Jess Brough founded Fringe of Colour in 2018
Whilst simultaneously juggling roles as a writer, producer, and psycholinguistics PhD student at the University of Edinburgh Brough’s multi-award winning initiative is dedicated to supporting Black and Brown people/People of Colour at the Edinburgh festivals, as artists, workers and audience members.
The project began as a database of shows and developed into a free ticket scheme in 2019, providing people of colour with tickets to attend shows by performers of colour at the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond. While the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled this year, Fringe of Colour quickly adapted to the challenges posed to arts festivals this year, and moved the festival online, creating Fringe of Colour films.
We caught up with Jess in the midst of the Fringe of Colour film festival to find out more …
Hey Jess, how have you been finding the last couple of months in lockdown?
Really difficult. I live by myself in Edinburgh, so the first 11 weeks I was up there entirely alone. I came down to London in June to isolate with my family. It’s been tough – everything going on with the pandemic, with the police violence around the world, the refugee crisis. It’s difficult to navigate all those things when you’re on your own, and just messaging on social media doesn’t really cut it.
How are you balancing studying for your PhD, being a writer and the founder of Fringe of Colour?
Luckily, I have very understanding PhD supervisors. They’ve given me space and time to work on the project for the last couple of years. It is really difficult, though. Each day is quite all-encompassing. I’ve got emails and things to sort out for the Fringe of Colour website and finding time to sit and do some coding or programming for an experiment (for my PhD) just uses a completely different part of my brain. But, it’s fun to do multiple things at once. Also, during lockdown, when there was less going on, I had more time to be sad and anxious about the world, and so having a project like this helped in terms of having something to focus on outside of all the things that were going on.
When did you first attend the Edinburgh Fringe?
The first time I went was in 2016. I’d just finished my undergrad degree, I had a summer off, and I was thinking about going into journalism, writing specifically about music, and then going back the following year to do a masters or a PhD. It was my first time in Edinburgh, and I just completely fell in love with the city – it’s hard not to when you’re at the Fringe, the environment is mesmerising. On the drive back to London, I sent in my application to do a masters at Edinburgh University, and then 3 weeks later I moved up.
Why did you believe a scheme like Fringe of Colour needed to be founded?
In the beginning, it wasn’t even a scheme. It came from a place of frustration of not being able to easily find the shows by Black and Brown people at the Fringe so I put this spreadsheet together compiling all the shows. I used the title Fringe of Colour because I needed something that worked as a hashtag to spread awareness about it on Twitter. The response implied that it was something that other people also wanted and needed. From making that spreadsheet, I ended up meeting a lot of people who were performers and I spoke to them about problems that they had at the Fringe – issues of tokenism or marginalisation and the way that performers of colour get treated in Edinburgh. As someone who lives in Edinburgh, I know that it can be quite hostile if you’re not white. That’s where the free ticket scheme came from. There was the issue of the performer not seeing people like them in their audiences, and then there was the issue of people of colour in Edinburgh and beyond not being able to afford to go and support those shows because the tickets are like £12. So, with something like a free ticket scheme, you can address both of those issues at once.
Fringe of Colour is similar to Tobi Kyeremateng’s Black Ticket Project in that it offers free tickets to Black and Brown audiences, but Black Ticket Project is largely based in London. Have you noticed any key differences between theatre in London and Scotland?
Yeah, Tobi’s Black Ticket Project was a massive inspiration for the Fringe of Colour free ticket scheme – I actually spoke to her to get advice on how to run things and how to orient the project around community groups. There are quite a few differences between theatre in London and cities in Scotland – firstly that it’s always compared as London and Scotland. There are probably more opportunities for Black artists in London, more independent theatres and companies, more funding, more people of different demographics. But there are still plenty of Black artists and writers in Scotland, who, if they were in London, would probably get more opportunities. I think Scotland has its favourites in terms of writers and performers. There’s not a lot of active reaching out to new artists, specifically new artists of colour, to join those platforms. When they do reach out, they’re looking for very specific narratives about slavery – there’s not a huge range of storytelling that’s been allowed to happen on the main stages in Scotland as far as I’ve seen.
Fringe of Colour is not solely focused on supporting young Black people. How did this decision to support people defining as both Black or Brown come about?
At the Fringe the percentages of Black and Brown artists that are in the programme is so small already that it just felt like everybody involved in those communities needed that spotlighting. I have my own issues with umbrella terms and categories like ‘BAME’ or ‘people of colour’ when they’re used to assume that everybody under those terms faces the same exact issues because they don’t. Fringe of Colour is trying to do the opposite of what has been done so far, which is thinking about Black and Brown people as a nice checklist. We want to show that it’s possible to have an entire scheme that doesn’t rely on whiteness to propel it.
Last year saw Fringe of Colour winning the Total Theatre Award for Significant Contribution, Dave’s Edinburgh Comedy Panel Prize Award and the Creative Edinburgh Independent Award. What’s it been like seeing the scheme grow over the years?
It kind of feels like a moving train that I’m watching from a distance. These last few months have been so ridiculous that I haven’t really stopped to think about what the growth of it means. What I want for the project is for it to mould itself into what is needed, that’s why we ended up doing an online festival this year, because this crisis of cancelled events and missed opportunities for people was upsetting, and we wanted to see if we could do anything to address that with the contacts that we had, as well as the contacts that we wanted to start building with other people.
It’s scary when you start something that was meant to be a simple summer project, and now it’s a thing that lots of people know about, and everybody wants to know what’s next – that’s quite an intimidating concept, so I don’t really think about it. The easiest thing to do is just focus on what’s happening right now with an intention for something to be happening in the future, but there’s a lot going on – even just living in the world at the moment. You have to focus on what the project needs, but also what you need.
This year the cancellation of the Edinburgh Fringe saw a transferral of Fringe of Colour online. How did you go about creating Fringe of Colour films?
In late February, we announced that we were going to start hiring writers to review shows at the Fringe to address the issue of white reviewers reviewing Black or Brown shows through a white gaze. The deadline for this was the 1st of April, so people had been sending in applications, but were also asking what was happening with the project this year and whether it would be cancelled. We considered putting a pause on the project until 2021 when the Fringe was back, but that felt like a big shame. So we started brainstorming what else we could get our writers to respond to. At the same time, theatres like the National were beginning to announce online seasons, but the programme really demonstrated to me that people had given up pretending to be interested in “diversity” because they just wanted to put up work that they thought was going to save their venue. Fringe of Colour films came out of this need to find work for our writers and to see more work being created by people of colour and then snowballed once I’d spoken to members of the team, like Hannah McGurk and Paula Akpan, and to performers we already had contact with.
Will Fringe of Colour films continue in future years?
If we end up doing this next year, we’ve got some ideas on how to be more specific about what shows we include and how we speak to creatives about how to make their films more accessible – like how to add captions and subtitles. We’re also aware that some people might see Fringe of Colour films as a platform that they could submit their work to next summer. If we do it again next year, it will look different, because we’ll have had more time to communicate more directly with people submitting work and helping them with that process a bit more.
Alongside founding Fringe of Colour your debut short story ‘Thank God in the Acknowledgements’ was published in Scottish literary magazine Extra Teeth. Tell us more.
I haven’t really had much time to write during lockdown, which is quite sad, but I am part of Scottish BAME Writers’ Network. Ideally after Fringe of Colour is over, there’ll be a bit more time to think about writing. Last year, I also set up Black Unicorns, a reading group for Black queer people that meets regularly but doesn’t revolve around drinking or staying out really late. Until that point, there wasn’t really a group that I knew about or was comfortable in that existed specifically for Black queer people. I started that book group because I wished it already existed, and I think that’s a useful way of creating projects because chances are if you feel that there’s something that you’re missing or that you need, it’s very likely that there are other people feeling the same way.
Do you have any other plans on the horizon? Will you continue balancing Fringe of Colour, academia and your own writing?
I’m going into the final year of my PhD and I really need to focus on that. So, I’m really looking forward to taking a complete change of pace from September and just working on my research and hopefully doing a bit more writing and feeling a bit more centred. What I would love is for Fringe of Colour to get enough funding that I can put it in the hands of at least two people who are passionate about the idea of having a festival to organise. If you’ve done something for 3 years, there comes a point where you need to have somebody else step in and come up with a fresh take. I want Fringe of Colour to exist for as long as it needs to exist, and I am not the right person to be at the centre of that this coming year. There are so many people that are really good at event organising and passionate about the arts and theatre and comedy that could take over. It’s difficult, though, because on my end there’s a lot of free labour involved, so it’s not really fair for me to get someone else to take over if they’re not being compensated for their time, which is why we need more funding!
Fringe of Colour Films will be streaming films throughout August. Key events coming up this week include a free live comedy event this Friday 21st August and the next ‘This Sh*t Is For Us’ round-table conversation this Saturday 22nd August. Find out more here.