‘This is such a terrible mess. But I feel the power of what we do more vividly than ever’
This year's Edinburgh festival is off – but only postponed, says its Irish head, Fergus Linehan
Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan: ‘We decided to say to everyone, whatever we’ve agreed for this year, we’ll honour it into 2021’
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything it’s how connected we all are. Not just that a cough by an apparently healthy person in one country can lead to deaths in another, but also how intricate and far reaching our dependencies are, and how fragile our economic wellbeing.
That’s as true in the arts as in any other area of activity. As director of Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan understood that the cancellation of this year’s programme would inevitably remove a major node in local, national and international cultural networks.
Although the festival had grasped how serious the situation was by mid-February, it still printed brochures and had its website ready to go. “We actually did our senior donors’ briefing,” Linehan says. “We were literally on the eve of our public launch, and that’s when we decided we were going to pull the plug. Well... what we said was we were going to postpone it indefinitely.”
We had to figure out what principles we were going to work by, in terms of all of our artists. We decided to say to everyone, whatever we’ve agreed for this year, we’ll honour it into 2021
Edinburgh has a collection of festivals. “There’s ourselves, the book festival, the fringe and the art festival. We all came together and realised, if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it all at the same time. We had to figure out what principles we were going to work by, in terms of all of our artists. We decided to say to everyone, whatever we’ve agreed for this year, we’ll honour it into 2021.”
Basically, he says, “postponement is infinitely better than cancellation”, not least because a future contract is better for any individual or company to be able to talk to their bank manager about than nothing at all. “A whole bunch of work still fell over, because everyone’s schedule just got thrown up in the air. Obviously, particularly in things like opera, aligning those schedules is incredibly complex, and happens many years out.”
The festival needed to shore up its own financial situation, too, “asking a lot of people if it was okay if the support that they had committed to in 2020 could be repurposed for resilience for the organisation. That was a huge job, because this is a very broad tent”. And he had concerns about freelance workers, because for a lot of them Edinburgh was “probably their most lucrative contract”. He wanted to see “how we might be able to support them, or the degree to which we might be able to support them in July and August”.
This was all done against a background in which some big players – he mentions Broadway – were still being cocky about how soon they would be back on track. And the complication was that “it wasn’t really force majeure. It wasn’t that our performing licences had been withdrawn or anything like that. Effectively it all had to be done in goodwill.”
Linehan talks ruefully about there having been “a huge reschedule into October-November that is now being rescheduled into February-March. In a sense we’re in a very luxurious position. We don’t actually have to put a performance on now until August 6th, 2021. It’s not a sure thing. But it’s those venues that have to deal with constantly shifting dates that I feel worst for.”
There’s a huge anxiety that audiences will be slow to come back in. What can be done to attract them? I think we’ll see a lot of Bohèmes and Traviatas and Beethoven Fives
The fact that Edinburgh “went early, and we had a very clear plan on it, created a certain amount of institutional clarity for us. Though, obviously, it left a huge financial hole, and has created consternation down the line.”
How easy is it, at this stage, to find artists and institutions offering work for 2021? “It depends on where in the world you’re talking about. The Germans just had to reschedule, because there’s such massive investment in culture there. There are still orchestras saying they’re going ahead with their European tours in 2021.” Though, obviously, those tours will depend on how those orchestras’ fundraising holds up.
“Opera just has to plan,” he says. “Because if it doesn’t, it won’t happen. Everyone is going to announce [their festival programme] much later. We would normally announce in March, and we’ll have to announce much later than that. I think this autumn you won’t see so many plans for the year being announced. I think things are going to be done on a project-by-project basis.”
One of the unknowables is the appetite audiences will have, given the health risks of going to concert halls or theatres in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine. “There’s a lot of talk about whether or not this will have an effect of making programming choices far more conservative. Because people will need audiences, and they’ll be trying to get audiences back.”
It may be, he says, that “they will need to be rolling out with absolute core rep [repertoire] performed by very well-loved artists. That’s across all artforms, actually. There’s a huge anxiety that audiences will be slow to come back in. What can be done to attract them? I think we’ll see a lot of Bohèmes and Traviatas and Beethoven Fives. A lot of familiar works just to get things going again.”
In parallel with risk aversion among audiences, there’s the ever-present issue of social distancing.
“There’s all sorts of conversations going on at the moment. People are talking about the idea that you would have an orchestra doing two one-hour concerts with a couple of hours between them. So if you had a 2,000-seat hall and it ended up being a 800- or 700-seat hall, you might do two lower-priced concerts within the same engagement. Also that means you don’t have to sit in the same space for too long.”
The government purse is going to come under pressure; donors and sponsors and trusts are going to come under pressure. And box office is going to come under pressure. So, yes, it’s going to be tough. There’s no other way of painting it
The Dubliner has a “whatever it takes“ attitude to getting things up and running again. But “if there hasn’t been a vaccine, older people may feel they need to be shielded. There will be a resistance; they may feel they can’t go out. The audience for classical music in particular is older. It’s something you tend to come to later in life, for a lot of people. That’s something that’s going to have to be thought through in quite a careful way.”
One of the good things about festivals, he says, “is that people will try out different formats and go to things at different times of the day and different [performance] lengths. We don’t have to do that 2½ hours of music every Tuesday. We have that flex. We have that role to lead audiences to attend in slightly different ways”.
Covid-19 track and trace may also be crucial. “There’s a lot of very technical talk about whether or not there will be a way of matching up all the track-and-trace technology to ticket-buying technology. So once somebody walks into an auditorium they know that, if there was ever a risk, it would all be traced back immediately. In places like South Korea that’s become very advanced.
“There’s reservations about that, about the fact that not everyone will have that technology. So will you limit your audience to people who have fairly flashy smartphones? Festival Republic” – the big UK-based music promoter, which also runs some Irish events – “is doing quite a bit of work on this at the moment, on some sort of system whereby, as part of the ticket-buying process, you effectively go through some kind of testing around safe crowds. We’ll have to see. Hopefully there’ll be a vaccine and this bloody thing will be behind us by then.”
We’re in recession now, and there’s no knowing how rapidly it will lift. People may not be able to afford events they would have taken for granted last February.
“The recession is going to affect the three financial pillars of music in the UK, Ireland and the US,” Linehan says. “The government purse is going to come under pressure; donors and sponsors and trusts are going to come under pressure. And box office is going to come under pressure. So, yes, it’s going to be tough. There’s no other way of painting it.”
I personally really want to go to some performances. I’d go every night for a month if I was let, now. Since it’s been taken away from us, I feel the absence much more than I’ve ever noticed before
On the other hand, “things that will kickstart the economy are going to be very important again. Things that kickstart tourism, too, particularly in Scotland but also, I guess, in Ireland. We’re connected into the arts industry, but we’re also connected into the events industry in quite a big way. Edinburgh’s festivals collectively bring £300 million” – almost €330 million – “into the economy. People are recognising just how joined at the hip tourism and events are.”
There are imponderables. On the one hand, the random ravages that will see a range of cultural institutions go under; on the other, the hunger the public will have built up for live performances.
“I personally really want to go to some performances,” Linehan says. “I’d go every night for a month if I was let, now. Since it’s been taken away from us, I feel the absence much more than I’ve ever noticed before. And I think a lot of people are the same. The need to experience the sense of all being together. I think that’s going to be enormous. We’re not going to be jaded. That’s for sure.
“On the one hand I go, this is such a terrible mess. And on the other I feel the power of what we do and the importance of what we do more vividly than I have ever before.”