On the Fringe
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which takes place every year in August, is gigantic. In 2017, it included over 50,000 performances of over 3,000 different shows, most of them performed daily, over three weeks at 300 venues. The shows include comedy, theater, dance, music, spoken word, cabaret and kids’ shows. And that’s just the Fringe.
There are 11 major festivals in Edinburgh each year. And the Fringe takes place, incredibly, at the same time as the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The temptation to try and make the most of a visit to even one of the festivals taking place in August can leave many feeling overwhelmed, as can the sheer number of people in the city during festival time. All of which makes it highly advisable to get some tips from a local.
Jackie Macfarlane, an artist born and bred in the city, has been going to the Fringe regularly for over 30 years, a period in which it has changed considerably.
“The Festival gets bigger every year, with more performers, more venues and more visitors,” says Macfarlane. “It has changed largely due the explosion of comedians. The majority of comedians who appear on British TV started their careers at the Fringe, so people who hadn’t seen them when they started off now go and see their festival shows. I think that the perception of the Fringe has changed as well. In the past, some people thought it was for more ‘arty types’ and that it was expensive, but there are a huge amount of free shows too, allowing more people to come.”
For local artists like Macfarlane, the Fringe offers many opportunities. “The Fringe is the biggest platform for creative freedom in the world,” says Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Fringe Society. “It’s also the world’s largest arts marketplace. The entire international arts community comes to Edinburgh in August.”
The festival is also intrinsically linked to the wider city and its residents.
“Edinburgh has established itself as a world-renowned festival city over the past 70 years and the Fringe could not have achieved its enduring success without the support of its citizens and the City of Edinburgh Council,” says McCarthy. “In 2017, we sold 2.7 million tickets for Fringe shows and the population of Edinburgh tripled during August. The Fringe makes a vital contribution to Edinburgh and Scotland’s economy and it benefits local businesses and employment.”
For visitors, though, the city simply provides a stunning backdrop to the festival. And the atmosphere of the event in turn enhances the appeal of the city.
“The city is always a busy place, but it becomes what the locals would call ‘heaving’ during the Festival,” says Macfarlane. “And one of the reasons I like the Fringe so much is because of the liveliness and color it brings.”
But even a Fringe veteran and local like Macfarlane can find Edinburgh a bewildering place to navigate at times.
“There are so many side streets in Edinburgh,” she says. “On one occasion, we just couldn’t find the venue for a show. We asked lots of doormen outside other venues and eventually found the place down a little side alley that I’d never been down in my life. It was through a tiny door that opened up into a large space with a big theater inside. Edinburgh is just like that. It’s part of the madness. You go out thinking this is going to happen, but something else does entirely. All bets are off!”
Every year offers new Fringe experiences and performances. But as well as seeing what’s new, Macfarlane likes to see old favorites, such as comedian Tom Binns.
“Tom Binns does about three different shows each year as different characters,” she says. “A couple of years ago, I was at one of his morning shows, at a derelict house. Binns was playing a medium and I noticed [famous British comedian] Rowan Atkinson was in the audience. Each year, many comedians tend to jump on a bandwagon and tell jokes about the same thing. But Tom Binns is his own person. I’d very much recommend him. You must like audience participation, though. He’s picked on me a few times, but he makes it all great fun.”
Shona McCarthy says that the event is constantly evolving. “The 2018 Fringe will offer something for everyone,” she says. “Whether you enjoy puppet shows, comedians, astonishing street artists, dazzling cabaret acts, ground-breaking international theater or underground musical sensations, the Fringe will surpass your expectations over and over again.”
And should you get “fringed out,” as Macfarlane says can sometimes happen with all this incredible choice, you can always escape down a side street or go into one of the city’s numerous great pubs or cafés.
“Or you can jump on the bus and head to the beach,” she adds. “I think people forget that Edinburgh has a beach!”
Published: August 1, 2018