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How global events changed the Edinburgh Festival

by | Aug 16, 2021 | News

The Edinburgh International Book Festival began on Saturday, 14th August in its “hybrid” of a physically distanced in-person audience as well as all events being available to watch online. The book festival moved totally online last year due to Covid restrictions.

Since the early 1980s, the festival has operated from a site constructed every year in Charlotte Square Gardens in the west of the city’s New Town. It grew each year and in 2019 welcomed 900 writers from 60 different countries. This year, its two-week run will see the number of events scaled back from the pre-pandemic numbers.

The Festival will dramatically scale back the number of authors it flies in for the event in the future as part of a drive to slash its carbon footprint. Organisers have pledged to “phase out” bringing in guest writers for exclusive one-off appearances in the city.

Instead, the festival will prioritise booking authors who are touring elsewhere in the UK or Europe or beam in overseas authors for virtual appearances. The event is expected to work with other festivals to help spread the carbon footprint of an international author’s visit. Exceptions are also expected to be made if an author is taking part in a writing residency or teaching in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK. The festival is also expected to maintain its international profile by ensuring that its events are made available to watch around the world.

The festival’s rethink has emerged in the wake of its relocation from Charlotte Square due to concerns over its impact on its historic garden. This year’s new venue is at Edinburgh College of Art, which has three broadcast studios, two of which can accommodate limited audiences

Last month the Edinburgh International Festival revealed it had set a series of targets to try to cut the event’s carbon footprint by 70 percent by 2030. Around half of the speakers at this year’s book festival will join the event virtually.

Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen and Kazuo Ishiguro will be among those featured at about 250 in-conversation events, as well as Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie.

Last year’s Booker Prize winner, Scottish author Douglas Stuart, will be talking about his novel Shuggie Bain with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – and 2019 winner Bernardine Evaristo will introduce her selection of new Black British writing.

Festival director Nick Barley said the new facilities allowed the organisers to offer the conversations to worldwide audiences as well as those joining in person.

Mr. Barley said the largest of the theatres had a reduced capacity of 100 and the smaller one could seat 60. In the courtyard, the festival is creating a “village green” where audiences can watch a number of the live events on a big screen.

Mr. Barley said that last year’s totally online festival had given them the experience of catering to a virtual audience. Mr. Barley said the book festival had a “very loyal” local audience but last year a whole new audience was developed online.

“It puts Scotland on the international stage,” he said.

“One thing is for certain, we are not going back to the festivals of 2019,” Mr. Barley said. We are learning from what we got wrong back then and we are learning from the opportunities that this is giving us. The hybrid festival is the festival of the future. This is the starting point from which we can jump off to the future.”

Special events being held under the Citizen and Story Nation strands of this year’s festival include the launch of a new short story collection inspired by the city and an exploration of how much progress has been made in tackling poverty, social injustice, and inequality in Edinburgh over the last two decades. Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sara Sheridan, and Anne Hamilton are all due to take part in the “One City” event.

Writer Jenni Fagan, Caleb Femi, and Graeme Armstrong will be exploring what home, environment, and community will all mean in a post-pandemic world in “Take Your Place.” R-Words, a “mass participatory poetry project” created by theatre director and writer Ross Mackay, will culminate with community writing groups reading some of the final works on stage.

This year’s Book Festival will take place from Saturday 14 to Monday 30 August.

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