The Edinburgh Fringe Festival grew up on the “fringe” of the Edinburgh International Festival, which was launched in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the wake of World War Two. Eight theatre companies, disgruntled that they had not been invited to participate in the inaugural International Festival, came to Edinburgh anyway and performed in smaller venues around town. Both festivals still thrive. Today, the Fringe Festival is larger than the International Festival. In 2017, there were 53,000 performances of 3,300 shows, by companies from 62 countries. The Fringe offers open access to anyone with an idea who can find a venue. Last year it sold 2.5 million tickets.
Day One Fringe
The first day in Edinburgh is a blur. For the newly arrived, the time difference gives the whole city a gauzy filter—like watching a late-night movie through half-closed eyes. To a fuzzy, jet-lagged brain facing a shiny noon on the High Street, the whole place is impossibly attractive in an old world, fairytale kind of way. Also known as the “Royal Mile,” the street runs from Edinburgh Castle down the hill to the Palace of Holyrood House. Along the way, cobblestone passageways with names like Fleshmarket Close and Marlin’s Wynd lead off to courtyards or ancient market squares. During the Fringe, part of the High Street is closed off to vehicles, allowing performers to stage short snippets of shows and spectators to sample the wide range of performances available.
A Fairytale Come Alive
This makes the fairytale seem all the more plausible. That, and some of the people milling around are dressed in 18th-century costumes. You’ll see clowns, zombies, half-naked men holding up other half-naked men on their shoulders, singers, jugglers, and a decent number of metallic-painted people striking dramatic poses.
When someone approaches with an outstretched hand, holding out a colorful piece of paper, you have just been “flyered.”
“Come and see us, it’s great fun. A little bit romance, a little bit mystery. Bring the flyer, and you can get in for half price,” says a young man with a strong Scottish accent and burnished red hair.
An exiled Iranian playwright describes his one-person show in flawless English. He writes about a country to which he will never return in hopes of building understanding about the similarities of “home” in all cultures.
A smiling, silent Korean woman in traditional dress presents a flyer with two hands and a small bow. She is a member of a large dance troupe.
Holding the flyer, looking from picture to person, you might ask “Is that you?” He or she nods and smiles before moving on to the next pedestrian prospect. There are 3,000 shows in search of an audience. That’s a lot of flyers.
Day Two Fringe
“Excuse me, what are you queuing for?” By day two, you feel more comfortable, with both the vernacular and the process. Lines spill from ornate buildings with multiple shows going on at the same time. The answer sends you either to the end of the line or in search of a new one. There are no assigned seats at Fringe shows. Five hundred venues seat anywhere from 10 people to 600 people. The event spaces range from professional theaters that offer performances year-round to grimy bars and tiny cheese shops that host only one show daily during the three weeks in August when the Fringe Festival is on.
Site-specific performances can take you through the Royal Botanic Gardens, led by flaming torches as you watch Macbeth. Or on a bus ride to an ancient ruined abbey on the Scottish border where white-clad dancers enact an eerie tableau.
Day Three Fringe
By day three, you will have laughed and cried and wondered where this incredible event had been all your life. A show created with only shadows produced from an overhead projector leaves you speechless. A comedian from London has you laugh until you cry. A harrowing monologue from a woman soldier in Syria hits you between the eyes and brings the Mideast conflict into sharper focus.
You will fall asleep during at least one show. You will get a little pickier. A pretty flyer and a persuasive thespian are not objective—they are advertising. You learn about reviews and “stars” that are assigned by the many publications that cover the festival every summer. Some reviewers are seasoned experts; some are ambitious interns. You learn the difference the hard way—a rite of passage for any Fringe-goer. You will see a bad show, a show so bad you want to leave but as one of only five people in the audience, you fear the “fourth wall” could be broken by your departure.
This poor experience will soon be forgotten after a pint and a couple more shows. A word of caution: there is a limit to how many shows you can take in and still remember each one separately. Over-stimulation is common, often cured with whiskey and a late-night kebab.
Beware the 24-Hour Clock
The Fringe runs on a 24-hour clock, causing manic numeric hypnosis and the determination to get to that show with the ominous title “Chaucer in the Graveyard” that starts at 23:30—in a graveyard.
Some shows live brightly for three weeks and are seen no more. Others come to the Fringe because it is a marketplace. A chance to be seen and booked to tour Australia, the US, or other parts of the world.
Familiar faces from television, movies, and plays—Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Flight of the Conchords from HBO, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show—have all spent time at the Fringe. Robin Williams was in a Fringe show while he was studying drama in college.
A sunny morning on the High Street may feel like a fantasy but being at the Fringe is a waking dream for a writer. Inspiring stories spring from the tellers—because they must be told. You leave resolved to keep writing the story you have to tell. And to bring it to the Fringe one day.
Final Time from an Inveterate Fringe-goer:
Organizers estimate that the population of Edinburgh doubles—or even triples—in August. Above all, if you are considering a trip, you should plan ahead. Finally, the most important thing is a place to stay; even if you’re only sleeping a few hours each night. Visit Scotland is a wealth of information with a database of accommodations.
Edinburgh is easy to reach from London, with inexpensive flights from multiple London airports. Edinburgh Airport is only eight miles from the city center. A tram runs between the two as well as regular buses and airport shuttles. No need for a car once in the city. You can walk everywhere or take public transportation to more far-flung venues.
You can book tickets to shows in advance. The full program for this year’s Fringe, which runs from August 3 – 27, will be released June 6. Almost 400 shows have already been announced. You can check them out at the Fringe website. The main venues, with reliably good shows, include the Traverse Theatre, Assembly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and the Underbelly.
Andrea Moser spent 35 years writing for other people and organizations, from elected officials and civic leaders to universities and non-profits. These days, she is animating the characters who inhabit her first novel. She is an avid theater-goer, in San Diego and in Edinburgh, Scotland where she has been attending the annual Fringe festival for 20 years.
Photos courtesy of Andrea Moser