City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Understanding the Edinburgh Festival, Biggest Arts Festival in the World


By edg - Posted on 29 July 2008

Whither now? Sign at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

Few cities undergo such a transformation as Scotland's capital city in the month of August.

The normally easy-going, historic city suddenly jolts to life as thousands of actors, artists, dancers, comedians, street performers, musicians, magicians, and revellers invade the city for the month-long cultural binge known as the Edinburgh Festival.

Even with many Edinburgh folk evacuating the city for the month, it is estimated that the population of the city doubles to around a million people.

Roaming gangs of thesps thrusting out fliers for their new production compete with monocycling jugglers, fire-eaters, skiffle bands, and other street performers for your attention.

Every available hall in churches, schools and universities, and open space with a roof over it is requisitioned. Public walls are papier-mached with layers of posters, and "Seen anything good?" is at the top of every festival-goer's tongue. It is chaotic, mad, intoxicating.

How big...?

"The festival" is, in fact, several overlapping festivals, run by separate organisations: the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival, and the Edinburgh Art Festival. There's also the mini, multi-cultural fest the Edinburgh Mela late in the month of August, and the 3-day Edinburgh Television Festival and 3-day Edinburgh Interactive Festival, although the latter two are more industry events.

The Jazz Festival gets the festival season underway in July, but the Edinburgh International Festival, a high-brow assembly
of some of the world's best opera, theatre, and dance companies, is where the "Edinburgh Festival" originally started.

The flagship festival was
launched in 1947 as a stage for peace and unity in Europe after the
Second World War. The same year a bunch of film enthusiasts launched
Edinburgh's first film festival.

A group of eight theatre companies
also arrived in town, unexpectedly, to put on their own shows. When
more uninvited companies came the next year, a journalist dubbed the
unsanctioned performances "the fringe of the official festival drama".
The name stuck.

Today, the Edinburgh International Festival is one of the world's
most prestigious arts gatherings, but the Fringe dwarfs it in terms of
size. The Fringe quite simply is humungous. And each year it seems to grow bigger.

In 2008, the Fringe will host 31,320 performances of 2,088 shows in 247 venues. When the Fringe entered the millennium it was hosting 17,000 performances. The Fringe has about three quarters of the market share of all the festivals put together.

As the Fringe expands it has spawned fests within the Fringe, such as a contemporary music fest The Edge (formerly known as T on the Fringe), two free Fringes (as a reaction to rising ticket prices) and, new in 2008, the controversial Edinburgh Comedy Festival.

The Fringe has grown so big that the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which had been held in August since 1947, decided to move to June this year for, said its director, "breathing space."

One show that marches on in August, almost a fest in itself, is the traditional pipes 'n' drums extravaganza of the
Edinburgh Military Tattoo held throughout
August on the Esplanade below Edinburgh Castle. With a cast of 1,000 plus, this huge production draws in
the biggest crowds for any show.

Eking out Fringe gems

Fringe shows are small fry by comparison. The one-man and his mic or two or three-hander play are more typical. So how do you find the good ones?

Many Fringe shows are having their first performance before a paying audience and, more importantly, before the press. The Fringe Office says that 40% (838) of the shows in 2008 are World Premieres and of the remainder of the programme 278 of the shows are European premieres and 52 are UK premieres.

With so many shows having a go of it in August there's serious competition to get bums on seats.

With the Edinburgh International Festival you can be assured of a generally high quality of show. With the talks and meet-the-author events at the Edinburgh Book Festival (see Book Festival preview) you usually have a pretty good idea of what you will get before you arrive. But with the no-holds-barred Fringe, you take a greater risk with what you get, albeit the cost is not a large one when you consider the time and money involved is typically an hour of your life and five to ten pounds.

Get in early

Cutting through the hype about shows is not always easy, particularly in the early days of the festival, as the fresh new productions hold their cheap-ticket promotions to ensure they have good houses for the press nights.

There are various schools of thought on choosing a Fringe show.

You can scope the programme, read the reviews, hear the word-of-mouth, weigh up your various impressions, make a list of shows that you want to see based on your intuition, and plan your days on the Fringe around it.

Or you can make no plan whatsoever and surf the Fringe and see where it takes you.

The obvious starting point for the second option is the Royal Mile near the Fringe Office. It is besieged, at all hours, by performers pulling bizarre publicity stunts and thrusting tickets for their shows at unsuspecting pedestrians. Grab a daily diary, a Fringe brochure, possibly some free tickets, and hit the Fringe.

The first method would seem the most sensible (unless you
were unlucky enough to get caught up in the Fringe ticket fiasco this
year).

But if you've never done the Fringe there's something to be said for the randomness of the second
approach at the beginning of the month before shows begin to sell out.

You'll get a real sense of the mix of shows and Fringe venues. At worst, you'll learn that you have a low tolerance for shouty stand-up comedy, or you'll get stuck in a sweat-box of a venue trying to fathom what the show you are watching is about. But you also could find yourself being bowled over by the imagination of a production, or even ending up watching the winner of top comedy award, the IF Award. You never know your luck.