It’s always the trespassers who really get the party started. Back in 1947, a gaggle of uninvited theatre groups descended upon the newly created Edinburgh International Festival and, although they weren’t really welcome, took no notice and performed anyway.
Something must have gone right. Year upon year, the festival was besieged by a growing number of enthusiastic gatecrashers until finally its organisers had no choice but to wave a white flag. A separate society was formed to host these cheeky infringers, and it was named, you guessed it – the Festival Fringe Society. Little did they know what they had set in motion.
What began as a modest sideshow has today swelled into the world’s largest arts festival. The Scottish capital’s cobbled alleyways, winding lanes and damp tunnels are transformed: gigantic inflatable cows float above university campuses, Afro-Caribbean beats resonate off stone turrets and makeshift whisky bars hide the entrances to underground comedy venues. The Old Town morphs into an obstacle course of street performers clamouring for attention and, this being my first visit, I quickly discovered that declining the onslaught of pamphlets becomes an art in itself.
The greatest challenge though is figuring out which shows to go to. 270 venues; 2,800 different performances; cabaret, theatre, musicals, opera, dance, spoken word and children’s plays (if you’re into that sort of thing) - a daunting medley of images and words, of colourful posters and opinions. Art is one of those things, of course, where no one can guarantee what you will or won’t enjoy; advice should be taken with a pinch of salt. One critic’s “Groundbreaking new concept in musical theatre” can be another’s “Man bashing an oboe against a wall”, whereas old-time greats such as Lillian Boutté can slip under the carpet undetected.
I met a local who proudly told me that he had seen 80 shows over the past two weeks. An impressive number; but when did he find the time to kick back and reflect on what he had seen? And where was his window for a spontaneous discovery? In running to try and see it all there’s always the risk of missing out on the whole point of being there in the first place.
Some people complain that such a wide variety of choice is simply overwhelming, that they’d prefer a few select “good” shows rather than a painful hour wasted on a whim. I disagree. The fact that any aspiring actor, painter or dancer can turn up, for free, in front of an audience with the opportunity to get their name out there – to rave reviews or a critical hammering – is all too rare in our saturated entertainment industry. It’s at this type of festival that new talent is given the space to shine, and where gems can be unearthed - with just a little digging. And where you can find yourself sitting in a room the size of a shoebox, singing along with a New Orleans blues legend.
Alexa Firmenich is a researcher for Monocle 24.