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Recommendations for Festivals and Performing Arts in Navigating Covid-19 and New Digital Contexts

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Learning from the 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Recommendations for Festivals and Performing Arts in Navigating Covid-19 and New Digital Contexts

We’re delighted to publish a long-awaited report from a research project studying and documenting experiences of the 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe which took place primarily online. The full report, including a foreword from Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society can be downloaded here.

Below, you can read our Executive Summary, and core recommendations for performers, venues and researchers.

Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

When it happened, the announcement that the Edinburgh Festivals would not go ahead due to an emerging pandemic was both predictable and shocking. Cruelly, so many aspects of what makes the Edinburgh Festival Fringe unique, appeared suddenly impossible and unpalatable. How could this festival work remotely? What would happen, when the Fringe doesn’t happen?

As researchers on Creative Informatics – a project to explore data-driven innovation in the Creative Industries – we wanted to record these remarkable circumstances and study the role(s) of digital technologies in response.

In particular we sought to reflect on the pivots artists, venues and festivals would be required to make, and perhaps identify longer term shifts in the performing arts sector.

We planned two studies. The first endeavoured to document a broad public response to whatever did (or did not) happen; the second sought to gather the experiences of intended Fringe 2020 participants whose shows had been cancelled or reworked for an online audience. If nothing else, we hope this report serves as a testament to the difficulties, perseverance and ingenuity of artists and performers who have endured and continued creating work during this time.

credit David Monteith-Hodge

Our findings aim to offer both a broad description of what and how performances took place in 2020, while also developing some of the specific challenges that performers faced. Our interviews with performers were hopeful, inspiring and sombre. Some artists we spoke to had been unable to do their work, had put projects into deep freeze, and had grave financial concerns for their companies and colleagues.


On a personal level, being able to create new work, and to perform with live audiences is also utterly bound up in many performers’ identity and daily practices; in this respect, being without a stage is more than just the economic or professional disappointment of being without a way to make a living. However, ironically perhaps, it is this same desire to be creating and performing that drove many of our participants to find new ways to perform and connect with audiences.

In turning to, and investing in, digital approaches to record and share live performance, considerable investments have been made in new technologies, skills and collaborations. These have expanded viewpoints, and challenged assumptions, pushing performers and audiences towards new experiences that will change practices and expectations. In particular, the lack of a stage has encouraged performers to look again and highlight much of the hidden work that goes into a show, and to find ways to engage and transact with audiences beyond a single live performance. Furthermore, performers are suddenly in competition with Netflix, broadcasts of Broadway shows, and TikTok trends as performance becomes digital ‘content’, subject to the logics and economies of digital media. There are certainly opportunities here for some performers, but understanding and preserving the unique values of live performance in digital spheres is a considerable outstanding challenge.

To this end, we have developed three broad areas of recommendations; for performers; for festivals and venues; and finally for researchers and designers. Though derived from the context of the Edinburgh Fringe – a unique event – we hope that they may be of service across the sector. We summarise these very briefly here:

Summary Recommendations: For Performers

Developing Digital Stagecraft

We were fortunate to speak to a number of performers who had successfully brought their acts onto a digital stage, and honed their stagecraft in this new space. There are some specific common elements to their successes that we can highlight as recommendations:

  • Develop formats that bring audiences and artists closer together
  • Seek original and international collaborations
  • Take care in managing audience coming and goings
  • Recognise and develop new creative and technical skills for online performance
Value of Live and Social Events

Overwhelmingly, participants sought ways to make a performance an ‘event’ that was distinctive from other online content. Some specific approaches included:

  • Creating a sense of exclusivity
  • Supporting audiences in performing traditional show rituals
  • Engaging audiences with a sense of being ‘there’
Strategic Uses of Recorded Content

The importance and value of recorded content had become evident to several of our participants, however there remained considerable tensions and challenges in finding ways to record performance that did not diminish the quality of the work, with a limited budget. We highlight some of the more successful approaches participants described to us.

  • Embrace new kinds of recorded performance
  • Curate and package shorter recordings to promote and build interest in live show
  • Create events around recorded work
Approaches to Ticketing and Monetisation

Our participants were experimenting with a range of approaches to ticketing and monetising their work. There’s much more still to learn here, but some steps towards a more sustainable model for online performances include:

  • Seek to create pathways towards more paid and ticketed events
  • Develop donation and ‘pay what you want’ models with longer-term value
  • Explore and combine multiple fundraising approaches
Recognising the Benefits of Digital Performances

Undoubtedly this has been an extremely challenging time for those working in performing arts, and especially for those working in a genre that relies more heavily on audience interaction. However, there are also a number of benefits to online performance, both now, and for the future that we wish to highlight:

  • Supporting discovery of new work / artists
  • Consider opportunities for accessibility & inclusion
  • More sustainable touring, auditions and rehearsals

Summary Recommendations: For Festivals and Venues

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a truly unique festival, however we offer a number of recommendations that we hope can serve arts festivals more broadly in navigating and supporting artists in online contexts.

Clarifying and Preparing for New Roles and Responsibilities

Shifting to digital platforms will often implicitly shift the division of traditional roles and labour between performers, venues, festivals and audiences. For example, performers and their teams themselves may be taking on more of a hosting role as audiences enter a show; or they may become more responsible for their tech set-up. Performers may have quite different levels of experience, and expectations of how festival or venue staff can support them in digital spaces. Furthermore, it may be less clear who is really responsible, and who can fix things when something goes wrong. We suggest festivals and venues:

  • Audit any changes to roles and responsibilities
  • Recognise and seek to mitigate digital divides
  • Moderate and manage audience expectations
Support Navigating Online Content

Just as navigating and choosing which shows to see is a challenge for any large festival, similar challenges exist for audiences to navigate and discover content online. We suggest festival and venues:

  • Be clear about the distinctions between performances that are live, recorded, online and in-person
  • Consider how show listings can offer a consistent audience journey
  • Explore ways to make navigation of this content fun and exploratory
  • Support the discovery of new and emerging work
Supporting Diverse Forms of Performance and Content

It was abundantly clear from our interviews that performers have responded creatively to the limitations of working online, and have experimented to find the best form and medium for their work. We recommend that festivals and venues consider how to embrace and support this diversity. In practice this means:

  • Aim to be flexible with artists on performing through different digital platforms, while working to simplify the offering for audiences
  • Prepare to support a range of digital content – not only live video streaming, but recorded work, audio-only work, XR and other hybrid formats
  • Be prepared to support varying levels of audience engagement, from anonymous viewing, through to active participation
Supporting and Valuing Recorded Work

As artists seek to record more of their work, and use it strategically, we encourage venues and festivals to consider how to support performers in doing so. This may include:

  • Supporting recording of shows in physical venues
  • Developing guides, exemplars and best practice in more strategic uses of recording
  • Creating spaces for sharing recorded content with industry producers and promoters
Programming, Ticketing and Value

Clearly, festivals and venues have had to considerably rethink how they programmme festivals and events. Our conversations with performers raised questions around how often shows are performed, at what times, and the extent to which a show remains ‘available’ after a performance. We offer some general considerations for venues and festivals in navigating these questions:

  • Preserving the value of live events
  • Offering a consistent ticketing experience
  • Helping artists capitalise from the audiences they attract
Developing Accessible and Sustainable Online Festivals

Participants were enthusiastic about how performing online could improve the accessibility and sustainability of festivals. Specifically, festivals and venues could consider:

  • Supporting first-time festival or theatre goers
  • Serving isolated and remote audiences
  • Supporting more sustainable international touring
Supporting Artist Peer Networking

Several participants were enthusiastic about the Virtual Fringe Central Hub, remarking that it allowed them to engage more than they might have been able to during a regular Fringe. We encourage venues and festivals to extend such approaches, and curate online spaces where artists and performers can connect with their peers, especially for those who cannot physically attend a festival every year. Important functions include:

  • Being able to see each other’s work, and being part of a scene
  • Creating opportunities for fortuitous and unusual collaborations
  • Finding like-minded individuals and potential mentors
  • Sharing skills and best practices
  • Peer support with the pragmatic and mental challenges of freelancing
  • Access to promoters and producers who may support their work

Summary Recommendations: For Future Research and Innovation

Finally, we conclude with areas we see for future research and innovation as festivals and performing arts more broadly recover from the pandemic:

  • Catering for hybrid audiences who are split between a live venue and online
  • Understanding remote experiences of ‘liveness’
  • Exploring geo-location, site-specific work, and other ways to embed and root online content to place, like the City of Edinburgh
  • New ticketing and payment services embedded into content delivery and video conferencing
  • Understanding the implications of recorded and online performance as ‘content’
  • Critical attention to the online roles of current major venues (e.g. Assembly, Underbelly), as well as emerging online intermediaries (e.g. Eventbrite, Dice.fm, Zoom, Twitch etc.)
  • Supporting more sustainable, equitable and accessible performing arts.

Chris Elsden, Benedetta Piccio, Ingi Helgason, Diwen Yu, Melissa Terras.
Learning from the 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Recommendations for Festivals and Performing Arts in Navigating Covid-19 and New Digital Contexts. 2021. Creative Informatics Research Report. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.4775363