Being on the fringes
Or, some reflections on Edinburgh
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been in the news lately, as many performers were upset that it’s not having an app this year, which led to news stories that some comedians are giving up on it altogether. Which made me feel a little bit on the old side, because when I lived in Edinburgh smartphones weren’t even a thing, an app was unheard of, and you navigated the Fringe using the official programme, ThreeWeeks magazine, and the hundreds and hundreds of flyers constantly thrust at you in the street. ThreeWeeks was the new, modern innovation at that point: I recall, when I first moved there, one of my flatmates proudly telling me about the new Festival reviews newspaper some friends of his—from the EUSA weekly freesheet Midweek—had started putting out when Midweek was closed for the summer.
This isn’t, though, meant to be a “ooh, now, back when I was a wee girl…” post, because generally I try to avoid that sort of thing as much as I can. I was struck by the idea that something like an app, that’s a relatively new part of a 75-year-old event, can now be seen as fundamental to it, and fundamental to the business models of the participants.
The idea that the Edinburgh Fringe has been too focused on big, headline names at the expense of the smaller performers is hardly a new idea: that, certainly, was around back then already. As indeed, was the worry that the Fringe had grown to the point it was all people think of when you mention the Edinburgh Festivals. Never mind the Edinburgh International Festival—the original “Festival” itself—or the Book Festival, or the Film Festival, when people hear “Edinburgh Festival” they think of the Fringe. Moreover, they tend to think of the Fringe purely as a comedy festival, ignoring the drama, dance, poetry and everything else that goes on in the thinner sections of the programme.
I agree entirely with the feeling in one of the articles I linked above, that the “spirit of the Fringe” is all about discovering something new, something exciting, something you’d never even heard of before: because when I lived in Edinburgh there was no way I could ever afford tickets to the big name stars in any case. The things I could afford to do were always those that I would never have dreamed of going to, such as when my friend W found a play at the International Festival that was offering tickets for only a pound or two if you booked them that day and agreed to sit on a beanbag on the stage behind the actors.* Because I couldn’t afford to attend shows I wrote a series of blogposts reviewing the quality of the flyers I’d been handed in the street instead, which attracted aggrieved comments from the performers of one show, I think assuming I was making fun of them being in Edinburgh. I do recall going to one show, a mid-afternoon spoken-word monologue just off the Grassmarket, purely because the performer was stood outside a few minutes beforehand trying to drag people in as he had no ticket sales at all for that particular day. The main thing I remember, though, is spending very late nights in the pub, as they had their licence extended to 3am for the duration. I probably was not doing my best work on Monday mornings. The spirit of the Festival, to me, is just being in the city that is for a few weeks full of an artistic energy, full of performers handing out flyers, some of them brilliant, some of them terrible, all of them offering something new and different and potentially exciting.
This is the thing with the Festival though: it has barely anything to do with the lives of normal everyday Edinburgh people, save for the place being more crowded than usual. I’m fairly sure most Edinburgh residents don’t really go to many Festival events at all, to be honest, and—at least going by my memories of the Edinburgh of twenty years ago—it has virtually no impact on the city outside of August. It comes, it goes, and the city moves on unchanged by it. The city in August has a completely different atmosphere to the city in June or the city in September, as if a cloud has briefly passed over the sun and drifted away.
* Almost all the dialogue was pre-recorded and lipsynced by the actors, with one character “played” by a mannequin, aside from at one climactic moment when the lead actor screamed aloud.