The Edinburgh Festival, which takes place in August each year in the capital city of Scotland, is not a single monolithic festival but a number of different and entirely separate arts events that take place in the same city at the same time. These Festivals serve very different purposes, and are completely separate in terms of organisation.
The original 'Edinburgh Festival' is more correctly known as the Edinburgh International Festival. The EIF was established in 1947, to 'provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit' and to help re-establish the arts in Europe after the devastation of the Second World War, which had left many theatres and concert halls in ruins. The EIF is a celebration of the 'high arts' - classical music, opera, theatre, and dance. Participation in the EIF is by invitation of the Festival Director only.
The other main Edinburgh summer Festivals include:
- Edinburgh International Film Festival
- Edinburgh Art Festival
- Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival
- Edinburgh Military Tattoo
- Edinburgh International Book Festival
There's a full list and a brief summary of each of the festivals at the Edinburgh visitor information website. More information about the history of the different festivals can be found at the Punter's Perspective website.
The Festival Fringe
The Festival Fringe also traces its origins back to 1947, when eight theatre companies saw an opportunity and 'turned up uninvited' and booked smaller venues in the city to put on their own shows. However, there was no coordination between these groups, and it wasn't until 1959 that a gradual increase in cooperation between non-EIF artists led to the formation of the Fringe Society to organise a joint box office and shared publicity. Unlike the EIF, acts do not need an invitation to participate - anyone who can get a venue can perform as part of the Fringe. As there is no vetting for experience, artistic merit,or quality, Fringe events range from professional theatre groups and stand-up comics with an international reputation to amateur groups performing for the first time. The result is a kind of joyous anarchy of household names, amateurs and enthusiasts living the dream, up-and-coming talent, and, frankly, going-nowhere talent.
According to the Fringe website, the name 'Fringe' was coined by Robert Kemp of the Evening News, who wrote that 'Round the fringe of the official Festival drama there seems to be a more private enterprise than before... I'm afraid some of us are not going to be often at home during the evenings'. However, it's probably fair to say that the 'Fringe' is now the Festival that most people will think of when they think of the 'Edinburgh Festival', and it's the Fringe that this entry is about.
The Fringe is huge. According to the official website, Fringe 2007 featured around 31,000 performances of 2,050 shows in 250 venues. Around 18,626 performers took to the stage in 2007, and that's not including street performers. 31% of the programme was theatre, 30.5% comedy, 17% music, children's shows 5.5%, and musicals and opera 5%. 40% (815) of the shows were world premieres. There is so much to see and do that it can be rather overwhelming, and the conventions of Fringe productions are different to the usual conventions of concerts, live comedy, and theatre.
Travel and Accommodation
It's said that the population of Edinburgh doubles during the Festival. Accommodation in Edinburgh itself can be in short supply, so it's advisable to book early. Even so, accommodation will be expensive, so it might be worth staying outside the city and 'commuting' in. Edinburgh is well-served by trains, and the main station, Edinburgh Waverley, is only 15 or 20 minutes' walk from most Fringe venues. There are obvious advantages in commuting in - you'll get better quality accommodation for your money, you'll get the chance to explore another town or city, and you'll be able to escape from the hustle and bustle. The official website mentions Glasgow (50 mins, £9 return) and North Berwick as possible places to stay, but you could stay in any town or city with good rail links to Edinburgh. Although trains run up until around midnight during the Festival, staying outside the city would prevent you from seeing many late-night shows and from fully sampling the nightlife. You could, of course, drive to and from the city, but you'd be well advised to park outside the city centre, as parking is very limited. Certainly, it's not advisable to try to drive from venue to venue.
Once the programme is announced, it's possible to book tickets in advance via the venues or the official website. If there's a particular act or show that you want to see, it's worth booking tickets in advance, particularly if it's only on for a short run, or is likely to be very popular. However, don't go mad - there will be plenty of good shows with tickets available on the day. The Festival culture is very much one of spontaneity and fluidity - really big names and Fringe award nominees may sell out, but the vast majority of shows will fill up (if they fill up at all) on the day. You'll never be left short of something to see!
There are a number of reasons not to over-book. Extra times/dates for popular shows are often added. If an act is selling out and the performers are willing, and there is venue space, it makes sense for extra performances to be added. If a show is a hit, it's in everyone's interests to give as many people as possible the chance to (pay to) see it! A second reason not to overbook is that you might not leave enough space in your schedule to see something that catches your eye - from a flyer, a conversation with a performer, a recommendation from other festival-goers, or a five star review. A third reason involves taking account of your moods and of the weather. Do you feel like some stand-up comedy, a sketch show, a farce, some political satire, a tragedy, some experimental theatre, or a hard-hitting drama about a contemporary issue? Not overbooking leaves you free to follow your moods. If it's raining (and this is the Scottish summer we're talking about here), you might want to spend some time indoors watching a show, but if sunny, you might prefer to stroll along the Royal Mile and watch street performers rather than be cooped up in a baking hot venue. In summary, if you want to see it, and your festival experience wouldn't be complete without, book it. But leave yourself time and space to improvise and explore.
On the day
You'll need to bring the obvious, really. Tickets, protection from the elements, drinks, and a map. You'll be able to pick up a map for free or fairly cheaply once you get there, but a number of the main venues have printable maps on their websites which are just as useful, and often more compact. One thing to bear in mind about getting around is that Edinburgh is not flat. For example, High Street on the Royal Mile intersects with North Bridge and South Bridge, but South Bridge passes over Cowgate. Look carefully at your map, as points of crossing rather than intersection should be shown with a straight line along the meeting point. The British weather is changeable, so it's always worth having a jacket or waterproof stashed away somewhere just in case, particularly if you'll be travelling back late.
At the Fringe
You can't walk more than a few paces in Edinburgh during festival time without having a flyer for some show or other thrust into your hands and having a sales pitch delivered to you, or sometimes at you. This can get irritating or overwhelming after a while, and the temptation is just to ignore them and brush past their proffered flyer. There are different types of leafleteer at the Festival.
Some are professionals who are being paid either by a talent agency or a venue to distribute leaflets. Typically these are fresh-faced, outgoing students who are just trying to pay the bills, so be nice to them. Although they're being paid to market a particular show, it's likely that one of the perks of the job is to see a lot of the shows they're plugging, and a good leafleteer will be able to give you a good idea of what the show is about. Being able to explain how one stand-up comedian differs from another in a few sentences is quite a skill, and most of these professional leafleteers are happy to give you a bit more detail as well as a flyer. Generally they're more used to being ignored, so most are happy to talk and are a good source of information, as they're paid to give out leaflets, not to sell tickets on a commission basis.
The other type of leafleteers are those plugging their own shows, or those of friends or partners. Sometimes they'll be in costume in order to attract more attention, and in some cases, the desire for attention seems more important than actually giving out any leaflets. Like the professionals, they're usually happy to talk about their show in more detail, though they're generally less good at explaining it, having been so close to it for so long. It's important to be nice to the professional leafleteers because they're just doing a job, but it's especially important to be nice to the performer/leafleteers too, even if you do sometimes feel that they're talking at you rather than to you. They've invested a lot of time, effort, and money in their show and in publicising it, and in many cases, it's money they don't expect to get any return on.
The Royal Mile stretches from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood House, and is lined with street performers of all kinds: musicians, singers, jugglers, fire-eaters, acrobats, portrait artists, and mime artists. There are also a number of small 'stages' where festival acts come to give a free sample of their act, a song or a scene. Generally these tend to be musical acts, but you might catch a strange scene from some experimental theatre company if you're lucky. Obviously the quality varies, but there are some real treats to be had here.
Most of the Festival Fringe venues are quite close together - within 20 minutes' walk or so. Some, like the Assembly Rooms, are purpose-built all year round theatres or concert halls, while others are converted for the duration of the festival. Although there are a number of smaller venues, there are a number of 'super venues' with a lot of performance spaces. 'The Gilded Balloon' takes over Teviot Row House, usually part of Edinburgh University Students' Association. Just outside, Underbelly erects a 'Pasture' with a temporary bar and performance venue in the square to compliment their other venues - one of which is a converted bank vault. Close to the Balloon and the Pasture is the Pleasance's second venue, the Dome, in another Edinburgh University Students' Association building. Their main venue is the Courtyard, a little isolated from other venues, but a hive of activity nevertheless. 'C' venues are scattered around the centre of the city, mostly in adapted historical buildings. The important thing to realise here is that two shows billed as being in the same 'venue' aren't necessarily in the same place, so it's well worth checking before booking two shows in quick succession.
The prices of tickets varies, but in general you could expect to pay between £6 and £12 for a one-hour show at the Festival Fringe in 2007. Rising ticket prices are a matter of controversy at the moment, as many fear that people are being priced out, or are seeing fewer shows as a result. However, there are bargains on offer. Shows at the start of the Festival will often have 2-for-1 discounts on tickets, and this discount is repeated by some organisers where they are having trouble filling the venue. Some places have '2-for-1' blackboards listing the shows for which offers are available. But although the sellout shows aren't necessarily the best shows, it's generally the weaker shows that are offered. However, sometimes excellent shows with large venues are offered this way. Tickets for Fringe shows are available at a number of centralised box offices, but you're often better off buying from the venues themselves to beat the queues.
There are also a number of free shows. The Laughing Horse free Edinburgh Fringe Festival consisted of 130 shows at ten venues in 2007. Performers who put on free shows generally do so because getting an audience, gaining experience, and raising their profile is more important to them than earning ticket money. Just because a show is free doesn't necessarily mean that it's better than a show you'd have to pay to see, but do expect the quality of free shows to be variable.
There are a lot of famous and semi-famous people at the Fringe, and you might well spot some of them around town. The Fringe is over quite a small area, and a lot of Fringe performers will go and see other shows - indeed, it's considered bad manners not to. It's difficult to know how to react to this, sometimes. The democratic and friendly nature of the Fringe might give the impression that it's okay to go over and say hello, but on the other hand, is it fair to bother people when they're not performing? It seems a bit, well, naff, to get star-struck and start asking for autographs. One Researcher says that:
I'm quite shy by nature, and the last thing I'd want to do is to go up to someone famous and bug them. I'd paid to see them perform, but that didn't oblige them to talk to me outside the performance. On my last visit, I studiously ignored several fairly big names (none of whom had shows that I'd seen), but I did take a chance and go and tell a reasonably well-known comedian that I'd enjoyed his show. He seemed genuinely pleased, and, encouraged by this, I spoke to a couple of other comics who I'd seen, one of whom was delighted to hear that I'd loved his show. I suppose with this kind of thing, timing is everything. Just as you wouldn't go over and speak to an acquaintance who was obviously in a hurry, or with other friends, so you probably shouldn't bother that bloke off the telly when he's scurrying off talking into his mobile. On the other hand, if they're not busy, and their body language is open rather than defensive, there's probably no harm in saying hello, especially if you've seen (or are seeing) their show. It goes without saying that the amateurs and the enthusiasts love it when they get some positive feedback if you've seen their show, again, if they're not too busy. Must make all that leafleting feel almost worthwhile.
Going to see a performance, concert, recital, play, or show at the Fringe is a rather different experience from attending the same event at a conventional theatre, and it's worth being aware of the differences before you go so that you know what to expect.
As noted earlier, a lot of Fringe venues are converted for the festival. This means that the building, the auditorium, and the surrounding area are not purpose-built as a place of public entertainment. Also, nearly every performance space will host multiple shows during the day, sometimes as many as seven or eight in a 12- or 13-hour period. As well as the venues hosting multiple acts, many Fringe-goers will be attending more than one show, and will be looking to get away on time in order to make the start of the next show.
All this means that punctuality and running according to schedule are vital for the smooth running of the festival. If your show starts at 7pm and lasts for one hour (the standard length of a Fringe show), it will almost always start at 7pm on the dot and finish just before the dot of 8pm. This means that you don't have the luxury of the extra five or 10 minutes you usually have at the theatre (or the extra 25 at the cinema) before the show actually starts. Having said that, although running to time is important, things can go wrong, usually because of delays getting everyone seated, and delays can be more common with the later performances. Although every effort is made to keep the programme to timetable, it's worth making sure that you have plenty of time to get from one show to another. It will spoil your enjoyment of both shows if you spend the last half of one looking anxiously at your watch and the first ten minutes of the next getting your breath back.
In 2007, Fringe tickets had a printed message saying that latecomers would not be admitted, but in practice this was seldom the case. However, if you turn up late for stand-up comedy, you can expect to be 'picked on' by the comedian. And you'll deserve it, too, so be on time!
It's also different if you're early. Although there are exceptions for large venues with sell-out performances when it takes time to seat everyone, it's not usually possible to enter the auditorium early. For most venues, you'll have to queue outside (rain or shine - you did bring your waterproof, didn't you?) until a minute or two before the start time. This is either because there's a limited number of ushers in the big venues, or it could be because changes to the set and auditorium after the previous audience has left don't allow enough time. It's also common practice for the ushers to tear off your tickets while you're waiting in the queue (presumably so they have a record of how many people actually turned up) and then ask you to show the rest of your ticket when you enter. So make sure you have your tickets to hand, even if you're at the back of a long queue.
Once inside, you shouldn't expect the level of luxury and comfort you get in your local theatre or multiplex. The seating is only temporary in most venues, and ranges from adequate to bloody uncomfortable. Expect church pews, barstools, low stools, benches (sometimes padded), or plastic seats. Tickets are unreserved and not attached to any particular seat, so you can sit where you like. However, the ushers will often try to sit everyone together in the front few rows for shows that aren't sold out, in order to enhance the atmosphere. It also makes it easier for the performer - why perform to three sides of a venue when enough tickets have only been sold for two sides? Do cooperate with the ushers on this - you might prefer a bit more space, but you'll enjoy it more sitting with others.
Many performance spaces are poorly ventilated - they're not designed as theatres, and despite the best efforts of the venue staff, a room with lots of people packed together will get warm, especially on a hot August day. Perhaps this is why it's permissible in most Fringe venues to bring alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks with you into the theatre (if in plastic glasses), or perhaps this is just part of the relaxed nature of the festival.
Oh, and turn your mobile off.
The tyranny of timetables also precludes extended curtain calls and encores by the performers. This does feel slightly strange when a comedian (say) who has had the audience in stitches for the past hour, and leaves to tumultuous applause, acknowledges it merely with thanks for being 'a great audience', a single bow and a wave before leaving the stage, and the house lights come up. But this is normal for the Fringe, and you shouldn't take it as a slight or snub on the part of the performer(s). Better to get an extra minute of comedy for your money than a minute of applause.
The rough-and-ready state of many venues, the number of shows that need to be squeezed in each day, and the sheer cost of living during the festival in terms of accommodation has an effect on the type of shows that are put on. Because of this, spectacular productions with large casts, lots of costumes, and elaborate scenery and props are very rare, though that's not to say that they don't exist. So if you go and see, for example, a production of a Shakespeare play or a musical, don't expect a West End or Broadway-style production.
Deciding what to see
If you have friends who are at the festival, or who have visited, you can pick up some tips on what to see and what to avoid. If you don't have friends who've been, you can make some. Edinburgh is a friendly place during festival time, and there's no harm in asking the people in front of you in the queue for a show what else they've seen and would recommend. Another source of recommendations are the leafleteers mentioned earlier. If you stand staring at the programme board at one of the larger venues for any length of time, you'll probably be approached by an earnest young man or woman with some suggestions. They'll ask you what kind of show you like and give you a potted overview of what's on that fits your timetable and/or budget.
One way to choose is to go and see people you've heard of - the kind of comedians that have shows on BBC radio, or appear on television comedy panel quizzes. In general, these people are on the radio or TV because they're good comedians. A word of warning - familiarity can breed contempt, and some comedians will sometimes end up recycling quite a lot of their television material into live shows. However, others will have an entirely new show. You might also see people doing something different to the norm - most Fringe festivals will have comedians in 'straight' acting roles with varying degrees of success.
There are a number of sources of reviews for shows, and many venues will have a 'review wall' where show reviews are pasted. The main reviewers are Three Weeks (the Festival paper), entertainment magazines The List and The Skinny, websites Broadway Baby and Chortle (comedy only), and newspapers such as The Scotsman, the Scottish edition of Metro, the Guardian, and the Independent. However, there's so much to see and only a finite number of reviewers, so some productions may not get reviewed until mid-way through the festival. An absence of reviews isn't necessarily a damning indictment.
The standard scoring system for reviews is a star system, from one star to five star. The extreme ends of the spectrum are quite rare - a review which gives a show only one star will be thoroughly scathing, and a five star one will be a rave review. The vast majority of shows will get three or four stars, and really anything less than solid three star reviews represents a poor reception from the critics. A show with a number of four-star reviews is a considerable critical success.
More useful than the number of stars, of course, is the text of the review itself. Quotes from reviews, and sometimes whole reviews, are often stapled to flyers as part of a show's publicity, although the discerning punter should always regard partial quotes from reviews with some suspicion. Reviews are only opinion, of course, and are affected by the reviewer's particular prejudices and tastes, as well as the circumstances of the performance they saw. But they will give you a good idea of the content of the show, and it's worth looking out for shows that you don't know much about that have reviewed well. As well as seeing a good show, you might be seeing a household name of the future hone his or her skills. And then you can annoy your friends by pretentiously telling them how you saw him/her first at Edinburgh.
A number of review websites give ordinary Fringe-goers the chance to post their reviews, but it's worth taking these with an even bigger pinch of salt than the professional reviews. Online reviews tend to attract extreme reactions - people who loved something or who hated something are far more likely to be motivated to post a review. And you've no idea who posted these reviews - a string of positive reviews could easily have been posted by friends of the cast.
If English isn't your first language...
If English isn't your first language, or even if it is but you're not British, you might have some worries about being able to understand the show you've paid to see. There is a huge variety of accents in Britain, and some of them can be tough even for natives to follow. However, although the festival is in Scotland's capital it draws talent from all over the UK and from all over the world. As you'd expect, there is a lot of Scottish talent at the festival, but the fact that the population of the city doubles during festival time will tell you that many of those performing and attending are not from Edinburgh, and often not from Scotland.
The best advice in deciding what to see is to read some reviews and talk to leafleteers, who will be more than happy to give advice to visitors from overseas about what might be suitable. There is a lot of stand-up comedy in Edinburgh (which involves one comedian standing on stage for an hour and telling jokes and stories, sometimes with interaction with the audience). Although this form of performance is common in Britain and the United States, it's apparently very unusual in other countries, so if you've never seen some before, it might be worth a visit for the experience. However, you will find stand up comedy harder to follow if your first language isn't English. Many of the references made will be to British popular culture, which you might not understand, and many stand-up comedians speak quite quickly. Also, puns (jokes which depend on similarities between words) may be hard to follow. If you struggle with British comedy on television (which even near-fluent speakers of English can do), you'll certainly struggle with stand-up comedy. Having said that, there is plenty more to see and do that will be accessible.
Showcases and Samplers
As mentioned earlier, some music or dance acts give scheduled previews on small stages on the Royal Mile. Many of the larger venues put on showcase shows - usually one hour with a compère and three or four acts. This is particularly common in comedy, where many lesser-known comedians are keen to show off some of their act, or do something which shows their style but isn't in their main show - often banter or improvisation with the audience. These shows are usually cheap, are generally scheduled for lunchtime or late at night, and often precise details of the line-up won't be available more than a day or so in advance.
There's a lot to see and do, and most of it is of good quality. If you like the sound of a show, or the leaflet, that's good enough reason to go and see it. If you're only making a short visit to the Fringe, perhaps for a day or so, you could do worse than just pick a single venue or location and choose shows from there.
There is so much to see and do at the Fringe that you couldn't possibly see everything even if you go for the full three weeks. It's easy to become as dazed as a rabbit in a car's headlights in the face of all this choice. But do a bit of homework, and you can be reasonably sure of seeing a good selection of shows, and you just have to accept that it's inevitable that you'll have missed something brilliant.
The Other Festivals
As mentioned earlier, the Fringe is only one of a number of festivals that are held in Edinburgh. It's worth looking at what is on at the other festivals too. The International Festival will have genuinely world-class performers, hand picked for their excellence by the Festival Director. The Art Festival and International Book Festival often have events in the mornings, which is usually a quieter time for the Fringe.
Edinburgh is a spectacular, beautiful city that's just oozing history. Even outside of the Festival time, there's lots to see and do. The medieval Old Town and the Georgian New Town are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there are a number of excellent museums and galleries. It's possible to take guided tours of the city to see the sights and learn more about the history of one of Britain's (and Europe's) great cities. A number of businesses offer 'ghost' tours of the catacombs and cellars, and there are also literary tours, river cruises, and whisky tours. There's also the abundance of modern pleasures that you'd expect from a major city in the form of excellent restaurants and plenty of shops.
It's easy not to see the wood for the trees, and you'll miss out if you go to see the Fringe Festival, but miss 'Edinburgh'.