This feature was originally published in the lead-up to the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe.
49,827 performers. 3,171 shows. More than 250 venues. It sounds like a lot to take on for a modest-sized city built around an extinct volcano. But for Edinburgh, it’s back to business, and a palpable sense of excitement hangs in the air in the run-up to the 75th Fringe festival.
By August 5, the city will have swelled in size, as millions of performers, press, punters and workers make the yearly pilgrimage to the world’s largest arts festival. Technicolour street performers will line the Royal Mile, flyers will litter the streets and the Cowgate will be buzzing until sunrise with boozed-up revellers. But by August 30, the race to dismantle pop-up venues will be well under way, leaving only peeling posters and barren grass as souvenirs.
The last few years have been a bumpy ride. The pandemic stripped the Fringe bare, leaving venues, artists and organisers bereft of funding – revealing just how fragile its unique infrastructure is. Issues like the lack of affordable accommodation are increasingly worrying, and recently, 1,500 people signed an open letter to the Fringe Society, raising concerns over the running of the festival. Locals want their city back and performers are questioning just how viable its future is going to be.
However you feel about the Fringe, there’s no denying it’s a sensational feat: a sprawling, breathing, colossal puzzle of art. But with the shadow of the past two years continuing to loom over this year’s event, it’s getting hard to remember what made it so great in the first place. To remind us how the Fringe became so significant, we’re going back to its beginning.
Finding its feet
There would be no Edinburgh Fringe without the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). The first EIF kicked off on August 24 1947, an effort to bring people together after World War II. With the major arts hubs of London and former European festival destinations like Salzburg and Munich bombed to bits, the ancient city of Edinburgh was positioned as a new cultural destination. Its castle was lit up for four nights using the city’s private coal rations and visitors flocked there in their masses.
That first year, eight theatre groups showed up uninvited, calling themselves the ‘Festival Adjuncts’ when the International Festival refused to include them. ‘Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before,’ wrote Robert Kemp, a Scottish journalist and playwright, in 1948. ‘I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!’ Enter the ‘Fringe’. The official festival wound down in the afternoons and the Fringe dominated the nights, offering a pick-and-mix of theatre rebels determined to shoot their shot.
It was DIY spirit at its finest and became an annual tradition. In 1959, the Festival Fringe Society was set up and the first formal organisation began: a programme featuring every event outside of the international festival was drawn up, with a box office created at the YMCA in South Andrew Street. There was no alcohol to be seen: the only drink you’d be getting would be a glass of white stuff from the milk bar.
To this day, the festivals are completely separate, though many believe the Fringe could still never exist without the EIF. The difference? The EIF is curated by its director, tending towards internationally renowned dance, opera, music and theatre. The Fringe is its edgier, funnier, laissez-faire counterpart: a self-invited higgledy-piggle where anyone, from anywhere, can be a performer.
The big break
Over the years, that higgledy-piggle has got bigger and bigger (and bigger and bigger). In 1972, the Fringe First Awards were organised. Venues were created specifically for the festival and in 1981, William Burdett-Coutts founded Assembly Festival at the Assembly Rooms on George Street, the same year that saw the first Perrier Award (now known as the Edinburgh Comedy Awards).
‘I was looking for a space to direct a play, so I wrote to the council about renting a room,’ says Burdett-Coutts. ‘They came back asking if I wanted the entire building. I thought: why not?’ In its first year, Assembly employed just 12 people, and it took off from there. ‘I met most of my icons through the festival,’ says Burdett-Coutts. ‘Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Spike Milligan and Brian Cox.’ In 2011, the venue set up a space in George Square Gardens, which would soon become one of the major social Fringe hubs.
Michael Dale became administrator of the Fringe Society in 1982, and welcomed the arrival of larger venues like Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance. ‘When I started, Rowan Atkinson had just made it with “Not the Nine O’Clock News”,’ says Dale. ‘One year, he hid in the Fringe office, where the photocopier had broken. He has a degree in engineering, so he fixed it for us there and then.’
One of the key trends of the Fringe from the 1960s onwards would be universities and colleges sending groups to perform. ‘As a second-year theatre student on a “field trip” in 1987, I was astonished by the varying degrees of quality on offer,’ says comedian Omid Djalili. ‘I remember being utterly transfixed by experimental theatre from Eastern Europe. As soon as things opened up in 1990, I actually moved to Czechoslovakia because of it.’
Like a lot of people, I went up as a student and nearly died of malnutrition
‘Like a lot of people, I went up as a student and had no money and nearly died of malnutrition,’ says Sarah-Louise Young, a cabaret performer. ‘Still, somehow I got to the end of the Fringe and thought: This is what I want to do with my life. It’s the sole reason I became a performer.’
Students continue to have a presence at the festival. But somewhere along the line, the Fringe transformed from an amateur-ish selection of university revues to a platform that could launch the careers of some of the biggest stars in comedy. Everyone from Alan Rickman and Graham Norton to Emma Thompson and Miranda Hart found their feet at the festival, and in 2013, Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed ‘Fleabag’ for the first time, winning a Fringe First award. ‘She’s almost certainly going to go to hell for it,’ read the review in Time Out. ‘It’ll put you off guinea pigs for life.’ Just under a decade later, she’s the 2022 president of the Fringe Society.
Her story, shared by dozens of TV personalities and celebrated writers, sums up the dream – or myth – of the Fringe. It’s the place to make a name for yourself, where unknown acts can erupt overnight thanks to one fire review. ‘[The late] Lynn Ruth Miller took up stand-up comedy at the age of 70, having never done it before,’ says Young. ‘She’s the embodiment of it never being too late to follow your dream.’ For all that, though, it’s not just a case of turning up and making it big.
For emerging artists, the festival has never been an easy ride – you gamble the possibility of becoming the next big thing for a hefty overdraft and a kitchen floor. Add in Scottish weather, late nights and one too many pints of Tennent’s, and you’ll almost certainly catch Fringe flu. Worth it? Probably.
‘People get so stressed, tired and wired,’ says Young. ‘You start the Fringe full of excitement and possibility and so many people end up losing their voices and being ill. You’re running around all over the place. With all the hills in Edinburgh, you’ll easily walk 20,000 steps a day.’
‘For comedians, the Fringe is the equivalent of a training montage in a superhero film,’ says comedian Sophie Duker. ‘It may challenge you physically and mentally, it may seem bizarre or barbaric, but you emerge on the other side with rippling comedy muscles, new catchphrases and a deep sense that old scores must be settled.’
‘The big challenge is always finding the motivation of going on stage when you’ve written a show that you’re expecting to play to an audience of 100 each day, and you regularly find yourself playing it to an audience of three,’ says Frodo McDaniel, producer and director of the Rhymes with Purple theatre company. ‘You’re going to come along, you’re probably not going to get famous, you’re almost certainly going to lose a lot of money, but you are almost certainly going to have an incredible time.’
‘Only a few people will see immediate career progression after the Fringe,’ warns comedian Harriet Kemsley. ‘In fact, my first stand-up show went so badly I think it might have put me back a few years. However, it is a great place to hone jokes, get stage time and be drowned by something you love.’
‘Drown’ is an appropriate word, because when the Fringe is on, art is happening everywhere. On the High Street, in the Old Town and in the New Town. It’s happening in churches, in the Pleasance, Summerhall and George Square. It’s in every nook, cranny and close.
‘I’ve always had a real fondness at the Fringe for those bizarre little venues that appear for only one Fringe, in a space you would never expect to see,’ says McDaniel. ‘They’re up a close, or in the back of someone’s kitchen. That’s what’s really special.’
Go to the Royal Mile, and you’ll see the textbook Fringe images: the flyerers, hordes of tourists, buskers and street performers. ‘I’ve seen a giant penis and a giant vagina run towards each other from other ends of the Royal Mile,’ says Shona McCarthy, the current chief executive of the Fringe Society. ‘But that’s normal.’
In 1999, Fringe veteran Jim Rose led a demonstration of street performers, protesting about new regulations forcing them to be registered with timed slots. A report in The Independent from the time details how he carved ‘no’ into an apple held in an audience member’s mouth in protest – using a chainsaw.
And while there’s less mayhem now than there used to be, the street is still the most colourful theatre in the city. You’ll still see people spinning from buildings, painted silver, eating fire, or welcoming in children from the audience, turning them into temporary stars. ‘It becomes a place where all norms of social behaviour are suspended, and art is the most important thing in the world,’ says performer Alice Fraser.
Everyone has their own shit-faced Fringe story. Maybe you were cut in half on a magician’s table. Maybe you got dragged out of Sneaky Pete’s when you were caught stealing someone’s shots after you’d been cut off. Or maybe you volunteered to get stark naked on stage for ‘SPANK!’ when you were coming up on a pill, and your boss and ex happened to be in the audience.
‘People got so drunk and did stuff that they’d never do any other month of the year,’ says Rowan Espie, who worked at a venue bar for three summers in a row. ‘All the rules of social etiquette go out the window. It’s a surreal month: everyone’s just there to have a good time.’
During August, Edinburgh becomes a cheeky, tipsy, tumbling version of itself. Beer gardens pop up on just about every free plot, pubs and clubs ditch their usual 3am closing time for two more hours of shenanigans, and the Meadows is full of bottles of Buckfast and whiffs of weed. Everything is busier, rowdier, sexier and sloppier. It’s almost like a cross between Spring Break and the Hay literary festival.
It’s almost like a cross between Spring Break and the Hay literary festival
‘Back in the late noughties, the Fringe was a kaleidoscope of pure hedonistic enjoyment,’ says Sophie Duker, who attended her first Fringe as a performer in 2009. ‘I stayed up until six and breakfasted on vodka shots and force-fed myself aggressively weird stand-up. [In 2012] two friends decided to rebel against the bourgeois caste structure of the paid venue performers’ bars, and began throwing wild, Irn-Bru-fuelled raves in the underpass by George Square – complete with portable sound systems and earworm chants. “You don’t need a pass for the underpass party!”’
The boozed-up brilliance wouldn’t exist without the hundreds of bar workers who sacrifice their health and faith in humanity each summer. ‘Working the bar at the Fringe is intense – a baptism of fire,’ says Espie. ‘The closing shifts of 9pm to 5am were infamous: your manager would give you shots every hour after midnight. But it was great fun and you made so many friends, which is why I kept coming back. I’d even come into work on my days off, because of the FOMO.’
Unlikely communities of people form in each venue, living and working in that space for the whole month. ‘The sheer hours some people work is probably the scariest thing that goes on,’ says Moe Liebelt, a bar supervisor in a popular Cowgate venue. ‘The notorious graveyard shift is from the minute the last show closes and the last bar shuts, when you have to immediately begin cleaning and packing and taking down: it can be pretty grim, but also very fun.’
In 2020, the pandemic happened, and that fun came to a grinding halt. For the first time since its inception, the Fringe could not go ahead. It was catastrophic. ‘If the government hadn’t come through with Covid loans, we wouldn’t have survived,’ says Burdett-Coutts. ‘Like a lot of people, we had to borrow money from the bank. We’ve got many years of paying that off.’
In 2021, the Fringe returned in a smaller capacity, with 528 in-person shows and 414 online events. ‘It was interesting – a lot of shows were outdoors and in unusual venues, like a forest and a football stadium, in precarious weather,’ says Brian Ferguson, The Scotsman’s arts correspondent. Many people viewed the break as a chance to take stock and reset. ‘There was a cliché that the Edinburgh bubble was never going to burst: I think it took a pandemic to burst it,’ says Emma Taylor, producer of political parody show ‘News Revue’. ‘This year is a kind of renaissance. I think we needed something to shake everything up a bit as well and get the Fringe back to its original ethos.’
But the effects of the pandemic are, inevitably, still being felt. Many people are concerned that it has only exacerbated problems that already existed. Last month, 1,500 people, including comedians Joe Lycett and Jo Caulfield, signed the Live Comedy Association’s open letter to the Fringe Society. It criticised the scrapping of its ticketing app, a lack of transparency and failing to help with soaring accommodation costs and cuts in train services.
‘Our team was hugely depleted by Covid: we had to go through a redundancy process,’ says Shona McCarthy, who said the society faced difficult decisions about what to prioritise. ‘The [Fringe Society] website will have nearly all the functionality on your smartphone as the app would have, and the half-price hut will still go ahead.’
The bad bits
The Fringe might still be going ahead this year, but its long-term future is a whole other question. ‘The accommodation issue is catastrophic,’ says Burdett-Coutts. ‘People are over-exploiting the situation and it threatens to kill the festival. I spend my days talking to companies that can’t make their budgets work, and accommodation really pushes it to extremes.’
A lack of regulation around the costs and conditions of short-term Fringe accommodation has meant that landlords are raking in the profits at the expense of performers: it’s not uncommon to hear of artists living in tents pitched up in the Meadows, or horror stories about extortionate rents for unlivable rooms. ‘The first year I was there I was in this funny flat with a bunch of road comics,’ says Fraser. ‘They let me sleep in this cupboard with no windows for whatever I could afford at that time.’
Performers are being over-exploited, and it threatens to kill the festival
To find some sort of solution, the Fringe Society has worked with local universities – Napier, Queen Margaret and the University of Edinburgh, as well as Unite Students – to create 1,200 rooms at a maximum of £280 per week. ‘But we need more, there’s no doubt about it,’ says McCarthy. ‘It’s a massive priority for everybody.’
The infrastructure problem has been dumped on the Fringe Society, but a lasting solution will require a concerted effort with Edinburgh Council, the Scottish government and the national Tourism Association. ‘If it was a Commonwealth Games or the Olympics, there’d be a real effort to find innovative solutions,’ says McCarthy. ‘I think people need to realise the scale of the Fringe and its importance nationally and internationally: this is a showcase moment for Scotland and the rest of the UK.’
Still, the issue is one of many: better mental-health support for performers and workers, clamping down on exploitative work practices, increasing accessibility for people with mobility issues and improving representation of minority communities are all on the hit list. In 2018, Fringe of Colour was founded by Jess Brough, in response to the lack of shows by Black people and people of colour at the festival. It started a database of shows made by or featuring Black and POC performers, and introduced a free ticket scheme for young people of colour. While the group hasn’t yet completed its analysis of representation on the 2022 line-up, the issues undoubtedly still persist.
The festival city
The Fringe Society recently launched six new development goals, to make the festival more ‘inclusive, fair and sustainable’. To measure progress, the society will undertake an independent consultation, surveying thousands of workers across the festival, for the first time since 2018. ‘The fundamental principle on which the Fringe is built – to give everyone a stage and everyone a seat – will continue to be the core vision of the festival,’ says McCarthy.
With so many bodies involved, it’s difficult to imagine how these goals will be delivered. The Fringe Society has no growth agenda, and so long as people continue to want to get up and perform, it’s hard to see it slowing down anytime soon. ‘There’s so much misunderstanding about what the Fringe is,’ says McCarthy. ‘I think people expect it to be a curated, publicly funded arts festival. But it’s a platform, everybody participates in it at their own risk.’
This August, the Fringe will deliver 80 percent of the number of shows staged in 2019 – and if it’s anything like that year, it could generate up to £1 billion for the Scottish economy. There will be showcases from Denmark, Ireland, Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Names like Nina Conti, Nish Kumar and Stewart Lee are returning, Ian McKellen is performing ‘Hamlet’ at St Stephen’s church, and Deaf Action Scotland is running its first ever D/deaf festival within the Fringe. That’s on top of all the work that has been made during the last two years by new talent, and is finally going to see the light of day.
And then there are all the other festivals happening over the city: the International Festival, the Jazz and Blues Festival, the Film Festival, the Royal Military Tattoo, the Science Festival, the Book Festival and the Art Festival. ‘There’s nothing like it in the world: it’s been copied endlessly by other cities, but the Edinburgh Fringe stands out as the pre-eminent event of its kind,’ says Burdett-Coutts. ‘It’s a phenomenon. You couldn’t set out to design it, it wouldn’t exist.’
Sure, it’s not perfect, but what art is? Messy, colourful and loud, the Fringe is testament to people getting up and doing their own thing. Long may it stay that way – broken photocopiers, bottles of buckie, gigantic genitalia and all.
Discover our full guide to the Edinburgh Fringe 2022.