Fringe Class of ’22

Posted on 12th September 2022

“I didn’t realise the Royal Mile would be all uphill!”, “Does anyone know where Monkey Barrel is?” “Okay here’s a 7-page document of all the shows we can’t miss.” “We need to stop for a pint. I don’t care if it’s 10 in the morning, I am knackered!”
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival first began in 1947 when eight theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival, an event to celebrate European culture in the wake of World War II. The theatre groups went ahead with their shows without any question and performed on the fringe of the International Festival. Thus creating the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

Every year since, people from all over will flock to Edinburgh every August to perform, entertain, participate and enjoy the three weeks. Many big names and familiar faces got their break at the Edinburgh Fringe and have gone on to have bright and successful careers off the back of it. Undoubtedly, a large per cent of these names were part of the Cambridge Footlights and were able to attend and perform at the Fringe every year without fees and a guarantee of venue. The Footlights was first formed in 1883 but did not have recognition until the 1960s. It was always a comedy sketch group but the members would be a constant flow and change of troops.

In the 60s, Footlights Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took to the Edinburgh Fringe and were the first Cambridge alumni to associate their university society with the Fringe Festival. They became ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and toured the UK and America before finding their way into TV. The 70s Footlights / Edinburgh Fringe era bought us none other than the Monty Python lot, who have not stopped working since that summer. In the following decade, a new group of Footlights made their way to Edinburgh, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson. And the 90s batch to take the Fringe; Olivia Colman, David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Richard Ayoade, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc. There must be something in the Cambridge water because these people don’t just go on to have comfortable careers, they become household names and a massive success. I am not suggesting these people are not talented or deserving of their careers, I’m just curious about the association between the Cambridge Footlights and The Edinburgh Fringe.

There are thousands of acts at the Fringe every year so the competition for recognition, reviewers and audience is hot. Who is to say that in 1981 there were not 100 other people who could have had the career of Emma Thompson, they just weren’t found? Did these talented comedians have the leg up because they were part of a well know comedy group which already had a rich history of success? Does all of this mean that the Cambridge Footlight members are guaranteed success?

I spoke to Tabby Ewing who performed at the Fringe for the first time this year. Tabby is a Proteus Youth Theatre alumnus and went on to study the arts at university. Tabby attended the Fringe with her university troupe which is “separate to the Drama course at Queen Mary, so Queen Mary Theatre Company is student-run. Albeit with funding grants for the School of English and Drama and the Student Union.” The troupe she is part of has students from many different courses, including Comparative Literature, History, and Bio-Med. Tabby explained how she felt this “helps democratise it to less of a Drama Student dominated field.”
I spoke to Tabby about my thoughts surrounding Cambridge Footlights and how a more prestigious university was able to send students every year to the Fringe, often resulting in outstanding careers. For someone who attends the Fringe through a university attachment, Tabby has an honest insight which I do not. I asked her if other universities wishing to send students to Edinburgh had the ability to, would we see a more diverse class mix coming out of the festival?
“Fringe this year, for our company, was the most financially accessible it’s ever been. Frankly, because the Company’s saved money from the pandemic. This will sadly have to change for the forthcoming years.” She went on to explain how her university has been attending the Fringe for 30 years and it is now becoming more difficult to do so. “It begs the question of moving to a smaller festival, but Edinburgh is the event of the year and I want to still be able to give that experience.” This showed me something that I had been missing while looking into The Footlights. How the current climate is a struggle for all students and universities. The cost of living crisis, wage strikes, the Covid fallout. These are things which are only relevant today and are going to affect everything which requires funding. Class diversity at Edinburgh is something which has had a question mark above it for some time now but in the grand scheme of things, Edinburgh Fringe is expensive and this year it was a struggle for many more people than ever before. “The problem with many drama courses and societies is their lack of diversity, QMTC is a prime example. I have to recognise my privilege, I am white, cis, and middle class and therefore it was much easier for me to do the festival. Queen Mary is the most diverse Russell group, and the theatre company should reflect that. But this is an issue with the industry as a whole. The people running things are not diverse, that needs to change and therefore people who are of a diverse class mix continue to feel unable to participate. So yes to give a short answer to your question, I think we would eventually [see a diverse class mix]. But I think first the whole industry needs to be more class diverse, and diverse as a whole. We are never going to get the new and excellent futures of theatre if it continues the way it has been.”
Tabby stumped me. She is right, we can’t look at one small section of the problem and want change because that just isn’t how it works. So, you want class diversity at a festival that takes place once a year? You need to go to the source. We need to make the industry more diverse and the things that happen every day need to be diverse, then it can flow into The Edinburgh Fringe.

If young people like Tabby are the ones who are making their stamp on the Fringe and have anything to say about the issue, then expect the work to get done. There is hope for the future. I asked Tabby what she thought of the festival in general.
“Fringe for me should be for the new weirdos, I was part of the directory, but I knew I’d never get properly noticed for it. Maybe that’s a good thing, but no one goes to Fringe to get noticed or make profits. It’s so fun, so fun but also it’s unsustainable, no fringe app, the half-price hut is not the same etc. It shouldn’t be about big-name comedians, the ones I saw on all the buses and in advertising, it should be about the small ones. And with Edinburgh rents skyrocketing and locals being pushed out, it’s not working. It all goes back to the Fringe needing to be more affordable. I loved it so much; it was a lot but so much fun. It made me realise this is for me, but I fear there will be a point where certain artists are shut out.”

So, maybe this is the turning point for Edinburgh Fringe? The industry is becoming more diverse (slowly but it’s happening), Fringe alumni know it isn’t what it once was, and this new generation of young comics and actors coming in are making the change they see fit, maybe this is where things turn a corner for the better? The current financial climate will have a knock-on effect and who knows what state it will be in by next August?! Deep breath everyone. I leave you with this: support local, support diversity and follow the new generation. And the best advice from Tabby Ewing for those performing at the Fringe next year is, “pack Berocca – you will thank me.”

See Tabby Ewing’s debut show Crumbled at Proteus Creation Space on 15th September at 7:30 pm!


By Isobel Smith

Our Brochure

Sign up to our mailing list

for regular Creation Space news and updates.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.