A festival like no other. It’s an oft-made claim by the artistic directors whose tastes, contacts, organisational nous and general va-va-voom drive the capital’s annual arts jamboree to ever greater heights. This year, for once, it’s true.

Satirist Charlie Brooker famously declared ‘Death to 2020’ in a TV special of that name still available to view on Netflix. Few who work in the arts would disagree with the sentiment. So while last year’s Edinburgh festivals did muster some sort of artistic offering, despite the Fringe itself being cancelled, it’s only this 2021 season which can really give an idea of how the festivals have coped, reacted and innovated collectively and individually, and how each will adapt to the landscape moving forward – a landscape now littered with new words and phrases such as PCR test, quarantine, ‘double jabbed’, lateral flow and health passport. At the start of the 2019 festival, an actor or musician being pinged on the eve of a performance didn’t mean anything at all. Now it spells cancellation or, at best, postponement. How the world has changed.

The Edinburgh Fringe starts on August 6. To date it has announced around 170 shows, a far cry from the 3800 which played to 856,000 paying punters at the 2019 event. For anyone who has never witnessed the festival at full throttle, those numbers translate into capital streets thronged day and night, performers and performances crammed into every space available, chainsaw juggling maniacs on most street corners – the city calls them buskers and issues them with a sort of licence – and more pop-up street food stalls than you can poke a wasabi-topped Wagyu beefburger at (that’ll be £12.50 please).

Some of these 2021 Fringe shows will be in-person. Some will be streamed. Many more than usual will be performed in specially-built outdoor venues. The days of cramming into an upstairs room in a pub to watch a comedian at midnight will not return any time soon and all eyes will be on the Scottish Government’s August 9 announcement regarding the lifting of all remaining restrictions to see how much about ‘business as usual’ will actually pertain. Until then, pray for clear skies and no rain.

The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) already has two legacy outdoor events in its portfolio, both of them spectaculars. One is the closing night firework display, which can be seen from across the city. The other, a more recent innovation, are opening night sound and light shows such as Deep Time, which lit up the castle in 2016 and featured a soundtrack by cult Glasgow band Mogwai. This year’s outdoor curtain raiser was meant to be Night Light, hosted by the Royal Botanic Garden. Ironically, it’s the one show which has had to be cancelled. As was the case last year, the fireworks were never programmed in the first place.

But one of the EIF’s major innovations has been the construction of three covered outdoor pavilions: at Edinburgh Park in the west of the city (see below), in the Old Quad of Edinburgh University in the heart of what would normally be Fringe territory and right next to the Festival Theatre, and at the Edinburgh Academy Junior School to the north of the New Town. These will host concerts and performances by, among others, Damon Albarn, Alan Cumming, Nicola Benedetti, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and psych-jazz outfit The Comet Is Coming.

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Fergus Linehan, EIF director, is an optimist. He says so in his welcome note in the 2021 programme brochure and anyone who has met the amiable Irishman will find him upbeat and enthusiastic. But he’s the first to admit that the last year has been a challenge and the way ahead far from clear.

Accordingly, programming this year’s EIF has required lateral thinking and nimble judgement. Linehan juggles budget concerns, staffing logistics and public health constraints rather than chainsaws, but it’s no less difficult a task. The potential for injury – financial or reputational – is just as high.

“One the one hand we didn’t want to over-reach and have to cancel everything, on the other hand we didn’t want to under-cook it and come up with very little when the rest of the world had moved on,” he says of the challenges of programming the 2021 EIF. “If we had arrived in August in our pavilions and the Usher Hall and the Queen’s Hall and Barrowland had been up and running for six weeks, we would have looked pretty stupid. But if we’d arrived and put on a festival and the pandemic was [still] in a place and people were saying ‘You can’t do that’ we would have had to cancel it all.”

As for the mooted lifting of all remaining restrictions on August 9, he speaks for all the festival directors when he says: “It’s not confirmed until it’s confirmed”. “What we’ve tried to do is build a festival which can exist comfortably in level zero and even level one. The other thing is that things can slide in a good way, but they can also slide backwards. So yeah, if everything is off on August 9, that’s great. But nobody will know that until August 2, which is no way to plan. You just can’t do that.”

Of course they also say that necessity is the mother of invention. As any artist will tell you, it’s often out of constraints that innovation comes. The same is true for festivals.

“There is good to come out of it,” Linehan admits. “The Usher Hall is 2500 seats, the Festival Theatre is 1800. We haven’t had the pressure of filling those venues at that scale, so we’ve been a bit more adventurous in some ways in terms of programme. We’ll have to see how the audience respond, but this idea of using these sites [the pavilions] in this way I’m sure we’re going to learn things from. And of course the other thing is that it’s almost second nature for us now to offer a festival online, with broadcast partners. There’s just stuff we did not know how to do 12 months ago in regard to that which we’re getting quite good at now. So I’m sure there’s lots of things that we will have improved at, and new ways of doing things that we’re going to carry beyond this year.”

Linehan’s welcome message also strikes a note of caution, however. “We look forward to welcoming everyone back to the world’s greatest stage when it is safe to do so,” he writes. When does he think that will be? Next year? The year after?

“All social activity has a certain amount of risk attached to it, you know? Before Covid, if you were packing into Barrowland on a sweaty night there was probably a chance that things were going to happen. By safe, I think we mean reasonable safety in relation to public health, which is akin to the sort of things we would have expected before Covid. I think we’re well on the way to that.

“I still think that people love to gather in very large numbers. That’s why we got to football matches. It’s something in our nature. And I think that we’ve got to make that as safe as possible.”

What isn’t in doubt is that one more year of a denuded or downgraded Edinburgh festival will have dire financial consequences. The EIF, for example, is down £2 million in box office sales. “You couldn’t do this year again next year,” says Linehan. “It doesn’t break even. We managed to pull resources from right left and centre to get it on in its current form.”

What of the other festivals? The Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) is now back in its traditional August slot and has a new creative director, Kristy Matheson. It launches its programme on July 28 but has already announced its closing film, Here Today, directed by and starring Billy Crystal, and Film Fest On The Forth, a programme of outdoor screenings with an aquatic theme to be held over the weekend of July 31 to August 1 at Port Edgar Marina near South Queensferry. There will also be Film Fest In The City, a series of outdoor screenings in St Andrew Square Gardens.

With multiplexes now open there will be in-person screenings as the EIFF promotes cinema-going as a communal experience. But the festival has also launched Filmhouse At Home, an online platform. Other innovations include Scotland-wide events which aim to extend the EIFF’s national reach and – a common theme across all the festivals – a closer focus on issues which have come to the fore over the last 18 months such as climate change, racism, social inequality and social injustice.

Change is afoot too at the other end of George Street from St Andrew Square. Normally Charlotte Square would be filled with white tented venues, portable toilet blocks and the much-loved Spiegeltent. In the open green space which lent credence to the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s claim to be an oasis of calm in the heart of the city you would normally have found book lovers reading books and licking ice cream in a deck chair. Not this year. The festival has decamped to a new home, Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), just up the road in Lauriston Place. Among those appearing either in person or virtually are Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, cult graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, Neil Gaiman, Ali Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Salman Rushdie and Jenni Fagan, who will also lead a walking tour of the Old Town haunts featured in her acclaimed new novel Luckenbooth.

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Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro

Talk to book festival director, Nick Barley, and you hear much mention of “hybridisation”. It’s his term for a book festival which will continue to deliver in-person events but with an added (and new) emphasis on high-quality digital content that loses none of the immediacy of a live author interview but greatly extends the festival’s reach. That matters if you’re in Paisley, Oregon and can’t make it to Edinburgh this year – but also if you’re in Ferguslie Park in the other Paisley and wanting to hear Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart being interviewed by Nicola Sturgeon. That’s scheduled for August 30 and is a pay-what-you-can event.

“The accident of history is that end of the lockdown in Britain is coming so close to the beginning of Edinburgh’s festivals that we’re right in the front line,” says Barley. “So what people did two months ago was online only festivals, and the only possibility for the re-emergence of in-person festivals is now.”

What Barley hears are “lingering anxieties” about mass gatherings and indoor events. “We’ve decided that even if the August 9 date holds, we will still maintain one metre distancing in our indoor spaces,” he says. “Obviously we could earn a lot more money if we went to full capacity, but we think also there are reputational issues to think about and we have to think about the safety and the confidence not only of audiences but also staff, some of whom won’t be double jabbed by the then because they’re quite young, and participating authors.”

The move to ECA is “a cost reduction thing first and foremost” but there are environmental reasons too. Footfall through the square was 250,000 over the course of the festival and there was evidence of damage to trees and surface. In its new home the festival’s two indoor venues will accommodate only 400 and 250 respectively – reduced to 100 and 60 this year – and ECA’s outdoor spaces will replicate as much as possible the “green oasis” of Charlotte Square. And there will be no need to build tents and install generators.

But perhaps the most exciting innovation is in the digital sphere: the book festival has established three broadcast studios, two of which can accommodate audiences. This is how it plans to serve its growing online audience and amass what will one day be a rich and sizeable archive of author interviews.

Barley had heard people talking about screen fatigue but he had also noted that it didn’t stop them binge-watching TV series. Why was that? “I realised it isn’t about screen fatigue, it’s about being bored of badly produced screen activities,” he says. “So the key to it is production quality. We have to have multiple camera angles, we have to have proper production values, broadcast production values. It’s not good enough to do a glorified Zoom call and call it an online festival. That’s why we’ve invested a lot of money in our studios and in making sure we’ve got broadcast quality cameras and editing output. We’ve got six cameras in each studio, three of them with camera operators, one of them on a gimbal like the steady-cam you get on the touchline during a football match.”

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Bernardine Evaristo in London in conversation with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon  at the 2020 Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s traditional to wait until the end of the Edinburgh festival before looking forward to the next one. In 2022, however, the world’s greatest arts festival marks its 75th anniversary. More than that, 2022 could – should – see a return to something approaching normality. But even with the pandemic in the past it can’t not affect the present or the future, whether that’s two, five or 10 years from now.

“It’s difficult to look five years into the future because the key to festivals is that they have to be responsive to their times,” says Barley. “But I think it’s more than likely that the book festival will be a hybrid format for its long-term future. So you’ll be able to either watch in person or on screen, and watching on screen could be sitting in the gardens or in the outdoor space at the festival site watching with other people at the festival, or watching at home. Hybridity gives us all sorts of flexibility about how people can take part.”

For his part Fergus Linehan thinks the return to normality may be slow, but it will happen. It has too, he thinks, because arts events and art festivals are “so compelling”. “So many of the things that you think you’d love to do just once in your life involve being at sporting or cultural occasions, where you’re in the company of tens or hundreds of thousands of people.”

It may even be that a heightened element of risk increases the enjoyment. Linehan has recently attended a few arts events in England and, while the protocols are a pain he says, the end result is more than worth the effort. “Even at a relatively simple concert, just to be back with live music and with people is quite a thing. It was incredibly moving.”

As for how the artists featuring at future festivals will deal with the events of the last 18 months, that will be slow to reveal itself. As Nick Barley notes, the great pandemic novel hasn’t been written yet. It probably hasn’t even been started.

Linehan agrees. “Artists won’t unpack it [the pandemic] in a literal way. I think there have been one or two bits of great art which have come out of the pandemic so far, like Bo Burnham’s Inside [on Netflix]. It’s the only thing I’ve seen really which has started to grasp what has happened. But we won’t see it from artists for a while.”

Perhaps audiences don’t want to see it either. Perhaps they want distraction rather than reflection. Linehan agrees.

“The word from those places lucky enough to open up at the moment is they want joy,” he says. “They want laughter but not necessarily sardonic laughter. When I talk to people about popular music they say they want to be in a forest at a rave. In classical music, people are saying they want Vivaldi and Mozart. We want joy and beauty. That might be just the initial moment, but that’s the sort of accepted wisdom. That’s what people are really responding to – a sense of joy and celebration.”

Bring it on.

Edinburgh International Festival, August 7-29; Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 14-30; Edinburgh Fringe, August 6-30; Edinburgh International Film Festival, August 18-25