With numerous awards in the bag for some vital work, we catch up with the Fringe of Colour founder and PhD student to find out more about making an impact on the Edinburgh Festival landscape
Upon launching Fringe of Colour in 2018, it was just Jess Brough, an open spreadsheet and a copy of the Fringe programme against the world. 'Yeah, it took ages!' laughs Brough. 'At the time I was in-between finishing a job and starting my PhD, so I had a lot of free time on my hands.'
That first year, Brough flipped through the colossal Fringe tome in search of non-white performers, hoping to find faces and experiences that better reflected both Brough's own and the world at large. For despite being proudly touted as the biggest arts festival on the planet, it's no secret that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is dominated by white, middle-class folk, both on stage and in the audience. The reasons for this are numerous and well-observed: not only do productions by majority-white performers receive more marketing and support, but structural issues, like soaring ticket prices and accommodation costs, disproportionately affect people of colour.
So the few shows that Brough found amidst the overwhelmingly white offering that year, they compiled into what would become the first publicly-available database of shows performed by people of colour at the Fringe. Though the information was initially intended to be for Brough's personal use, the Fringe of Colour database circulated into the wider public, sparking a paradigm-shift around visibility and representation at the Festival. These conversations were not new, but the sense of widespread urgency was. The facts were here for all to see, and – despite some blow-back – it seemed like people were finally listening.
Thus when Fringe of Colour returned this past summer, Brough received a swell of institutional support. 'The Fringe Society sent me a spreadsheet of acts that they'd found by reaching out to the performers who registered; not all, but a good proportion,' says Brough. Big venues such as Assembly, Traverse and Summerhall sent in names, and people reached out over social media, wanting to get involved. Buoyed by this response, Brough set up the Fringe of Colour ticketing scheme, which provided free tickets for young people of colour to see certain shows listed on the database.
The point wasn't to get bodies into chairs, but to create connections and changes that will ripple out beyond Edinburgh's festival season. 'We're talking about changing the environment of the Fringe in the long-term, and building communities which will hopefully last longer after the Festival is done,' insists Brough. The feedback they've received thus far has been incredibly heartening, such as that from the Glasgow Women's Library's Readers of Colour group, who took part in the scheme. 'For them it was a case of connecting with other women and non-binary people of colour in the city, which is something that will go on after the Fringe has ended.'
To this end, Brough also set up the Fringe of Colour Living Room in the basement of Lighthouse Bookstore, designed as a space for people of colour – whether they be performers or festival-goers – to discuss shows and their experiences of navigating the Festival, but also to decompress amidst the month's intensity. 'Just the culture of being a performer, the idea that you constantly have to be grinding to make your show work, that you have to be selling out otherwise you're not having a successful show: all of that is really alarming,' says Brough. 'There needs to be a serious conversation about long-term strategies towards improving the Fringe on a mental-health level. Because you can provide nice things like events and massages and bean bags, but if your festival is designed to constantly stress out participants, I don't know how many years certain people will be able to do it.'
Brough's own tireless work did not go unnoticed: for their achievements this year, Fringe of Colour was awarded the Total Theatre Award for Significant Contribution, the Dave Edinburgh Comedy Award Panel Prize, and a Creative Edinburgh Award. With the support they've garnered, Brough hopes to expand operations and begin addressing other aspects that contribute to inequality at the Fringe, such as supporting journalists of colour who cover it.
The issue's roots go deep, but the spark has been lit. 'Art has this amazing way of starting conversations and bringing people together,' reflects Brough. 'One of the great things about Fringe of Colour is that it welcomes people to get involved and see themselves represented on stage, but also that there's a community out there looking to go and experience it together.'