Hailstones are bouncing off the cobblestones, but the buskers across the Royal Mile from the Fringe Society's bright blue door just keep on playing. Laughing, too, while the tourists struggle uphill towards St Giles Cathedral, their plastic I heart Edinburgh ponchos billowing in the icy wind. Stoical bagpipers pipe on in bearskin hats and tartan kilts.
Looking out her office window, Shona McCarthy laments that six weeks into her new role as director of the Fringe Festival, she hasn’t had time to buy a decent raincoat and a pair of flat boots. Other than that, McCarthy has no complaints. After all, she has landed one of the most sought after arts jobs in the world.
“It’s exceptional,” she says. “The Fringe makes sense of everything I’ve always believed about access to the arts – I love the way people can curate their own festival out of a programme with literally thousands of options. Essentially, it’s a month- long explosion of arts.”
McCarthy gained her name as a determined visionary of arts curation during a distinguished career in her native Northern Ireland, where her most recent major role was as chief executive of the company that delivered Derry's year as UK City of Culture in 2013.
She has a reputation for bravery – which is just as well because the scale of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is mind-blowing. Last year there were 3,314 shows; 2,298,090 tickets issued for more than 300 venues, ranging from underground carparks to shipping containers to concert halls and cathedrals. McCarthy took up her post in April and the festival kicks off in August. She also sits on the board of Festivals Edinburgh, which brings together the directors of the city's 12 main festivals.
"I'm not daunted," she says. "Of course it is challenging, but this is the first time I haven't had to set everything up from scratch. The Fringe celebrates its 70th anniversary next year. The outgoing chief executive, Kath Mainland, left it in excellent shape and I have a formidable senior management team of three women as well as a full time staff of 23.
"The structure is unusual. The Fringe Society curates a central infrastructure for a festival which is open-access. It also has a very refreshing business model. It is largely self-financing; only a tiny bit of it relies on public sector funding."
The 2016 programme will be launched on June 8th. A new app will be introduced this year, but thousands of copies of the big floppy paperback brochure will still be distributed across the world. Some people turn up at the box office with intricate spread sheets; others take their chances. “The hit-and-miss aspect is part of the fun,” says McCarthy.
August means Fringe in Edinburgh. The streets are thronged. The long since closed travel agent on the corner is suddenly a theatre. Locals say that when you go out you risk inadvertently becoming involved in a street performance; that after a few days you fail to blink when, on a 10-minute walk to the shops, you pass a fire juggler, a gospel choir and a Shakespeare re-enactment. It goes on all night long.
More than 900 shows are already selling online at tickets.edfringe.com. They include 9 to 5, a feminist musical based on the 1980 cult movie, with music from Dolly Parton's original score; Are We Stronger Than Winston?, a contemporary dance show from Fiji that explores the fight for survival against climate change; a "rip-roaring comedy" called After Magritte, about "a senile woman obsessed with the tuba"; and Baby Loves Disco, "the coolest dayclubbing experience for parents with babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers". Talks include one from academic Khadijah Elshayyal on how, in the name of national security, radical became "a dirty word".
As always, there is a strong Irish element. Camille O'Sullivan, nominated as "Queen of the Fringe" by the BBC, will premiere her new show, The Carney Dream, featuring songs by Nick Cave, David Bowie, Jacques Brel and Arcade Fire.
Irish comedy is a mainstay. Maeve Higgins, Jason Byrne, Eleanor Tiernan, Dylan Moran, Colin Murphy and Deirdre O'Kane are regulars, and there is even a "Best of Irish Comedy" show. Kat Woods returns with a new play, Mule, inspired by the story of the "Peru Two" and exploring the "female-isation" of drug smuggling. The Lords of Strut is offering two shows, one "late night" and the other "family."
The Fringe is a big friendly monster of an event, and it is also big business. Programmers for the main venues travel all over the world looking for the best new works, with as much emphasis on great shows for children. The world’s press descends and a great review can launch a career, as can a Fringe First or one of the many other awards available.
“I love the fact that the Fringe is international,” says McCarthy.
Born in 1968 in a village on the Ards Peninsula in Co Down, McCarthy grew up regarding the arts as a way to escape the stifling parochialism of the North during the Troubles. "You were boxed in to your sectarian identity," she says. "It was Seamus Heaney who talked about the fifth province, space for the imagination."
She went to what was then known as the New University at Coleraine. "My flatmate was Nigerian, my first boyfriend was Ghanaian. I looked around and thought, 'Holy God, there's a world out there!" Her first job was as the programmer for Cinemagic, a children's film festival in Belfast, and she ran her own cultural advocacy and project management company, Ruby Blue.
McCarthy led Belfast’s bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2000. “It was only two years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, so it was kind of bonkers to think we could win – and we didn’t. But it started a conversation about the importance of culture in breaking down division.”
As head of the British Council in Northern Ireland (a body that connects students, academics, teachers and artists with others around the world), she learned a lot about that. The City of Culture year in Derry was her most challenging role. "Not least because I was hosting a UK title in a city in which most people ardently consider themselves Irish."
"I wanted to bring an approach that democratised the process of curation," she says. "We had a core vision. We started with the people on the outskirts of the city rather than with the institutions in the city centre. We brought in extraordinary international acts that wanted to work with local people. So the Tate brought the Turner Prize to Derry and worked with local curators, and the Hofesh Schechter dance company trained young Derry dancers. Thousands of people got to participate."
Now she want to bring her inclusive approach to Edinburgh. "For the last 20 years I've looked at Scotland with envy. There has been such creative learning here. After this year's festival, I want us to explore where the fringe sits in the city and the country.
“How does a 16-year-old in Inverness see the Fringe, or do they? I want us to look at barriers to participation. We’ll look at who hasn’t participated and what we can do to bring them in and make the Fringe truly open access. There is a moral onus on us to ask hard questions.”
McCarthy misses her family. Her partner will move to Scotland in the summer. Her older daughter, Toraigh, is deciding what university she wants to go to, while her younger girl, Dara, has a year left at school in the North. But if she is a little lonely, she is also dazzled by Edinburgh.
“Oh my God I love this city – it is absolutely beautiful. A city of discovery. I have been given such a welcome here. It is class.”
IRISH IN EDINBURGH
Just a few of the many Irish comedians who have conquered the world after the Edinburgh Fringe:
Jason Byrne, described by the Times as “the outright king of live comedy” will appear at the Fringe for the 21st year this August. He won a Perrier Newcomer with his first show and now tours the world. He will be in the Assembly Hall daily for the month in the middle of a tour that starts in Naas, takes in all of Ireland and the UK, before returning to Belfast in December.
David O’Doherty started his career at Dublin’s comedy cellar and got his first break with a Perrier Newcomer award at the Fringe – he has since been nominated for several Comedy Awards. In 2008 his winning act featured “a relationship in text messages, tunes played on a 3ft electronic keyboard, and a badger attack”. He returns to the Fringe every year.
Tommy Tiernan will already have performed in Australia, Dubai, Moscow and Canada this year before he comes back to Edinburgh with his new show, Out of the Whirlwind. He won the Channel 4 So You Think You're Funny award in 1996 and has won numerous other awards since, including the Perrier in 1998 and the Orange Best of the Fest Award at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003.
Ed Byrne, described by fellow comedian Andrew Maxwell as “an annoying super- logical stick monster” got a Perrier nomination in 1998 at the Fringe and by 2006 was winning its biggest selling comedy show of the year award.
FIVE OF THE BEST
Winners of Dave’s Funniest Joke of the Fringe Award from 2011 to 2015
2015 – “I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans free.” – Darren Walsh
2014 – “I’ve decided to sell my Hoover… well, it was just collecting dust.” – Tim Vine
2013 – “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.” – Rob Auton
2012 – “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks.” – Stewart Francis
2011 – “I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” – Nick Helm