The Edinburgh Fringe (officially the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, commonly just The Fringe) is the world’s largest arts festival. Established in 1947 as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, it takes place in Scotland's capital during three weeks every August alongside several other arts and cultural festivals, collectively known as the Edinburgh Festival.
The Fringe mostly attracts events from the performing arts, particularly drama and (the big growth area in recent years) comedy, although dance and music also figure significantly. Theatre events can range from the classics of ancient Greece, Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, through to new works. However, there is no selection committee to approve the entries, so any type of event is possible: the Fringe often showcases experimental works which might not be admitted to a more formal festival. The organisers are the Festival Fringe Society: they publish the programme, sell tickets and offer advice to performers from the Fringe office on the Royal Mile.
The Fringe started life when eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. They aimed to take advantage of the large theatre crowds and showcase their own, more alternative, theatre. It got its name in the following year (1948) after Robert Kemp, a Scottish playwright and journalist, wrote during the second Edinburgh International Festival: ‘Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before … I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!’.
There was no organisation initially until students of the University of Edinburgh set up a drop-in centre in 1951 where cheap food and a bed for the night were made available to participating groups. It was 1955 before the first (not wholly successful) attempt was made to provide a central booking service.
In 1959 there came the first signs of organisation with the formation of the "Festival Fringe Society". A constitution was drawn up in which the policy of not vetting or censoring shows was set out and the Society produced the first guide to all Fringe shows. 19 companies attended the Fringe in that year. In following years problems began to arise as the Fringe became too big for students and volunteers to deal with. Eventually in 1969 the Society became a limited company, and in 1971 it employed its first administrator.
Between 1976 and 1981 the number of companies performing rose from 182 to 494. In 1988 the Society moved to its current headquarters on the Royal Mile. Since then the Society has increased the amount of technology used by introducing computerised ticketing and in 2000 the Fringe became the first arts organisation in the world to sell tickets online in real time. In 2007, 1.697.293 tickets were sold for Fringe performances, and the Fringe Society now plans years in advance.
Much of the history of the Fringe has become obscure in popular terms but there is general agreement that the artistic credentials of the Fringe were established by the creators of the Traverse Theatre, John Calder, Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco in 1963. While their original objective was to maintain something of the Festival atmosphere in Edinburgh all year round, the Traverse Theatre quickly and regularly presented cutting edge drama to an international audience on both the Edinburgh International Festival and on the Fringe during August. It set a standard to which other companies on the Fringe aspired. The Traverse is occasionally referred to as 'The Fringe venue that got away', reflecting its current status as a permanent and integral part of the Edinburgh Arts scene. However, it continues to form the bedrock of drama on the Fringe at festival time.
The advent of the Fringe was not warmly greeted by some sections of the International Festival (and the Edinburgh hierarchy), leading to outbursts of animosity between the two festivals. They were particularly prevalent in the 1950s, 1960s and through into the 1970s. Periodic attempts by the official Festival to compete with the Fringe were stopped by Brian McMaster when he became the director of the International Festival in 1991. It is somewhat ironic that their most successful attempt to compete, Beyond The Fringe back in 1960, is now wrongly thought of by many people as a Fringe show.
Over the first 20 years each performing group had its own hall. However, by around 1970 the concept of sharing a hall became popular, principally as a means of cutting costs. It could be possible to host up to 6 or 7 different shows per day in a hall. The obvious next step was to partition a venue into two or more performing spaces; the majority of today's venues fit into this category. This approach was taken a stage further by the early 1980s with the arrival of the super-venue - a location that contains many performing spaces. The Circuit was one of the early super-venues; it was in fact a tented “village”, including one space with room for an audience of 400, that was situated on a piece of empty ground, popularly known as “The Hole in The Ground” where the Saltire complex, which now houses the Traverse, was subsequently built in the early 1990s.
Due to legacy, close partnership and the commercial nature of their operations, the perceived super-venues are Assembly, C venues, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and UnderBelly. There are larger, middle tier, venues, including:Greenside, Bedlam, Rocket Venues, Sweet Venues, theSpaceUK and Zoo Venues and smaller, lower tier, venues such as, the Laughing Horse Free Edinburgh Fringe Festival venues, The Holyrood, PBH's Free Fringe, Paradise Green Productions, Quaker Meeting House and St John's Church''.
Nowadays, venues come in all shapes and sizes, with use being made of every conceivable space from proper theatres (e.g. Traverse or Bedlam Theatre), custom-made theatres (e.g. Music Hall in the Assembly Rooms), historic castles (C venues), to lecture theatres (Pleasance, [George Square Theatre http://www.festivals.ed.ac.uk/] and Sweet ECA), conference centres, other university rooms and spaces, temporary structures (The Famous Spiegeltent and the Udderbelly ), churches and church halls, schools, a public toilet, the back of a taxi, and even in the audience's own homes.
The groups that operate the venues are also very diverse: some are commercial and others not-for-profit; some operate year-round, while others exist only to run venues at the Fringe.
From the performers' perspective, the decision on where to perform is typically based on a mixture of cost, location (close proximity to other venues is seen as a plus), and the philosophy of the venue, i.e. some will prefer a site where commercial consideration is not the obvious primary driver, a site where they will feel more comfortable and more an integral part of the venue.
The role of the Fringe Society is to facilitate the festival, concentrating mainly on the challenging logistics of organising such a large event. Alistair Moffat (Fringe administrator 1976-1981) summarised the role of the Society when he said, “As a direct result of the wishes of the participants, the Society had been set up to help the performers that come to Edinburgh and to promote them collectively to the public. It did not come together so that groups could be vetted, or invited, or in some way artistically vetted. What was performed and how it was done was left entirely to each Fringe group”. This approach is now sometimes referred to as an unjuried festival.
Over the years this approach has led to adverse criticisms about the quality of the arts on the Fringe. Much of this criticism comes from individual arts critics in national newspapers, hard-line aficionados of the Edinburgh International Festival, and occasionally from the Edinburgh International Festival itself.
The Fringe's own position on this debate may be summed up by Michael Dale (Fringe Administrator 1982-1986) in his book Sore Throats & Overdrafts, "No-one can say what the quality will be like overall. It does not much matter, actually, for that is not the point of the Fringe ... The Fringe is a forum for ideas and achievement unique in the UK, and in the whole world ... Where else could all this be attempted, let alone work". Views from the middle ground of this perennial debate point out that the Fringe is not complete artistic anarchy. Some venues do influence or decide on the content of their programme, e.g. the Traverse and Aurora Nova.
A frequent criticism, well-aired in the media over the last 20 years, has been that stand-up comedy is "taking over" the Fringe, that a large proportion of newer audiences are drawn almost exclusively to stand-up comics (particularly to television comedy stars in famous venues), and that they are starting to regard non-comedy events as "peripheral". The 2008 Fringe will mark the first time that comedy has made up the largest category of entertainment.
The freedom to put on any show has led periodically to controversy when individual tastes in sexual explicitness or religion have been contravened. This has brought some into conflict with local city councillors. Needless to say, there have been the occasional performing groups who have deliberately tried to provoke controversy as a means of advertising their shows.
The advent of the "super venue" in the late 1970s and early 1980s has also prompted much debate. They are large venues that may contain 6 or more discrete performing spaces: the most notable organisations are Assembly, Pleasance, The Gilded Balloon, C Venues and The Underbelly (the term organisation is used rather than venue because they all now host multiple venues). It is thought by some that each of these big, central, one-stop-shops becomes in effect a "festival within the festival". By staging many well-known acts in one place it is thought that they are able to attract audiences away from the more modest (and more difficult to find and get round) venues which, by charging performing groups less, offer more "traditional" fringe events involving newcomers. Concerns over what can be seen as the disproportionate power of these super venues have been heightened by their use of corporate sponsors and various attempts to work together, e.g. the production of a programme covering their venues has been tried.
In the mid 1990s only the occasional top show charged £10 per seat, while the average price was £5-£7; in 2006, prices were frequently £10+ and £20 was reached for the first time in 2006 for a show that lasted 1 hour. Some of the reasons that are put forward for the increases include: the increasing costs associated with hiring large venues; theatre licences and related costs; plus the price of accommodation during the Edinburgh Festival which is expensive for performers as well as for audiences.
In recent years a different business model has been adopted by two organisations; The Free Fringe and The Laughing Horse Free Edinburgh Fringe Festival have introduced the concept of the free show. There were 22 shows that came under this banner in 2005, growing to 69 in 2006 and 320 in 2007. Ninety percent of these free shows are comedy.
Edinburgh based newspaper The Scotsman, often seen as the 'bible' of the Edinburgh Festival for its comprehensive coverage, originally aimed to review every show on the Fringe. They now have to be more selective, as there are simply too many shows to cover, although they do see more or less every new play being staged as part of the Fringe's theatre programme because of their Fringe First awards.
Other Scottish media outlets that provide coverage include: The Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and the Scottish edition of Metro. Scottish arts and entertainment magazines The List and Fest Magazine - also provide extensive coverage.
Several organisations have appeared in recent years who freely offer a comprehensive mixture of printed and web-based reviews. They aim to cover shows that are missed by the larger organisations. They include: Edinburghguide.com; not-for-profit ThreeWeeks; BroadwayBaby; and Chortle which is limited to comedy. * Garden Sessions are an internet based outlet which provides coverage on it's weekly radio show, as well as reviews on folk music and the more traditional aspects of the festival.
Most of the London based broadsheets also review, in particular The Guardian and The Independent, while arts industry weekly The Stage publish a large number of Edinburgh reviews, especially of the drama programme.
In addition, journalists / reviewers from all over the world are in Edinburgh during the festival, and their reports and reviews appear in media outlets around the globe.
There are a growing number of awards for Fringe shows, particularly in the field of drama:
Purely for comedy:
2003 saw the development of an adaptation for the theatre of the renowned 1957 film, 12 Angry Men using well-known stand up comedians in the roles of the 12 jurors. Staged at the Assembly Rooms on George Street 12 Angry Men was directed by Guy Masterson and starred Bill Bailey and Stephen Frost. In the following year, Masterson directed a stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but quit the project before it opened , and was replaced by Terry Johnson. The problems continued when Christian Slater twice contracted chicken pox, and the opening was further delayed. However, tickets for the run sold out before opening. The production subsequently transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. In 2005, Masterson's production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, starring Bill Bailey and Alan Davies, became the fastest selling show in the festival's history despite poor reviews. The theme continued in 2006 with a production of Midnight Cowboy which failed to excite the critics and resulted in disappointing attendances.
High profile names constitute an extremely small percentage of the performers at the festival; the vast majority are a mixture of journeymen professionals of varying experience, amateurs, and students. The Fringe showcases a great deal of local Scottish talent, with many local clubs and individuals taking part. Edinburgh People's Theatre, one of Scotland's most respected amateur theatre companies, is the longest serving Fringe participant, having taken part every year since 1959.
In 2007, Edinburgh Castle served as 8000-seat venue to Ricky Gervais and this year the theatre adaptation of betselling novelist Carl Hiaasen's Lucky You is premiering at the Assembly Hall, with music especially composed by Loudon Wainwright III.
The official website lets people post their own reviews and ratings for shows. In 2005 a text rating system was introduced, whereby audience members could text ratings out of 5 from their mobile phones for shows they have seen.
Of the 2000+ shows, theatre continues to be the largest genre. Comedy, the major growth area over the last 20 years, is only marginally behind and may well overtake theatre soon if recent trends are maintained. Other genres include: Dance & Physical Theatre, Music and Children's shows.
It is possible to sample some shows before committing to seeing them. The best opportunity is afforded by "Fringe Sunday", which is held on the first Sunday of the festival when many companies, 200 estimated for 2006, perform all or part of their show for free on The Meadows. Alternatively, on any day during the festival the pedestrianised area of the High Street around St. Giles Cathedral and the Fringe Office becomes the focal point for theatre companies to hand out flyers, perform scenes from their shows, and attempt to sell tickets. Many shows are "2 for 1" on the opening weekend of the Festival.
During the 2006 festival 20 venues got together to form the Associated Independent Venue Producers (AIVP). Its main role is to lobby public bodies for better publicity for the Fringe, and to seek improvements to Edinburgh's infrastructure to support increased numbers of festival-goers.
In the field of drama, the Edinburgh Fringe has premièred several plays, most notably Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1966) and Moscow Stations (1994) which starred Tom Courtenay. Over the years, it has attracted a number of companies that have made repeated visits to the Fringe, and in doing so helped to set high artistic standards. They have included: the London Club Theatre Group (1950s), Scotland (1970s), National Student Theatre Company (1970s and various other periods), Communicado (1980s and 1990s), Red Shift (1990s), and Grid Iron more recently. The Fringe is also the staging ground of the American High School Theatre Festival.
In the field of comedy, the Fringe has provided a platform that has allowed the careers of many performers to bloom. In the 1960s, various members of the Monty Python team appeared in student productions, as subsequently did Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, the latter three with the Cambridge Footlights. Notable companies have included Complicite in the 1980s and the National Theatre of Brent. More recent comedy performers to have been 'discovered' include: Reduced Shakespeare Company, Steve Coogan, Jenny Eclair, The League of Gentlemen, Al Murray and Rich Hall.
Web-based Material relating to the history of the Fringe
- Edinburgh Comedy Festival on the Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe to be 'franchised' worldwide; World's largest arts festival aims to get even bigger with ambitious plan to create worldwide 'fringes' network
May 09, 2004; ORGANISERS of the Edinburgh Fringe, not content with running the largest arts festival in the world, are "franchising" the event...
Smiles apart : The Edinburgh Fringe could learn a lot from Glasgow's annual comedy festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year
Mar 15, 2012; WHEN Glasgow International Comedy Festival got its first laugh back in 2003, it was a little like the moment when, in 1945, the...