In 2016 Shona McCarthy was appointed Chief Executive of the biggest arts festival in the world. As a visiting Professor at Edinburgh Napier University we sat down with her to find out about the challenges of running her first Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and what drew her to a career managing festivals and events.
What do you love about your role as Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
The thing that drew me to the job in the first place was that it’s a very different model from anything I’ve worked on before. It’s non-curated and it’s an open access festival. This means that anyone who has a show that they want to put on or something they want to express through a creative format, as long as they have a venue they can come and perform at the fringe. It is the biggest platform on earth for creative freedom of expression and it’s this founding principal of open access that drew me to the role. On the flip side of that is that the audience then becomes the curator, so you have this incredible menu of options, and the audience themselves has to determine what they want to choose. I just think that’s a really exciting dynamic.
What were the biggest challenges of running your first fringe last year?
Because it is the biggest arts festival in the world one of the biggest challenges was just trying to understand all of the different constituent parts that make up the fringe, and trying to understand the role of the fringe society. I really had to hold myself back from wanting to get involved in the curation and selection of the festival. We always try not to give any form of opinion on any of the shows because we represent the entirety of the fringe, so you have to be neutral at all times and that can be really difficult! Beyond that, simply trying to get to see as much of the work as you possibly can when there are over 50,000 performances of over 3000 shows in 3 weeks, it’s really hard to do justice to that. So it’s a challenge to just keep up the adrenaline and the energy to get to see people’s work and to get to see as many of the venues and different approaches that people take to the fringe as possible.
"I'm in a very privileged position that I get to go to countries all over the world to meet other people who run festivals, and Edinburgh is always internationally recognised wherever you go as 'the first festival city'. It's seen as this mecca of cultural leadership."
What’s your favourite thing about working in festival and events management, what drives you in this career?
For me it goes right back to being born and brought up in Northern Ireland, where you were quite narrowly defined as being from one community or another at a very young age, and where we were terribly good at introspection. As a society we became obsessed with our own troubles and the backstory of the conflict there, and so for me the arts became a pathway out of this and into the world. My first ever job in the arts was running an international children’s film festival and for me that was the best thing that I could ever have done as the starting point in my career. It was a mechanism for quite literally bringing the world to young people in Northern Ireland without them having to travel. So for me it’s probably slightly different than other people. Seamus Heaney actually described it in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, he said Ireland is made up of four geographical provinces, and he described the arts as the fifth province, as the place that isn’t confined by national geographic boundaries. He said it is the place of the imagination and the place where you can define yourself as anything that you want.
How important is it that students keep studying festival and event management to ensure that events such as the fringe continue to be held at such a high level?
I think it is really important, I mean you couldn’t say anything else being here in Edinburgh! It is interesting for me actually to have had a background in cities of culture. I headed up Belfast bidding to be the European city of culture in 2011, and I led the Derry city of culture in 2013 where we had a whole year of different events. This city of culture project is a construct that was created for cities to regenerate and to prove that culture is their driver. But Edinburgh doesn’t need to bid for this, it has been a city of culture for 70 years! I think sometimes this city can forget that, and I just think that’s an incredibly important and an exciting thing to be in this city of festivals that’s celebrating its 70th anniversary as the festival city. It’s so important to have young people coming up through the ranks who understand this story, the backdrop to this and why these things are important economically, socially and culturally, and what they say to the rest of the world about this place. Starting out in Edinburgh for your career leads onto other places. There are a lot of young people who have come through the Edinburgh fringe or any of the Edinburgh festivals who now work in Adelaide or North America or China, and who go to other places and take that skill base with them. So it isn’t just about the festival’s infrastructure here, starting out here can be a pathway into the world.
"Starting out in Edinburgh for your career leads onto other places. There are a lot of young people who have come through the Edinburgh Fringe or any of the Edinburgh festivals who now work in Adelaide or North America or China"
What do you think are the benefits that events and festivals such as the fringe can bring to wider society?
I think they bring so many benefits to society and I think that’s why it would be really dangerous for complacency to set into a city like Edinburgh. I’m in a very privileged position that I get to go to countries all over the world to meet other people who run festivals, and Edinburgh is always recognised internationally wherever you go as ‘the first festival city’. It’s seen as this mecca of cultural leadership.
For me to benefit society in Edinburgh I think this festival does several things. There is definitely a sense of civic pride that this small city in Scotland is on the international global map, recognised as a leader in culture and I think that’s vitally important. There was a big impact study done last year by festivals Edinburgh and it showed that this absolutely filters in to the psyche of the people in terms of giving them a sense of pride about their city. And it also gives an invitation to the world to come here every August and then beyond for the festivals throughout the year, giving the city a position that it is much bigger than its actual geographical or population status.
So there are those things like civic pride, global positioning, reputational quality and its heightened reputation. And then there is literally the real practical stuff of the economy and employment. During a visit to one of the venues last year as they were constructing the stage, I made a throwaway comment saying, ‘wow you’ve got a lot of joiners and electricians working here’ and the manager replied saying ‘oh yes we spend £20,000 a year on joiners alone’. So it’s not just about event managers and people who are stewarding, it’s also about electricians and builders and joiners, and the hotels and the bars and the restaurants. All of these things feed job creation and this gives the city a massive economic benefit. And it’s well recognised that the hotels are always filled, that local people are always renting out their spare rooms. You cannot overlook these very practical aspects of holding such a big annual festival and the benefits it provides for the city- it’s absolutely massive.
"I really think art is so much more than just entertainment... It's somewhere people can express complex ideas, whether it's about global politics or Alzheimer's or mental health issues, and they can express that in a new way through the arts."
What do you enjoy about being a visiting professor at Edinburgh Napier?
You can probably tell from my answers already that I really love sharing my experiences from my career. I just feel like I’ve had an extraordinary journey through my own life in the arts and with event management. I really think art is so much more than just entertainment, I think it’s something much more meaningful. It’s somewhere people can express complex ideas, whether it’s about global politics or Alzheimer’s or mental health issues, and they can express that in a new way through the arts. I really love that sharing of ideas, and the individual value of the arts as well and how being creative every day is a good way to spend your life. All these things mean I’m in my element. I would always say to any school kids or students who asked me about their choices for the future; what is the thing that drives you? What is the thing you love doing? If you could choose any subject that you do, what is the one that you don’t resent going into class for, the one that you wake up in the morning thinking ‘I can’t wait to do music or art today’ or ‘I’d like to not go into school so I could continue playing a musical instrument’. If you can find a way to make that a major part of your career, then that’s my advice, because you spend too much time at work not to be doing something you enjoy.
For students at Edinburgh Napier studying tourism and festival and events management they have this first festival city on their doorstep and they’re living this experience every day. How important do you think that is for their future careers?
I think it’s absolutely vital. I am a complete fan of experiential learning, that’s what’s worked for me. I did a degree myself and that was very valuable as part of a conceptual backdrop, but to have both of these here in this city and both the opportunity to actually be learning the theory behind festival management, but to also have this incredible richness of opportunity and put that into practice is just brilliant.
Have you ever done any performing yourself?
Way back when I finished my degree I worked for an educational theatre company for a year and I was getting about £5 on top of my dole from it, so it wasn’t a sustainable kind of lifestyle! (laughing).
So now you’d say you are more of an admirer than a performer?
Yes definitely. On a serious note, my first real job in the sector was about using my creativity to curate and to come up with ideas about how to get young people involved in arts, and when I suddenly realised that I could open the doors for lots of people; young film critics, young producers etc. and I could help get this message out about the arts right across Northern Ireland, in the end I got a lot bigger buzz out of that than my amateur abilities to perform.
So you’re a creator behind the scenes, would you say that?
Yes that’s it.