How did the Fringe become become so gigantic? Susan Mansfield charts the inexorable rise of the world’s biggest arts festival
In the 1970s, Punch published a Michael Heath cartoon of a man being carried past Greyfriars Bobby on a stretcher. The caption read: “He’s been trying to see all the Fringe shows.” Although the shows at that time numbered a fraction of what they do now, the message was clear: though it started out on the fringes of a larger festival, the Fringe was now the biggest show in town.
This year, there will be 3,398 shows on the Fringe in 300 venues. The population of Edinburgh is set to double as the city floods with performers, hopefuls and (let’s not forget) audiences. The year-round face of this reserved, Calvinist city will get out its greasepaint and play host to the greatest show on earth.
In the streets of Edinburgh in August, one can expect to meet actors in costume for Twelfth Night, Cabaret and The Gruffalo, fire-breathers, falafel-sellers and mime artists dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi. One might catch a performance of a zombie Macbeth; an orchestra made up entirely of ukeleles; a show staged in a phone box, a play park, or in a public toilet block. Douglas Fraser, a former arts editor of The Scotsman once put it like this: “It’s the most exciting place to be for three weeks in August, for the sheer firmanent of creativity and interesting new ideas ... a fantastic, creative, innovative place to be.”
The Fringe – which as late as 1970 had a programme that could be printed on two sides of a sheet of A4 – is now less a festival than an ecosystem. It responds to developments in the performing arts – the rise of alternative comedy, or European-inspired physical theatre, or burlesque – and also helps to drive them. Like any organic system, the Fringe adapts: there were concerns about high ticket prices, and the Free Fringe emerged. There are 686 free shows on the Fringe this year.
The early years of the Fringe were dominated by student and amateur companies, but even early on, venues emerged which became a focus for important professional work, such as the Traverse, which opened in 1963, and Theatre Workshop (from 1965). Richard Demarco was one of the first to host work from behind the Iron Curtain, including productions by top Polish avant-garde theatre director Tadeusz Kantor.
In the early 1970s, Allen Wright, the arts editor of The Scotsman, set about strengthening the element of innovation on the Fringe by founding the Scotsman Fringe First Awards. Taking a show to the Fringe was – and is – a financial risk, with a re-run of Macbeth always promising a better return at the box office than a new play by an unknown playwright. In rewarding the best of new writing, the Fringe Firsts had an immediate effect on the amount of new work presented, and continue to be coveted among artists today.
With the principle of open access enshrined in the tenets of the Festival Fringe Society, the Fringe became the stage on which taboos were challenged and new ground broken. From the critic who raised his eyebrows about “scantily clad young ladies” in 1954, to those who called for the banning of The Demise of Farmer Futz, an experimental play about bestiality by American company Lo Mama in 1967, there have been attempts to silence the more controversial elements. Mostly, what everyone has learned from this is that, on the Fringe, controversy is little more than good publicity.
The Fringe has accrued legends, many of them true: who remembers Billy Connolly, in the Great Northern Welly Boot Show, ad-libbing for 90 minutes to entertain the audience after the wrong start time for the show was advertised? A young Robin Williams in a student production of The Taming of the Shrew? George Wyllie’s A Day Down a Goldmine? Craig Fergusson before he went to LA? Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in Cabaret?
Alistair Moffat, who took over as Fringe administrator in 1976, was intrumental in grasping the potential for growing the Fringe and the benefits it could bring to the city. During his tenure, the number of companies appearing more than doubled to just over 500. When he stepped down in 1981, the Fringe was officially the biggest arts festival in the world.
Growth was accompanied by a new kind of professionalism, with the rise of a number of super-venues. The Assembly Rooms opened its doors as a Fringe venue in 1981 with a young William Burdett-Coutts at the helm (he continues to run Assembly Festival today), followed in the next few years by the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon. Major players have come and gone – Circuit, The Pool Lunch House Theatre Club, Wireworks Playground – and others have arrived to stay: Underbelly, which launched with four student shows in 2002, is now one of the Fringe’s biggest players; in just five years, Summerhall has established itself as an important centre for innovative work.
Criticism that the Fringe has become too commercial is hotly contested by the majority of producers who claim that few people really make any money. The experience of taking work to Edinburgh has not changed very much since Richard Eyre’s experience as a student in the late 1960s: “I made friends, lost friends, got drunk, took drugs, had fun, had sex, had a car accident, lived in a cold water flat in Buccleuch Place with 15 or so companies... and thought life couldn’t get much better. I was wrong, but not entirely.”
Mhairi Mackenzie-Robinson, Fringe administrator from 1986 to 1993, described the process of running the Fringe as being “like taking 1,000 dogs on a lead… The trick to running the thing is to not appear to organise the anarchy but to hold it tenuously... The thing you must never do is try to direct it.” Yet, for all its ramshackle, anarchic tendencies, the Fringe is a much-loved institution. When departing International Festival director Frank Dunlop in 1991 slammed the Fringe as “a third-rate circus”, an impressive list of high-profile defenders entered the fray, including Edinburgh’s Provost.
There have long been concerns about the Fringe’s increasing size. Complaining of low ticket sales, the director of Lee Puppet Theatre in 1959 opined that the festival was “too big…there was not room for three puppet companies at this time”. There were a total of 19 productions. At the launch of the Fringe programme in 2016, it was found that, for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, the Fringe had not grown on the previous year, prompting concerns that “peak Fringe” had been reached. It has been a comfort to many that, this year, the Fringe is once again bigger than ever.
The international component continues to grow too: this year work comes to Edinburgh from 62 countries. A look through past Fringe programmes shows performers reflecting on events as they happen: the Cold War, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the attack on the Twin Towers. It’s no surprise that this year’s Fringe includes shows with the titles such as Requiem for Aleppo, Trumpaggedon and Brexit: The Musical.
The Fringe is a home for shows which don’t fit any box, from chainsaw juggling circus Archaos to Argentinian theatrical extravaganza Fuerza Bruta; for the new, the strange, the unexpected, the work which stops us in our tracks. A Scotsman critic, watching Serbian Mladen Materic’s Tattoo Theatre in 1986 said: “This production brings me to the limits of my adjectives… You won’t see anything better.” This is what brings us back, year after year, critics and audiences alike: the awe-inspiring, unexpected moments which cause us to run out of words. There will be some this year too, but no-one knows what they are yet.
Susan Mansfield has been writing about the Fringe for The Scotsman since 2001