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Edinburgh International Festival set to bring light at the end of the tunnel

August is traditionally the time when Edinburgh becomes the cultural capital of the world. Roy Luxford, programme director of the Edinburgh International Festival, explains how you run one of the biggest arts events in the time of Covid

Summer is here, the schools are on holiday and Covid restrictions are easing, and although the date for the removal of all government restrictions in Scotland is still planned for August 9, many are still managing the challenges of Covid-19

At the Edinburgh International Festival we are preparing to mark a return to live performance on August 7, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra performs at Edinburgh Academy Junior School – but the road to this point hasn’t been straightforward. 

When we said farewell to our artists, audiences and festival staff at the end of the 2019 Festival, we had no idea that it would be two years before we would be able to present a programme of live performance again. It was a year of uncertainty for everyone in the organisation, the arts and the country as a whole. 

However, just as the International Festival was born out of a period of adversity in 1947 with the understanding that arts and culture can inspire and create connection during times of division, we again saw an opportunity to support artists, the arts industry and the city of Edinburgh on the path back to live performance.

Managing the risks has been at the centre of festival planning over the past year. We made the choice to primarily programme UK-based artists, our global celebration coming in the form of invitations to a small number of international conductors, soloists and principals as well as through our free At Home digital programme in partnership with abrdn, which is available globally on our website. 

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Safety of the audience and artists was also of primary concern – particularly as we took a pioneering position of returning live performance to Scotland. To do this we settled on outdoor structures, placed in three geographically diverse areas of the city: Edinburgh University’s central Old College Quad, Edinburgh Academy in the New Town and Edinburgh Park in South Gyle.

Within these venues we have seating bubbles, from one to four seats, that are set metres apart, offering visitors an opportunity to attend an entire performance while remaining outside and at a distance from other audience members. We’ve dipped our toe into putting audiences into indoor venues as well, beginning with ludicrously small capacities for theatre performance such as the world premiere of Enda Walsh’s new play Medicine or Scottish Opera’s performance of Falstaff.  

Those who have managed to get tickets for these events are in for a treat, but it is also an important step in bringing live performance back to these fantastic stages. 

Normally we share the stage in August with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh

Tattoo (both early offshoots of the Edinburgh International Festival), Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Edinburgh International Art Festival. This year looks to be very different. The Tattoo won’t be able to take place and the rest of us will all be working with reduced programmes.

Despite this, I feel incredibly excited about the performances planned this August and look forward to artists, audiences and residents all enjoying the light as we emerge from the end of this tunnel.

Roy Luxford is programme director for Edinburgh International Festival

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