||This article may contain original research. (September 2007)|
|Edinburgh Festival Fringe|
A street performer on the High Street in 2010
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (The Fringe) is the world's largest arts festival, with the 2012 event spanning 25 days totalling over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues. Established in 1947 as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, it takes place annually in Scotland's capital, in the month of August. The Fringe is a showcase for the performing arts, particularly theatre and comedy (which has seen substantial growth in recent years), although dance and music are also represented. In 2012, 36% of shows were comedy and 28% theatrical productions. Theatrical productions range from the classics of ancient Greece to William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and contemporary works. In 2012, 1,418 shows were having their world premiere.
The Fringe is an unjuried festival – with no selection committee, and therefore any type of performance may participate. The Fringe has often showcased experimental works that might not be invited to a more conservative arts festival. In addition to ticketed, programmed events, the Festival has included a street fair, located primarily on the Royal Mile. The Festival is organized by the Festival Fringe Society, which publishes the programme, sells tickets, and offers advice to performers. Their offices are on the Royal Mile.
The Board of Directors is drawn from members of the Festival Fringe Society, who are often Fringe participants themselves - performers or administrators. Elections are held once a year, in August, and Board members serve a term of three years. The Board appoints the Fringe CEO (formerly known as the Fringe Administrator or Director) and operates under the chairmanship of a well-known public personality. The first chairman was Lord Grant, a High Court judge, who gave way in 1970 to the actor Andrew Cruikshank. He was succeeded in 1983, by Dr. Jonathan Miller, and then by Elizabeth Smith, Baroness Smith (widow of former Labour Leader John Smith).
The first full-time Fringe chief was former teacher, John Milligan, who left in 1976 to run the Craigmillar Festival. He was succeeded by writer and historian Alistair Moffat, who left in 1981 to become Head of Arts at Scottish Television. He was replaced by Michael Dale, who departed in 1986 to become Head of Events for the Glasgow Garden Festival. He was succeeded by his deputy, Mhairi Mackenzie-Robinson, who left in 1993 to pursue a career in business. Hilary Strong served in the position until 1999, when she then became director of the Greenwich Theatre. She was followed by Paul Gudgin (2000-2007), Jon Morgan (2007-2008), and Kath Mainland, the current CEO.
The 2011 Fringe sold 1,877,119 tickets for 41,689 performances of 2,542 shows, in 258 venues, over 25 days, for an average of more than 75,000 admissions and 1,360 performances per day. There were an estimated 21,192 performers, from 60 countries participating. There were 607 free shows.
The Fringe started life when eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Seven performed in Edinburgh, and one undertook a version of the medieval morality play "Everyman" in Dunfermline Cathedral, about 20 miles north, across the river Forth, in Fife. These groups aimed to take advantage of the large assembled theatre crowds to showcase their own, alternative, theatre. The Fringe got its name 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!’.
The Fringe did not benefit from any official organization until 1951, when students of the University of Edinburgh set up a drop-in centre in the YMCA, where cheap food and a bed for the night were made available to participating groups. It was 1955 before the first attempt was made to provide a central booking service.
The advent of the Fringe was not warmly greeted by some sections of the International Festival (and the Edinburgh establishment), leading to outbursts of animosity between the two festivals. This lasted well into the 1970s.
Formal organization progressed in 1959, 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 Fringe shows. Nineteen companies participated in the Fringe in that year.
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.
Problems began to arise as the Fringe became too big for students and volunteers to deal with. Eventually in 1969 the Society became a constituted body, and in 1970 it employed its first administrator, John Milligan, who left in 1976.
Between 1976 and 1981, under the direction of Alistair Moffat, the number of companies performing rose from 182 to 494, thus achieving its position of the largest arts festival in the world. At this point, the Fringe operated on only two full-time members of staff. In 1988 the Society moved from 170 High Street to its current expanded headquarters on the Royal Mile.
Statistics for 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe concluded that it was the largest on record: there were over 40,000 performances of over 2,500 different shows in 258 venues. Ticket sales amounted to around 1.8 million. There are now 12 full-time members of staff.
Of the shows, theatre had been the largest genre in terms of number of shows until 2008, when it was overtaken by comedy, which has been the major growth area over the last 20 years. The other genres are, in order of number of shows: Music, Dance & Physical Theatre, Musicals & Opera, and Children's Shows, in addition to assorted Events and Exhibitions.
It is possible to sample shows before committing to a full performance. For many years, the Fringe Club (variously in the High Street from 1971 and at Teviot Row Student Union from 1981) provided nightly showcases of Fringe fare to allow audiences to sample shows. The Fringe Club closed down in 2004, and various venues still provide "the Best of the Fest" and similar. The best opportunity used to be afforded by "Fringe Sunday", started in the High Street in 1981 and moved through pressure of popularity to Holyrood Park in 1983. Fringe Sunday was held on the second Sunday of the Fringe when companies performed for free. Having outgrown even Holyrood Park, this showcase took place on The Meadows until 2008. Alternatively, on any day during the Fringe 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.
According to the Fringe Society there were 258 venues in 2011, although over 80 of them housed events or exhibitions, which are not part of the main performing art genres that the Fringe is generally known for.
Over the first 20 years each performing group had its own performing space, or venue. However, by around 1970 the concept of sharing a venue became popular, principally as a means of cutting costs. It soon became 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 multiple performing spaces. The Assembly Rooms started the trend in 1981, taking over the empty Georgian building that had once hosted the International Festival Club, and the following year The Circuit was prominent; it was in fact a "tented village”, that was situated on a piece of empty ground, popularly known as “The Hole in The Ground”, once the site of a snooker club (Pool's), where the Saltire complex was subsequently built in the early 1990s. The new Traverse Theatre opened here in 1993.
Venues now 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 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. Many are based in London.
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 – some of whom specialise in amateur, school or college productions, some of whom are semi or wholly professional.
The professionalism of venues and of organisations has greatly increased. The church hall at Lauriston Place, used by Edinburgh University Theatre Company as Bedlam Theatre, was taken over by Richard Crane and Faynia Williams from the University of Bradford in 1975 to house "Satan's Ball". This was an ambitious benchmark production which inspired others. By 1980 when William Burdett-Coutts set up the Assembly Theatre in the Assembly Rooms on George Street (formerly the EIF Festival Club), the investment in staging, lighting and sound meant that the original amateur or student theatricals were left behind. There was still theatre done on a shoestring, but several cultural entrepreneurs had raised the stakes to the point where a venue like Aurora (St Stephen's Church, Stockbridge) could hold its head up in any major world festival.
A computerised booking system was first installed in the early 1990s, allowing tickets to be bought at a number of locations around the city. The Internet arrived in 2000 with the launching of its official website, which sold over half a million tickets online by 2005. In the following year, a Half Price Ticket Tent was added in association with Metro, offering special ticket prices for different shows each day, selling 45,000 tickets in its first year.
Several venues use their own ticketing systems; this is partly due to issues of commissions and how ticket revenue is distributed, and was reinforced by the 2008 failure of the main box office.
In 2008 the Fringe faced the biggest crisis in its history when the computerised ticketing system failed. The director of the Fringe resigned and the Board decided that the post of "Director" (invented in 1992 after years of being called "Fringe Administrator") would be abolished and replaced by a Chief Executive, thus reinforcing the Fringe chief's basic administrative function. A report into the failure was commissioned from accountancy firm Scott-Moncrieff.
The events surrounding the failed box office software led to the resignation of Fringe Director Jon Morgan after only one full year in post. The resultant financial loss suffered by the Fringe Society has been estimated at £300,000 which it was forced to meet from its reserves. These events attracted much comment from the UK and world media. More debts emerged as the year went on, and an independent report criticised the Board and the current and previous Fringe Directors for a failure of management and an inability to provide the basic service.
To make matters worse, Fringe Sunday – a vast free showcase of events held on the Meadows – was cancelled as a sponsor could not be secured. After an interim period, when Tim Hawkins from Brighton held the reins, established Edinburgh Book Festival and Fringe manager Kath Mainland was appointed in February 2009 to stabilise the situation, and became the Fringe's first Chief Executive.
Edinburgh has spawned many notable original shows and helped establish the careers of many writers and performers.
In 1960 Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller performed at the Royal Lyceum theatre in Beyond the Fringe, introducing a new wave of British satire and heralding a change in attitudes towards politicians and the establishment. Ironically, this show was put together by the Edinburgh International Festival as a rebuff to the emerging Fringe. But its title alone helped publicise "the Fringe", especially when it went on to London's West End and New York's Broadway for the next 12 months.
During 1980s the Festival Fringe attracted a number of major touring companies. Joint Stock Theatre Company, arguably the leading innovative touring company at that time, brought two productions to the Fringe. These were The Great Celestial Cow by Sue Townsend and Fire in the Lake by Karim Alrawi. In 1986 the Fringe saw the breakout performance of Craig Ferguson as "Bing Hitler", a "parody of all the über-patriotic native folk singers who seemed to infect every public performance in Scotland."
2003 saw a very successful production of 12 Angry Men staged at the Assembly Rooms using established comedians in the roles of the twelve jurors. It starred Owen O'Neill in the role made famous by Henry Fonda, Juror #8. Stephen Frost, Phil Nichol and Bill Bailey also featured.
A 2004 version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was beset by problems, including the lead actor Christian Slater contracting chicken pox and the original director, Guy Masterson, quitting the project before it opened. Masterson was replaced by Terry Johnson.
In 2005, a production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple starring Bill Bailey and Alan Davies was staged at the Assembly Hall, the meeting place on the Mound of the Church of Scotland. This had been taken over by Assembly Theatre and transformed into an 840-seat theatre.
The Tattoo set-up at Edinburgh Castle served as the 6,000-seat venue for a one-off performance by Ricky Gervais of his latest stand-up show Fame in 2007. Gervais was accused of greed and taking audiences away from smaller shows. Gervais donated the profits from the show to Macmillan Cancer Support.
The concept of fringe theatre has been copied around the world. The largest and most celebrated of these spawned festivals are Adelaide Fringe Festival, National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, and Edmonton International Fringe Festival. The number of such events continues to grow, particularly in the USA and Canada. In the case of Edinburgh (est 1947) the Fringe is an addition to the Festival proper. Hence the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But where there is no actual Festival to be added to – such as New York (est 1997) – or where the festival is more "fringe" than anything else, the word comes before the word "festival", thus the "Adelaide Fringe Festival." (est 1979).
In the field of drama, the Edinburgh Fringe has premièred several plays, most notably Rosencrantz and 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), 7:84 Scotland (1970s), the Children's Music Theatre, later the National Youth Music Theatre under Jeremy James Taylor, the National Student Theatre Company (from the 1970s), Communicado (1980s and 1990s), Red Shift (1990s), Grid Iron, and Fitchburg State University. 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 1981 Cambridge Footlights. Atkinson was at Oxford. Notable companies in the 1980s have included Complicite and the National Theatre of Brent. More recent comedy performers to have been 'discovered' include Rory Bremner, Fascinating Aïda, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Steve Coogan, Jenny Eclair, The League of Gentlemen, Al Murray and Rich Hall.
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 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, open access arts festival or a fringe festival.
Over the years this approach has led to adverse criticism about the quality of 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, such as the Traverse and the now defunct 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 marked 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. There have been the occasional performing groups who have deliberately tried to provoke controversy as a means of advertising their shows.
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 over £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 entry show, though there are collections at the end of each performance. There were 22 shows that came under this banner in 2005, growing rapidly to over 600 in 2011. There was also the "pay what you can" model of the Forest Fringe, discussed below.
Putting on a show at the Fringe is costly to performers, due to registration fees, venue hire, cost of accommodation, and travel to Edinburgh. There are graduated registration fees, inexpensive venues, and inexpensive accommodation, but despite this, few shows even break even. Instead, the festival is touted as a networking opportunity, training ground or springboard for future career advancement, and exciting and fun for performers as well as spectators.
Putting on shows is costly to venues as well, due to theatre license fees which by 2009 had risen 800% in the preceding three years, and were eight times as high as fees in English cities, starting at £824 for a venue of up to 200 people and rising to £2,472 for a venue of up to 5,000 people. These fees have been cited as punitive to smaller venues and site-specific performances by such figures as Julian Caddy, which in 2009 featured site-specific shows in such venues as Inchcolm island and a swimming pool at the Apex International Hotel.
The Fringe itself at times sprouts a fringe. While the festival is unjuried, participating in the Fringe requires registration, payment of a registration fee, and use of a Fringe venue. For example, the 2008 registration fee was £289.05. Some outdoor spaces also require registration, notably the Royal Mile. Thus some artists perform outside the auspices of the Fringe, either individually or as part of a festival or in association with a venue, either outdoors or in non-Fringe venues.
Started by Deborah Pearson in 2007, and continuing in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, under the co-directorship of Andy Field and Pearson, a primary "Fringe of the Fringe" festival is the, at The Forest, with support from 2008 to 2010 by the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and currently supported by several organisations including the Jerwood Foundation and Queen's University in Canada. The aim is to encourage experimentation by reducing costs to performers – not charging for space, and providing accommodation. The same applies to audiences: all shows being "pay what you can".
In 2012 there was criticism of the increasing commercialism of the Pay-To-Play fringe venues who have pushed up venue costs, compulsory marketing and various deductions which can mean performers are being charged more than they can make back in ticket sales.
Stewart Lee stated in The Guardian: "For decades, the Fringe has been a utopia for artists and performers – but now profit-obsessed promoters are tearing it to pieces." The Alternative Fringe was set up by Bob Slayer as a statement against Pay-To-Play venues.
For many groups at the Fringe the ultimate goal is a favourable review which, apart from the welcome kudos, may help to minimise any financial losses that are suffered in putting on the show.
Edinburgh based newspaper The Scotsman, known for its comprehensive coverage of the Edinburgh Festival, originally aimed to review every show on the Fringe. Now they are more selective, as there are simply too many shows to cover, although they do see almost 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.
The Festival Media Network was founded in 2010 to act as a trade organisation for these independent media. Its members are Broadway Baby, Festival Previews, Fringe Guru, FringeReview, Hairline, iFringe, ThreeWeeks, The Podcast Network and WhatsOnStage.com.
In 2012, the most prolific reviewers were Broadway Baby which published over 1900 reviews, ThreeWeeks, which published 1000 reviews during August, and The Scotsman with 826 reviews. The List published 480 reviews and WhatsOnStage.com published 52.
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.
There are a growing number of awards for Fringe shows, particularly in the field of drama:
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