Five alternative ways to experience the Edinburgh Festival

Want to know what to see at the Edinburgh festival? Ask pretty much anyone apart from me. This is what editing Edinburgh festival coverage for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday does to you. I know quite a lot about what will happen at hundreds of shows at the EIF, the Fringe, the Book Festival, the Art Festival etc, having spent the past few months buried in all the programmes on a daily basis. And as a result I have no idea where to start in recommending things. All I can say is, “it depends on what exactly you’re after.” People keep asking, though, so here are five suggestions.
Street performers on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 5 August 2019 PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesStreet performers on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 5 August 2019 PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Street performers on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 5 August 2019 PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

1) Pick a letter of the alphabet and only go to shows beginning with that letter. If you really commit to this, you could keep it up for 26 years. There are various advantages to this approach. You can avoid the FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – that many people experience at the festival when the show you’ve just seen doesn’t seem half as exciting as the “buzz” show your friend is raving about; if that show doesn’t start with your chosen letter, you wouldn’t be going anyway. Also, if your budget is tight one year you could choose X – which, this year, would send you to a children’s show called Xchange and a dance show called xoxo Moongirl and not much else. Bargain. If I had to choose a letter this year it would probably be K, since I’m quite keen to see Kathryn Joseph and Kirsty Law.

2) Choose venues and shows at random. In an age of information overload, there’s something very satisfying, perhaps even subversive, about going into a venue – or indeed watching a TV show or film – knowing nothing whatsoever about it in advance. This obviously relies on you being quite an open-minded person who won’t be flustered when you accidentally wander into a naked juggling cabaret or – conversely – a one-man theatre show about the history of the Presbyterian Church.

3) Only go to shows on a particular theme. You too can have the experience of the poor Scotsman reviewers who receive their schedules from me and discover they’re going to spend whole days watching shows about the Moon landings, impending apocalypse, mental illness or food. On the plus side, you can effectively curate your own, thematically coherent festival from within the open access madness of thousands of unrelated stories and ideas from across the world competing for your attention.

4) Walk up the Royal Mile collecting flyers. Go to every show you’re given a flyer for. This is how the Fringe is supposed to work, isn’t it? Do this and you will make people who can’t afford PRs or expensive posters very happy. Admittedly you will probably end up seeing quite a lot of student theatre, improv and “quirky” Shakespeare adaptations. Just so you know.

5) Go to things that experienced professional critics think are good. Obviously I’m going to say this. It is my job to persuade you that reviews by professional writers are important. But it is also true. Scotsman reviewers bring to the job decades of knowledge and experience, which is why their opinions – and our Fringe First awards in particular – are respected across the world.

Just this week I realised that this is my 20th year of editing Edinburgh festival coverage. I keep trying to escape – I now live in a village in the Hebrides most of the year – but then it sucks me back in again, and not just because these people are still paying me and I need the money. The Edinburgh festival is also addictive. Like all drugs it will damage your health if you let it. Here are my last few bits of advice, then. Manage your own expectations. It’s the biggest, most exciting arts festival in the world. But it’s also just a festival. It is not the world. Don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously. Don’t eat too many sandwiches. Do more listening than talking. Remember to get some sleep. Look up.