Does Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as one of the largest festivals of arts and culture in the world, fully reflect the UK’s cultural and demographic diversity?
This year, Sheba Arts offered three days of free accommodation in Edinburgh to eight female and non-binary performance artists and theatre makers from refugee and migrant backgrounds who could not afford to attend the festival otherwise. The call was made on the 26 July on social media and across our networks. We received emails and messages asking about the details of the offer. People asked if we could provide transport or travel expenses or allowances for food?
We would have liked to have been able to offer travel allowances for each individual but, as a small arts organisation with a very limited reserves, we were unable to offer support with transportation and food. As a result, only four artists made it to Edinburgh. They all have jobs and a steady income. This is something we will reflect upon in case we make this offer again.
I didn’t have a high expectation of the festival considering its re-emergence after two years of lockdown and with nearly twenty thousand daily cases of the virus still occurring. I had been to the festival in 2018-2019 and although I enjoyed it, the lack of diversity overshadowed that enjoyment.
During our stay, we managed to see a few international shows including The Princess Pyunggang by the Bibimbad Theatre from South Korea. A play about Korean culture and history shown through folk music, puppetry, and dance. It was inspiring and made me want to learn more about Korean history. I loved the performer's personalities, their dedication and effort.
Of course, we all know it’s not easy to take your show to Edinburgh. Yet the fact is that some 4500 performers make it there not just from the UK but from all parts of the world. So, there must be other reasons for this lack of diversity. On our last day in Edinburgh while walking on the Royal Mile, we bumped into a group of young black artists from Nottingham who had brought their show, The Conversation. The young director, Syania Shaharuddin and her team had this amazing idea: they displayed a map of the world for the passers-by to pin their location on the map (I understood it as your place of origin, so I pinned on my country of birth). Within an hour or so of holding that map, this is what the picture looked like!
In 2020, we hosted five seminars on different subjects including the lack of diversity in the arts, where practitioners from BAME, or Global Majority, discussed the issues in arts and culture (https://www.shebaarts.com/research-learning.html). Lack of resources and development opportunities for the Global Majority artists and grassroots arts organisations were considered the two devils that caused the sector not to grow equally. When I started to make theatre in 2017, as an emerging performer, I found the industry far from nurturing and that’s the main reason Sheba Arts came into existence.
During the pandemic, Arts Council England pushed the boat out and supported many Global Majority artists with R&D grants, including a few emerging theatre makers with whom we have a working relationship. However, the new changes in Grantium and the new application form, meant most of these artists were unable to apply for a second grant to tour their shows. Add to this the fact that venues closed their doors and the sum total was that the pandemic made it even harder to get into venues.
Regardless of the pandemic, it is my impression that Global Majority artists even the most established ones are generally advised not to go for bigger grants as, the advice goes, it reduces our chances of success. A few years back, I saw a fabulous one-white-person show at HOME which used 3D technology. The show toured to many places including LA, Australia and Edinburgh. During an online workshop with the artist a few weeks later, when I asked how much her show cost, she gave me the unbelievable figure of 270k. One can easily comprehend the reason why Global Majority artists can’t go very far if 270K is what it takes!
I am not sure if there are detailed statistics showing the number of theatre compamies or arts organisations that received grants during and immediately post-pandemic. However, according to Artsprofessional.co.uk, only 15% of Global Majority arts organisations across the UK received funding from the Cultural Recovery Fund. If true, this is disappointing. If the 15% statistic also applies to Manchester, then considering the fact that 33% of the Manchester population are non-white, this would be doubly disappointing.
‘These conversations have been happening since the 70s’ said one of our panellists in 2020. Well, I am not old enough to know about this and I was born in another country. But I feel there is an urgent need for change. The demand for change has become the driving force behind the growing cultural movement across the country that is asking for systemic change and I am hoping that by joining forces we will be able to create a more equitable and nurturing society.
To read more about the lack of diversity in Edinburgh visit: