The 2023 Edinburgh Fringe programme launches today with over 3000 shows including a narcoleptic stand-up, theatre made using verbatim testimony from NHS nurses, a one-person show about the history of trans men, a “genderqueer drag-clown” Oasis tribute act – and a hit play about Dominic Cummings.

Speaking to The Herald, Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy welcomed the return of the world’s biggest arts festival in all its chaotic glory and stressed the importance of the Fringe Society’s role within it.

“The Fringe is a zeitgeist moment and that’s what so many of our performers do, they help us try to articulate the world around us through comedy or spoken word or theatre,” she said. “The thing that I think the Fringe Society does is that it holds this festival to the values on which it was founded, so the principles of open access and inclusion – to give anyone a stage and everyone a seat.”

Addressing the ongoing challenges the Fringe faces, however, she warned it could take half a decade for it to return to pre-Covid 19 levels, and for individual venues and the Fringe Society itself to clear their debts and deficits. Initiatives such as the extension of theatre tax relief and the implementation of long-term tenancy agreements for venues would help.

“If you’re talking about the health and wellbeing of the festival I don’t think we’re post-Covid,” she said. “I think we’re in a recovery period that we’ve said from the get-go we thought would be five years. We as an organisation still have a £1 million loan from the Scottish Government that we have to start paying in 2026. I’d say a lot of the venues across the Fringe landscape are carrying debts and deficits from the Covid years, and there are many, many artists who are still feeling the aftermath of that.”

She also restated the position she laid out in a podcast in April regarding the care required to nurture the Fringe as a brand.

“When you go overseas the brand of the Fringe is absolutely massive and [at home] the value of the brand I don’t think is necessarily recognised,” she said. “I do think there’s an under recognition of the value it brings to the entire cultural ecology of Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

Mounting a bullish defence of the controversial new £7 million headquarters for the Fringe Society she noted that it “doesn’t make sense” for Fringe Society staff to be currently spread over three buildings. “What we need is a space that consolidates everything we do. It has been on our aspiration list since 2017 and the initial motivation was that then everyone was saying: ‘The Fringe is 70 tell us the story’.”

With a timeframe of around two years, the plan is for the Society to move to the current South Bridge Resource Centre, a former school located next to the Dovecot Gallery on Infirmary Street. “It’s very rare for a building in the Fringe footprint [between George Street and George Square] to come up and that was really important to us as well.”

There are 3013 shows in this year’s Fringe, slightly down on last year and well down on pre-pandemic highs. Despite that Ms McCarthy declared herself unfazed.

“The Fringe is the Fringe, and it will morph and change and shift and adjust to whatever is happening around it,” she said. “The definition of success is not its scale. If we were to hit £3.1 million again in terms of ticket sales or audience members going to see shows I would crow about that. It’s a much bigger determinant of success for us.”

Across the city 248 venues will host 45,182 performances by artists from 68 countries, with over a quarter of the shows being Scottish. And after an absence of three years, a Fringe app is also to be reintroduced. It will launch in the middle of July.

The Herald: Circus act Afrique en Cirque, appearing at AssemblyCircus act Afrique en Cirque, appearing at Assembly (Image: Peter Graham)

The Herald: Lena, about the life of Lena Zavaroni, appearing at AssemblyLena, about the life of Lena Zavaroni, appearing at Assembly (Image: Assembly)

Among the more unusual venues to host Fringe shows are the swimming pool of Dean’s Community High School in Livingston, the Port O’Leith Boxing Club, and Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Warriston.

Standout themes this year include class, gender diversity, neurodiversity, disability, politics, mental health and the climate crisis.

A common complaint in recent years has been the cost of accommodation in the capital in August for both visitors and performers. Addressing the issue Ms McCarthy pointed to the Fringe Society’s role in helping release reasonably priced accommodation into the marketplace. This year Heriot-Watt University will join Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University in offering accommodation.

She had praise too for the contribution of writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, ten years after Fleabag premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe. Ms Waller-Bridge, who is also the Fringe Society’s honorary president, has contributed £50,000 to the £100,000 Keep It Fringe scheme. This year it saw 50 artists from over 600 applicants awarded £2000 each to bring new work to the festival.

“[I’m pleased with] the range and variety of shows that have come through with that support,” said Ms McCarthy. “Nowhere near enough. We’ve still a long way to go. But [it’s good] to be able to establish a fund in this year of all years when the cost of living is just so harsh for so many people, and the rising cost of overall of taking the risk to come and do the festival.”

Hailing the “phenomenal event” that is the Edinburgh Fringe, Ms Waller-Bridge said in a statement: “This programme will hit the fringe with the creative wildness, political provocation, and huge cultural impact that the festival delivers year after year, at a time when we need it most. We need help processing what the hell is going on in the world as well as being treated with the imaginative escape that only the immersive experience of the Fringe can provide.”

The Edinburgh Fringe opens on August 4 and runs until August 28.