How to Fringe It and Not Die in the Attempt: A Rough Guide for Beginners
Paul Gudgin (2004 Fringe Festival Director): 'A year that has focused on international issues has produced a Fringe full of international artists, all choosing Edinburgh to tell their stories. As Athens welcomes the world's athletes for the Olympics, Edinburgh will be a magnet for the world's artists and performers this August'.
How to survive the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is not a question first-goers often ask themselves. Certainly one cannot imagine it to be as demanding as Woodstock or Glastonbury. After all it is merely a theatre, comedy and music festival, right?
Or is it? As the Fringe goes into its 58th edition this month, it is bigger and more international than ever. The only word suitable to describe it is, probably, vast and undeniable proof is in the programme. If you have never seen a Fringe programme just picture an edition of Marie Claire or Cosmopolitan: over 200 pages filled with listings rather than fashion articles, advertisements or agony-aunt columns. Luckily for us mortals, the programme is absolutely free and can be picked up anywhere in Edinburgh. Moreover the lay out is very comprehensive and one learns how to navigate the Fringe's immensity pretty quickly.
The number of shows is staggering, it would take you five years and fifty-three days to see the whole 1695 of them back-to-back, and their variety simply overwhelming. The Fringe offers pretty much everything under the sun, a real fest for culture-vultures. Besides all sorts of drama, comedy and music there is a significant number of workshops, exhibitions, talks and special events, making the Fringe a beautiful, many-headed, awe-inspiring hydra.
Therefore to attempt a compilation of interesting and worthwhile shows seems to me a Sisyphean task. Nonetheless I cannot stop myself from doing some good old name-dropping: Keith – What us the Frequency? by 78th Street Theatre Lab; XXX by La Fura dels Baus; Bang Bang You're Dead by The Red Chair Players; a brand new Ethnic Comedy Award; My Life as a 10 Year Old Boy, by Nancy Cartwright (who gives voice to Bart Simpson); the French Air; the Soweto Gospel Choir; and Sadie Nine (aka. 'The Russian Madonna'). These are merely some of the organisers' recommendations, based on previous successes and status. The Fringe though is always full of surprises, in the form of magnificent shows by complete strangers or foreign companies, comedians and musicians. It is these generally-unnoticed artists that make the Fringe unique. They are little pearls to look out for. Thus avoid restricting yourself to the big shows with the big names. Taking 'risks' can be very refreshing but is not always rewarding. If you want to play it safe, have a look at the extensive review section in The Scotsman or any other paper covering the festival, otherwise you can check the forums on the Fringe web page (www.edfringe.com). A more sociable alternative, and sometimes the best, is to ask your pub-table neighbours what they saw recently and would recommend.
This year's edition will, as usual, count with an important number of these little pearls, but at this point there is no way to predict which ones will be the true treasures. For good or bad there are no real treasure maps. The Fringe is simply a cultural adventure. As for the countries participating, besides the now traditional American presence, they range from Scandinavia to South Africa, the Middle East to Japan, crossing the whole of Central Europe. Fringe audiences are used to and have developed a taste for international theatre, dance and music. This year they will have, for the first time, an opportunity to savour worldwide comedy.
With this I hope you will have a general idea of what awaits you in Edinburgh this month, but believe me, nothing written down here does justice to the Fringe Festival or comes close to painting even the faintest picture of its, mostly beautifully organised, cacophony.
The city literally explodes, and it does so on all four corners as cellars, churches, courtyards, restaurants, pubs, tents, streets and hotels are transformed into performance spaces competing with the numerous already-existing theatres. In total there are 236 venues, 29 more than last year.
If it were only the Fringe, well, then life would be somewhat easier for the visitors to the Scottish capital. Edinburgh however hosts a whole battalion of festivals this month: International Festival (of which out beloved Fringe is an offspring), Military Tatoo, Book Festival, Jazz & Blues Festival, Film Festival… Although they don't all run for the whole of August there are several points at which they overlap, multiplying the cultural buffet astonishingly. But that's another story…
Even if one is disciplined and limits oneself to the Fringe programme, do not be alarmed if you are suddenly swept away from your course by some street performance, or a show that is about to start. Just be aware that a simple task like going for a coffee two blocks away can become a true odyssey. It is merely a question of allowing time to travel from one side of the city to the other and especially allowing oneself to wander and discover.
It all comes down to your ambitions and appetite. If you are planning to stay in Edinburgh for the duration of the Fringe, 8th to the 30th of August, do not tire yourself out in the first week. If however you are there for a short time, planning ahead is crucial, always leaving some space for improvisation. Either way, get hold of a programme as soon as possible. You can either get one or search for what is on during your stay on the Fringe web page. If this is not possible I recommend you save some time on your arrival to familiarise yourself with the programme; and if something catches your eye and you would never forgive yourself for not seeing it, buy your tickets as soon as possible. Tickets have been on sale since the 21st of June and the most popular shows tend to go very, very quickly.
So pack you bags tight, prepare your bank account for a spending frenzy and brace up! Just remember: once bitten, forever smitten. Jim Haynes, writer and founder of the Traverse Theatre, recounts the following anecdote: 'I was asked by a boy once after a lecture I gave in the United States when the festival was, and he's been at every one for the past ten years now. Each time I see him there, he blames me for the expense my tip-off has caused him over the years'.
Believe it, the Fringe bug is a rather nasty one.
Excuse Me, Where Is the Fringe? A Reflection
Although the Edinburgh Fringe Festival never ceases to amaze me in many ways, it is at the same time a bitter-sweet experience.
When the Edinburgh International Festival was established shortly after the Second World War no-one could have predicted that an unofficial event would establish itself to become a major feature in its own right. Back then eight uninvited theatre companies turned up and performed at venues away from the big stages. The year was 1947 and there was no central box office, no programme and no advance publicity. This rebellious and impromptu event did not even hold the name of 'Fringe Festival' yet. It was a year later that Robert Kemp, Evening News, unknowingly baptises it as such: '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 '. By 1955 it was thirteen groups, nineteen by 1959. After its infancy the Fringe entered adolescence in the 60's, which I guess must have been the perfect time to be a teenager. From 1962 the number of participants begins to soar, 34 that year and 57 by the end of the decade, reaching 494 at the start of the 80's… And even today, with 735 companies, the Fringe keeps on growing and growing like the "green blob" starring in old B movies. However I cannot stop asking myself: Where is nowadays the spirit of rebellion and non-conformism that gave it life? Where is the Fringe?
I could not help but feel deeply saddened when I read about the days in which the Fringe's risqué nature was denounced and the festival described as 'degrading, revolting and scandalous' (The Scottish Daily Mail, 1968). Those were of course different times. Until 1968 scripts were required by law to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain's office and the arresting of buskers by the police did not cease until the early 80's, and yet companies miraculously always found ways to jump through regulatory hoops. Today artistic freedom rules. What surprises me is that in the liberal climate we live in, the Fringe does not offer more challenging performances. Jim Haynes, writer and founder of the Traverse Theatre, said the festival was one of the year's most important events for him and was also 'the key in fight against Puritanism'. Perhaps this struggle might have become a less radical one. To this day social and political criticism can still be found in the programme. It generally does so in the shape of conventionally written and conventionally acted plays or stand-up. I ask, what about performance itself? Is the revolution of the arts over? Are we no longer to enjoy processes of experimentation? What seems to have gone missing, or has decreased severely, are fresh approaches that overturn tradition. If one has a quick look through the Fringe programme, omitting the physical theatre and dance section, it is clear that the majority of shows are not precisely adventurous. Companies keep insisting, year after year, in producing Shakespeare or Chekhov, and they do so bringing nothing particularly new. Luckily there remain some soothing exceptions. I do not intend to shun the classics, simply the tendency to be complacent about taking something to the Fringe, whether it is a straight-forward play or any other type of performance. The festival has an incomparable history of unusual and brave shows. One of my all-time favourites is the following.
Richard Fidler (of the Doug Anthony Allstar, 1987) —
'It was our first festival and we felt obliged to do something a bit spectacular and ideally apocalyptic for our last show at the Pleasance. A conference was held and it was decided a large bonfire was to be lit at the back of the Pleasance entertainment megaplex.(…) When the show in Pleasance Two came to an end we shunted the audience out of the theatre to the great bonfire.
Paul McDermott of our group felt the spirit move deep within him and began to run through the bonfire, to tumultuous cheers. He then begged us all to give up our worldly possessions and to toss them into the fire - money, credit cards, clothes, whatever. Wallets opened and credit cards of all colours fell into the fire with the first of the autumn leaves.'
Although this 'happening' had obvious social connotations, and perhaps even agenda, I believe it sums up the Fringe's revolutionary and daring streak. I do not know whether one can really plan such an action in advance or whether it springs forth at the spurt of the moment. Audiences have however been confronted by more organised performances: with sensationalist topics such as bestialism, public toilets transformed into venues, and the concept of a show 'about nothing' in which the spectators sat in a theatre watching an empty stage. The latter particularly interests me most for it is free of any directly political or social message. It is simply challenging, and challenging to the highest level. I might be mystifying something that never actually existed as such, but one should bear in mind that the Fringe was born with an act of sheer rebellion. It is my opinion therefore that it should be precisely that.
Having an 'open house' policy and no vetting, by which every single company is accepted to participate the organisers have little power to influence the shape and spirit of the Fringe. Or one would think so at first. The reason why this free spirit might have become diluted with time comes down, as many other things, to money. Companies face tremendous costs to participate in the Fringe. What happened to the drop-in centre, established in 1951 by Edinburgh University Student, which provided performers with cheap food and a bed for the night? To the astronomic venue hire, accommodation and others, we have to add the great expense on publicity. Reaching such monstrous proportions, the competition for an audience is huge. Incurring such costs, it is better for companies to play it safe and produce shows that will secure them an audience. This may be good for entertainment's sake; nevertheless I am not too sure it is the best for performance art. Furthermore there is the highly regarded Fringe First Award, set up in 1972, to blame for this. As Alistar Moofat, Fringe Administrator 1976-81, put it: 'If you think about it, you come up, vulnerable as hell, you don't know whether you're any good or not. You must be peeing yourself and you come into the incredible scrum of 500 groups or whatever it is. If you can succeed at the Fringe, you can succeed anywhere'. The notion that as long as there is an 'open house' policy, exciting theatre will find their way into the Fringe might be slightly flawed.
I sadly have to agree with comedian Rory Bremmer that the Fringe has been tied up since the early 80's. 'The trouble is it this means there's less room to experiment because it's become much more about box office success - it's more professional.' I would consider it a real loss if the Fringe keeps on becoming a capitalising venture. Is there a need for a Edinburgh Beyond-The-Fringe Festival to present the kind of performances that were once commonplace? Is there space for such a festival? If there is, we shall hopefully see it done.
(Editor's Note: All figures and excerpts are taken from the Edinburgh Fringe web page)
© 2004 Pablo Pakula
Pablo Pakula writes and lives in the UK (somewhere in Canterbury)