It’s a challenge to think of a festival that doesn’t have an element of its founding team still in place; some will have plans for succession and some won’t. Picking up the baton from a team that has developed an event over a decade is therefore perhaps a rare occurrence, but its something that has seen Fringe by the Sea extent its reach, grow its audience and create wider benefits for its host town, North Berwick. Here, director Rory Steel documents the evolution.
“You’ve got some big shoes to fill…how on earth are you going to fill them???” was the common thread people said when they heard we were taking over Fringe By The Sea. The small festival had been running for 10 years in North Berwick when, at the end of 2017, my business partner and I heard that the founders (John Shaw, Jane Thomson and Eric Wales) were looking to hand over the reins to someone else.
It was a fair question, given the success that those three had created over the decade. In 2008 there had been 12 performances over three days during the first weekend of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With a listing in the programme of the world’s largest cultural event (some Fringe acts made the 30 minute train journey down the coast to participate), it had grown slowly and organically over the next few years. There was a mix of well known names such as K T Tunstall and the Manfreds, who are a real festival favourite, with some family shows and local performers. It was a recipe that had been proven to work.
We knew that it clearly had to grow and evolve as the both the region and town were fast changing. North Berwick had swathes of new houses built over the previous decade that were bringing in many families. There were whole new audiences within walking distance of the venues and we could cater for them with a different kind of act without alienating the stalwarts who had done so much to support the more traditional line-ups.
We thought of all those people who had questioned our decision to take the festival on when, at the beginning of December, we walked up to the stage at the VisitScotland Thistle Awards as the winners of Scotland’s Best Cultural Event or Festival. Of course, it hasn’t always been an easy ride on the roller coaster of planning and delivering 10 days of events in a small town, especially when we’ve grown from 15,000 to almost 75,000 people in such a short space of time. The secret to our success is down to the way we put our community first in everything we do.
We acted on the plan to expand for our first festival in 2018, taking it from seven to ten days, allowing us to bring in edgier acts with a more diverse audience. But the big change came during covid, when we expanded out of our home in North Berwick’s harbour and spread across parks and other venues to hold a socially distanced festival. (Putting 1,000 at a Basement Jaxx gig into painted circles on the grass is not an exercise we ever want to repeat!)
The feedback from the people of the town on what we had done to bring people together was so positive, that we were emboldened to find a new home in the town allowing us to increase audience numbers and the wider festival offering yet further. Arts and crafts, masterclass tent, free music stage, streetfood village, kids area and an envirozone were all created offering free-to-access entertainment for anyone visiting the town and festival.
The residents in North Berwick and East Lothian have embraced their own festival and more and more people from around the UK were making the trip to North Berwick to be part of it (over a third of visitors are from outwith the region). In Victorian times the town was dubbed “Biarritz of the North” as southerners came for the summer, nowadays they are here to enjoy a festival.
We run Fringe By The Sea as a not for profit organization, having no shareholders demanding increasing profits means that the community feel part of it all with no shortage of volunteers of all ages without whom we could not exist. The aim to be as inclusive as possible with local acts, an artist in residence and several charities benefitting from being a part of the event means that Fringe By The Sea that has grown to national importance while retaining a rich thread of community.
Local groups are invited to come and take part – in 2022 as part of our Weavinf Wonder theme members of the East Lothian Dementia group attended and joined a session with the makers. The organizers of the group reported back to us – “this project was thoroughly enjoyed by all the members. Taking part in something creative is a very powerful way for people living with dementia to express themselves but being creative also stimulates our minds which can really improve people’s thinking skills. It was just amazing to see how the process of the weaving of yarn with the telling of our individual stories has come together into lovely works of art!”
As we grow each year, last year with over 250 individual events, we also have to rely on public funding and support from East Lothian Council, Creative Scotland and Event Scotland. However, we now attract national and international brands as partners helping the festival become sustainable for the future. Filling in forms, ticking boxes and going that extra mile for partners takes its time; luckily we have a small yet ace team in Jackie Shuttleworth (GM), Debbie Shinton (Marketing and Sponsorship) and Ali Wales (Production Manager) who keep the show on the road all year round. We work hard to keep our sponsors and visitor feedback shows that there is a fantastic awareness of those who are involved with us.
You would be hard pushed to find a festival with a more varied programme. Our Big Top houses the big names – Groove Armada, Lulu, Texas, Travis and Sister Sledge, Frankie Boyle, Dylan Moran, Sir Ranaulph Fiennes, Gogglebox’s Giles and Mary, Esme Young (Sewing Bee), Ruth Davidson, Judy Murray and Gordon Brown – as well as community organisations such as the Drama Mill, North Berwick Choir and Freedom and Form dance troupe. Seeing the youngsters take to the stage before a big name headliner is a real joy of what we do at Fringe By The Sea. The feedback from these acts is great; from last year Sledge said “Fringe by the Sea ruled! So much precious love and dancing. Thank you for getting lost with us!” and Gogglebox’s Giles and Mary said “We loved our visit to North Berwick and have never had such a warm audience.”
Of course it’s not just great acts that we bring to North Berwick. Each year we commission an independent economic impact report and last year it stated that the net additional impact of visitor spend was in the region of £7,313,884 which is a 14% increase on 2022. It is proof that Fringe By The Sea has an incredible impact on the economy of this Scottish town.
We like to think that one of the reasons that we keep the local community happy is because they see us doing it for them. We hold regular open consultations throughout the year at Community Councils and other platforms to share our plans and minimize disruption to the town. It has only been with their support that we’ve been able to fill those shoes of the founders and take Fringe By The Sea onto such amazing, award-winning heights. Long may it continue!