Linehan’s EIF Swansong
Fergus Linehan talks to Keith Bruce as he launches the programme for his final Edinburgh International Festival.
When he stood to unveil the line-up for the 75th edition of the Edinburgh International Festival to Scotland’s arts journalists, director Fergus Linehan revealed his personal delight in being able to introduce a full-scale live public event for the first time in three years when he spoke for the whole industry.
Edinburgh, he said, was “the mothership of festivals – and that gathering is something that our whole industry has really missed.”
“While we are obviously concerned about the actual shows that we are putting on, the assembly that takes place every August is incredibly important for an industry that has been through something really difficult.”
“All the signs are that everyone is coming back this August. It will be a big moment for cultural life, not just for Edinburgh but for the whole of performing arts.”
Linehan has made “Welcome” – usually in friendly black capitals on a yellow background – the one-word slogan of Edinburgh. This year, it is both “Welcome back” and “Farewell” from the Irish director, after eight years in post, the last few dealing with the challenges of the health emergency.
He has taken the Festival into areas – particularly popular and alternative experimental music – that it had not visited before, and his legacy will take time to come into focus, but how does he see his own contribution to the EIF’s development as he hands over the reins to his successor, Nicola Benedetti?
He begins by saying he concurs with his predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, that Edinburgh “is good at picking Festival Directors for its time.”
“The Edinburgh Festival doesn’t move in fits and starts but it does change, and the question is how do you loosen the Festival and allow it some flexibility – because we are in a slightly more informal world – while maintaining the rigour.
“I think we have managed that. Some people might say: ‘You’ve loosened it too much’, but I like to think that the person coming after has a bit more flexibility to do what they will – and I hope that Nicky feels that.
“After the last two years, most of the team is still in place and we are able to come out with a full programme. What we did last year was limited compared to a normal year, but I am really proud that we did manage it at a time when it was still touch-and-go whether you could do anything.”
It has also meant that Linehan departs with the Festival in respectable financial shape.
“We raised a lot of money over the period of the pandemic so that we could do last year with tiny audience capacities. And we weren’t doing fully-stage opera and theatre, and we weren’t flying in many people to the city, so there were savings. For now the Festival is in reasonable condition; we are not carrying any deficit.”
From Benedetti’s point of view, what Linehan believes about the core concern of the Festival is probably crucial.
“Music is at the very heart of the Festival and you expand out into other genres in a meaningful way. It is not a theatre or a dance festival, and that is important in the balance with Edinburgh’s other festivals. The Traverse will always have significant theatre offerings. The music at the International Festival is sort of non-negotiable.
“But beyond that, there is maybe more flex than I realise, and looking back I now see there’s more flex than I thought. One of the great things about our supporters is that they are not prescriptive, whether its donors or Creative Scotland, it is not a completely blank sheet of paper, but it is never ‘you must do these 10 things.’ There are strategic goals we have to meet, but there is great flexibility.”
Although he says no-one believes him, Linehan is adamant that he has no new job lined-up, despite lots of offers.
“We are moving to Australia, for purely personal reasons because my wife’s family is there, but I have no masterplan.”
That’s because, he insists, he is unconvinced that jobs like the one he is vacating are the way forward for the arts.
“I am not tired, but I do want to have a look around and get a sense of the way things are going to be. There are obviously these big environmental, sustainability questions, and questions about what leadership in the arts should look like, and the future of the producer/director polymath who tells everyone what to do!”
He laughs, but he is making a serious point. “I am not sure that jumping in as the director of a big company with hundreds of employees is what I want to do right now, because I think things are shifting. People will always need support and there is always work to be done, but maybe it is going to be constituted in a different way in terms of leadership.
“It is an interesting time to get a sense of what way the wind is blowing generally. There have been huge changes in terms of the arts, and in particular the subsidised arts, and where they are going.”
And he thinks he owes that recalibration to his family as well.
“On a personal level, this job is all-consuming and a little bit more 50/50 with my wife is sensible. In 2019, I was away from home about 50 times, so that’s every week. I am not saying ‘poor me’, it was amazing to do all that, but there is a personal balancing up that’s important.
“And I have got a lot of the summer to think about it – because I don’t need to be working on the 2023 Festival!”
The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.