THE Edinburgh Festival Fringe is, without question, a glorious thing. The world’s single biggest platform for the arts (which boasts no fewer than 3841 shows this year), it has transformed the city of Edinburgh and reinvigorated Scottish culture ever since it was established (alongside the Edinburgh International Festival) in 1947.

Long after it had provided a much-needed shot in the arm for its host city in the bleak-but-hopeful years after the Second World War, the Fringe was leaving its colourful mark on generation after generation of arts lovers. I, for one, owe a massive, personal debt to the festival.

My love of the performing arts and my 25-year career in theatre criticism and arts journalism are down, in very large measure, to an inspirational English teacher. However, it is also unimaginable that I could have followed the path I have were it not for the Fringe.

I first attended the festival, aged 18, in 1989. I have never missed a Fringe since.

The sheer size and scale of the event astonished me. The variety of the work on offer set my young head spinning. Early delights included the one-man shows of Guy Masterson (who is still going strong as one of the Fringe’s finest performers and producers) and the work of the great Scottish theatre company Communicado.

Passionately internationalist and European, even in my teens, I would dive enthusiastically into the central and eastern European programmes of Edinburgh’s superb impresario Richard Demarco.

The National: Richard DemarcoRichard Demarco

This was a form of cultural Russian roulette. Some shows were deliciously imaginative and, to my Scottish sensibilities, highly unusual. However, in shows such as a Yugoslavian piece in which the character of a distraught, war-damaged woman went from one audience member to another repeating the phrase “not the children!” over-and-over, I also suffered for Demarco’s art.

But that was all part of the pleasure of being a Fringegoer. Where else on Earth was there such a massive artistic free-for-all where the blatantly commercial, the transparently controversialist, the cheerfully mediocre and the unforgettably brilliant jostled so energetically for one’s attention?

The Fringe has its naysayers, of course. It’s too big, too commercial, and it drives up rents and hotel prices, they say.

One can’t help but feel that many of these detractors forget that they, too, were young once. I like to think that there are young people today who arrive at the Fringe with the same kind of wide-eyed excitement and the same voracious cultural appetite with which I came in my late teens and early twenties.

In fact, I know there are. I see it in my own, young adult children and their friends, who try to wring as much invigorating cultural experience out of the Fringe as they can, as if squeezing the last juice from an orange.

HOWEVER, if some of the criticism of the festival seems curmudgeonly and cavilling, a recent controversy, arising from research by the Fair Fringe campaign, demands more serious consideration. In particular, the campaign group complained that some major Fringe producers were employing people as volunteers, rather than as waged staff (the C venues, in particular, was castigated for, reportedly, paying people as little as £200, by way of volunteer subsistence, for almost a month’s work).

It wasn’t long before, in the early months of this year, that Festival Fringe Society director Shona McCarthy found herself in the eye of a media storm.

Her disagreement with Fair Fringe’s demand that everyone working on the Fringe be paid at least the minimum living wage of £8.75 (one of 10 demands in its Fair Fringe Charter) led to uncomfortable headlines.

“Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief says ‘fair pay’ activists a threat to event,” read one. “Paying People Properly Will Ruin the Festival says Fringe Boss,” ran another.

Given this, it is, perhaps, little surprise that, when I arrive at the Fringe Society’s offices on Edinburgh’s High Street for our scheduled interview, McCarthy is flanked by not one, but two press officers. There is an understandable sense of nervousness about media attention.

I try to put the director and her staff at ease. I am not, I reassure them, the kind of journalist who is searching for a garish, controversialising headline, at the expense of the more nuanced realities that lie underneath.

A long-time worker and, later, leader in cultural organisations in her native Northern Ireland, McCarthy admits to having never before encountered the kind of public scrutiny that the Fringe receives. That can, she adds, make the festival “susceptible to myth and anecdote”.

In particular, she is keen to put to rest the suggestion that she is, somehow, at war with the Fair Fringe campaign. “The only point of disagreement with the Fair Fringe Charter is that everybody should be paid the living wage,” she says.

“My point was, ‘what about the Quaker Meeting House, which is completely dependent on volunteers?’” McCarthy is convinced that a great proportion of the work that is done on the Fringe is a “very positive volunteer effort”.

While the Fringe Society itself is a living wage employer, the director doesn’t believe that, for the month of August in Edinburgh, a one-size-fits-all approach can apply across all venues. She’s also at pains to point out that the Fringe works closely with Volunteer Edinburgh, the city-wide body that promotes the development of, and best practice within, the voluntary sector.

This seems like a reasonable argument. Fair Fringe’s implicit demand that there be no volunteer labour at the festival seems at risk of faltering on the law of unintended consequences. Applied to the wider economy, it would close down every Oxfam shop in the country.

That said, could it not also be argued that some large-scale producers are using a volunteering model where they should be employing folk on living wage? I cite the example of Pleasance, which employs people as volunteers on the basis of a £680 subsistence plus accommodation.

Perfectly reasonably, McCarthy doesn’t want to speak on behalf of individual producers, suggesting that I discuss the matter with Pleasance themselves. What she will say, however, is that, for many Fringe volunteers from outside of Edinburgh, being provided with accommodation, alongside a volunteer subsistence payment, is more important than being paid the living wage.

She also points out that Volunteer Edinburgh looked at Pleasance’s model and practice and gave the producer an affirmative “green card”.

For his part, Anthony Alderson, director of Pleasance, says: “The legacy of the Pleasance Festival Volunteer Programme is incredibly positive, with volunteers going on to build careers in major theatrical institutions across the globe.”

He points out that he began his own Pleasance career as a volunteer, adding: “45% of this year’s management team began in the same way. It is a hugely positive experience and many volunteers return year after year – 97% of last year’s volunteers stated they would love to return in 2019 if available.”

Alderson also makes the point that Pleasance does not make money from the bars and catering in its venues (they are run by Edinburgh University Students’ Association). This is a point McCarthy is also keen that the Fringe-going public understands.

BY contrast, she explains, the Underbelly venues do have an income stream from their bars. “These are some of the nuances that we’re very aware of in the Fringe Society but aren’t necessarily known to the general public.”

Her point here is that there is, among the Fringe’s 323 venues, a vast array of different business models, and that has to include the voluntary model, as long as proper standards of volunteering are adhered to. The Fringe Society has worked closely with arts and entertainment industry unions Equity and BECTU to develop fair employment and volunteering codes of practice.

These are, she says, “robust codes”. All Fringe venues are asked to sign up to these codes. “The venues that don’t are really clearly demarcated in the programme. You get your stamp [from the Fringe Society] when you’ve signed up to the best practice code.”

There is a palpable sense of frustration, if not exasperation, on McCarthy’s part that she, who considers herself a lifelong exponent of best employment practice, should have been cast as an opponent of those very same principles.

Indeed, given that she expresses her support for the remaining nine points of the Fair Fringe Charter (ranging from no unpaid trial shifts, to an anti-sexual-harassment policy and trade union recognition), one can’t help but feel that there is ample ground for Fair Fringe campaigners to be part of the ongoing public discussions that the Fringe Society is engaged in. The Sunday National approached Fair Fringe for comment on some of the specific issues regarding volunteering, but no response was forthcoming.

If McCarthy feels somewhat misunderstood on the matter of the living wage and volunteering, she understands entirely the complaints from artists and fringe-goers alike about the often astronomical cost of rents in Edinburgh during August. Although she’s unwilling to express support for a Berlin-style, five-year rent freeze, she is lobbying policy makers and taking the initiative as Fringe Society director.

“The single biggest negative issue that came up during our 70th anniversary conversations [in 2017], as a barrier to artists’ participation, was the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh,” she recalls. It isn’t good enough, she adds, for people in positions of power or influence to throw up their hands and say, “it’s market forces, there’s nothing we can do”.

In fact, under McCarthy’s leadership, the Fringe Society has drawn up an impressive Blueprint identifying eight areas where the Society can improve the festival. One of these is identifying affordable accommodation.

The Fringe has partnered with Theatre Digs Booker, which the director considers “an ethical platform” offering accommodation to theatre professionals. In addition, through public conversation with organisations in the accommodation sector, there have been some notable successes, such as Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh offering 300 rooms to artists, with Napier University providing a further 200.

The Fringe is, in some senses, a victim of its own success. Its sheer size has left it open to profiteering by some Edinburgh landlords and residents.

Its public prominence has also led to the Fringe Society in general, and McCarthy in particular, being subjected to an unusually high level of scrutiny. As my interview with the festival director made clear, that has led to a certain level of wariness on her part.

However, for a woman who has been subjected to the flak she has faced this year, I also found McCarthy to be refreshingly frank and entirely genuine in her mission to lead the Fringe in a manner that is as ethical as it is successful.