longer perspective and start thinking about 2023. What does coming out of the crisis look like?”

My Light Shines On is broadcast on BBC Scotland TV and the EIF YouTube channel from 9.30pm tonight, with the full versions of the work showcased in the gala available online thereafter.