The intriguing stories behind Edinburgh’s famous Fringe venues

The Pleasance is one of the oldest Fringe venues (Photo: TSPL)
The Pleasance is one of the oldest Fringe venues (Photo: TSPL)
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Celebrating its 70th anniversary this August, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has a long and rich history.

It’s the explosion of theatre, comedy and art that rightly demands the limelight – but the intriguing stories behind some of the venues might surprise you too.

The crowded upstairs dining area at the Festival Club in the Assembly rooms  during Edinburgh festival 1957. Picture: TSPL

The crowded upstairs dining area at the Festival Club in the Assembly rooms during Edinburgh festival 1957. Picture: TSPL

The Pleasance

The Pleasance is one of the busiest and most well known of Fringe venues, and it’s also one of the oldest.

At the very first Fringe in 1947 (when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Festival to put on an alternative programme), four different shows were held at The Pleasance.

These left-leaning theatre groups viewed the official festival as bourgeois and wanted to offer something for the working class public, so they put on performances in The Pleasance’s Little Theatre like Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths and The Laird O’ Torwatletie by Robert MacLellan.

The Gilded Balloon was formerly located on the Cowgate before a fire in 2002. Picture: TSPL

The Gilded Balloon was formerly located on the Cowgate before a fire in 2002. Picture: TSPL

Assembly Rooms

Assembly Festival (the oldest of the ‘Big Four’ Fringe promoters) began life in 1981 after several shows were organised at the Assembly Rooms on George Street.

The Assembly Rooms were purpose-built as a meeting place for social gatherings, with the Caledonian Hunt Ball opening the venue in 1787, and nearly 200 years later they became Edinburgh’s first Fringe ‘super-venue’.

Assembly Festival held Fringe events there for 30 years, before The Stand Comedy Club won the contract for the Assembly Rooms – but they have regained the venue and Assembly Festival will return to their New Town home for the 2017 Fringe.

Theatre Workshop present Uranium 235 at the Oddfellowes Hall during the Edinburgh Festival 1951 - cast includes the playwright Ewan McColl (moustache). Picture: TSPL

Theatre Workshop present Uranium 235 at the Oddfellowes Hall during the Edinburgh Festival 1951 - cast includes the playwright Ewan McColl (moustache). Picture: TSPL

Traverse Theatre

The Traverse Theatre was founded in 1963 by John Calder, Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco as they wanted to continue the spirit of the Fringe throughout the rest of the year.

It started life as a theatre club in the Lawnmarket, located in a former doss-house and brothel previously known as Kelly’s Paradise and Hell’s Kitchen.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the Traverse moved to their current site on Cambridge Street. Before it was built, this empty piece of ground (often known as the ‘Hole in the Ground’) was used to host a pop-up tented village called The Circuit during various Fringes in the late ’80s.

The Bedlam Theatre on Forrest Road. Picture: TSPL

The Bedlam Theatre on Forrest Road. Picture: TSPL

Teviot Row House

Teviot Row House has been used as the main base of the Gilded Balloon since 2002. Before that, Gilded Balloon were based at a former department store on the Cowgate which was destroyed by fire.

The old department store was originally built in 1823 by James Spittal, a draper and silk merchant, who used it as a warehouse for his shop, The Gilded Balloon – which the Fringe company takes its name from.

Teviot Row House itself has an interesting history as it was the first purpose-built student union in the world, opening in 1889.

Surprisingly, alcoholic spirits were only permitted to be sold here in 1970, and women were admitted for the first time the following year.

The Famous Spiegeltent

Spiegeltents (Dutch for ‘mirror tents’) originated in Belgium in the late 19th century, and were used as glamorous travelling entertainment venues across Europe. Only a few spiegeltents remain, one of which is The Famous Spiegeltent.

It was built in 1920 and has hosted some of the world’s biggest performers, including Marlene Dietrich, who famously sang Falling in Love Again on the stage in the 1930s.

The historic venue has appeared at various locations throughout the city since its first Fringe in 1996, including the Princes Mall rooftop plaza, underneath the Scott Monument and in George Square Gardens.

The Famous Spiegeltent is usually located in St Andrew Square for the Fringe, but they have been evicted this year and the future looks uncertain for Edinburgh’s ‘Grand Old Dame’.

Bedlam Theatre

Bedlam Theatre is housed inside a former church from the 1840s, which was taken over by the University of Edinburgh in 1937 and was used as a chaplaincy.

It was first used as a theatre venue at the 1977 Fringe (whilst still a chaplaincy) for a musical production of Master and Margarita by the University of Bradford Drama Group.

The show went on to win a Fringe First award, and its success showed the potential of the building as a theatre.

The Edinburgh University Theatre Company was given full control of the building in 1980 and it has hosted Fringe shows ever since – including a nightly performance from The Improverts, Edinburgh’s longest-running improv troupe.

The name Bedlam refers to the city’s notorious mental asylum, which was located behind the current theatre.

Oddfellows Hall

In the early years of the Fringe, there were several events which helped to shape its success and pave the way for the arts festival we know and love today.

One of these events was the Edinburgh People’s Festival which ran between 1951 and 1954 to showcase Scottish talent and open up theatre, music and the arts to ordinary working class people.

The movement was spearheaded by writer Hugh MacDiarmid and Martin Milligan of the Communist Party, and the main event was the Oddfellows Hall Ceilidh which brought together Gaelic and Scots musicians and singers – it got widespread praise from the press and many critics noted that the most interesting events were on the non-official side of the festival.

Oddfellows Hall was originally used as a meeting place for guilds of tradesmen, but nowadays it’s a bar which still hosts Fringe shows during August.

Originally published on our sister title iNews.