Festival Countdown: Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland's Edinburgh
Mainland's impressive CV includes four years spent as the administrative director of Edinburgh International Book Festival, serving as general manager of the Assembly Theatre, one of the highest profile venues at the Fringe, and work on other Scottish events including Burns And A’ That, the Champions League Final, the opening of Harvey Nichols, the MTV European Music Awards, Hogmanay (over the Millennium period) and the Beltane Fire Festival.
She has already been dubbed the 'first lady of the Fringe' as her role, the most senior in terms of Fringe administration, encompasses responsibilities for providing effective festival information, promotion, and crucially, ticketing.
When was your first Edinburgh Fringe & what took you there?
I first came when I was at University in Glasgow, as I had friends taking part - though I never performed myself. Then when I graduated, my first job was as an admin assistant at the Fringe Society, so that was my first real involvement in it. After the Fringe Society I worked at Assembly for a time, doing various different things before I eventually became general manager there. I've also done a lot of freelancing on various other festivals in Scotland, so I've pretty much been involved in the Edinburgh festivals in various capacities my whole working life.
How did it feel getting the job of chief executive?
It's such an honour. I love the Fringe, I love that this big explosion of culture just arrives on our doorstep every year. I've seen it from the inside and from a venue point of view, and also from the point of view of other festivals. The Fringe Society exists to support and encourage those who are taking part; I'm not a programmer in the sense that Jonathan Mills (the EIF director) is, and we changed the job title from Fringe director to chief executive because some people felt that the title 'director' had an implication of artistic involvement, which there isn't. It's obviously quite a daunting task - I had a look at the wall planner the other day and nearly had a heart attack!
How has the Fringe changed since you first attended?
Well obviously it's a lot bigger now; admittedly the margin of growth was quite slim this year but it's still expanding. Every year I think it can't possibly get any bigger but it does! Some people say it's getting more commercial, but because it's such a big festival it's inevitably very competitive and venues do what they have to do to get audiences, which is only right and appropriate. We work very closely with all the venues and none of them have broken away at all. And after all, art has to make money to survive, so I don't think people should use the term 'commercial' like it's a dirty word. And getting big names helps to raise the profile of the Fringe which in turn attracts more audiences most of whom then discover other shows around the festival, which can only be a good thing.
What’s the biggest challenge for the 2009 Fringe?
The Fringe Society has three main purposes: to support, advise and encourage anyone who wants to take part; to provide state of the art information and ticketing; and generally we have to raise the profile of the Fringe. The box office opened on 15 June and so far we haven't encountered any technical problems. That doesn't mean the job is done on the ticketing front, there's still lots of ways that we need to improve how and where we sell tickets. But the immediate challenge of having a system that can sell 35,000 performances at the same time has been met, so I'm delighted about that.
The recession is obviously a factor this year, but we're cautiously optimistic in that ticket sales through the Fringe Society so far are up on previous years and other venues and festivals are reporting the same. Most people buy their tickets in August, so we can't be certain that the economic challenges won't effect us this year, but so far it's looking good.
What are you most looking forward to about the 2009 Fringe?
What I'm looking forward to, as always, is the spontaneity of the festival - the thought that the show that will blow your mind is most likely something you haven't even noticed yet. Every year, people come into the office and say 'you've got to see this show, it's the most amazing thing ever'; there's are an endless number of surprises.
How would you advise keen theatregoers to get the most of the Fringe programme? Any personal recommendations?
My general advice would be to plan, but not plan too rigidly. It's important to book early for shows that are likely to sell out, but at the same time you should always try and leave a bit of lee-way so that you can make your own discoveries. And I'm afraid I won't be drawn into making specific show recommendations!
And, beyond the festival, what’s your top Edinburgh city tip?
Definitely keep a bit of time free so that you can walk around Edinburgh - it's such a beautiful city, and at Festival time there's such a great atmosphere and so much free stuff going on on the streets. So wear good shoes! And it has just poured with rain all day today so be warned...
The 63rd annual Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, runs this year from 7 to 31 August 2009 and involves an estimated 18,901 performers from over 60 countries presenting 34,265 performances of those shows in 265 venues. For full coverage of Edinburgh 2009, including more countdown interviews as well as news, gossip, reviews, blogs, features and video throughout the festival, go to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009.