Every August, theatre artists and lovers travel to Scotland for Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Offering over 3,000 productions at more than 300 venues, the festival has launched smash hit international shows like Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ SIX: The Musical and played a part in building the careers of many actors since it began in 1947.
Read below to learn about 10 famous actors who performed at Edinburgh Fringe before they became household names. The festival’s history of giving a platform to new talent is one of the many exciting aspects of the festival that Playbill writers Margaret Hall and Leah Putnam will be writing about as part of Playbill Goes Fringe, Playbill’s extensive on-the-ground coverage of the festival. Excited to learn more? Check out Playbill Goes Fringe: Meet the Correspondents Who Will Cover the Good, the Surprising, and the Weird at Edinburgh Fringe to find out more about how to follow along and “live” the experience with them.
1. Alan Rickman
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the late Alan Rickman made his Edinburgh debut at the age of 30 in not one, but two, shows: Measure for Measure and The Devil is an Ass, at the Assembly Rooms. Though known to many for his film roles, he became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. Starring as Vicomte de Valmont in RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985, he would transfer with the production to the West End and then to Broadway, for which he earned a Tony nomination. He returned to the Broadway stage in 2002 for Private Lives (earning him a second nomination), and again in 2011 for Seminar.
Another Cambridge University alumna, Emma Thompson was a part of the well-known Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club. With fellow members Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and more, she performed at Fringe in 1981 in the Footlights show The Cellar Tapes at St Mary Street Hall. It won the festival’s inaugural Perrier Comedy Award, since renamed the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and considered among the most prestigious of comedy prizes in the United Kingdom. Since then, Thompson has gone on to win two Oscars, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes, and an Emmy.
3. John Cleese
Another Footlights member, John Cleese is known to many for co-founding comedy group Monty Python. He co-wrote the script and starred in the 1963 Footlights Revue A Clump of Plinths at Fringe. After a successful run at the festival, the was renamed Cambridge Circus for its West End transfer and played in New Zealand and Broadway in 1964. After the tour, Cleese stayed in America to perform on Broadway in Half a Sixpence in 1965-66. His recorded voice was used for the part of God in Spamalot, which opened on Broadway in 2005.
4. Rachel Weisz
While attending Cambridge University, English actress Rachel Weisz co-founded a student drama group with Sasha Hails called Talking Heads. Weisz and Hails created a two-hander improv show called Slight Possession which they took to Fringe in 1991, for which Weisz received a Guardian Youth Drama Award. The show went on to play Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre where an agent spotted Weisz and launched her career. Since then, she has starred on stage in the West End, including as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which earned an Olivier Award. In New York, Weisz made her Broadway debut in Betrayal in 2013 and Off-Broadway in The Public Theater’s Plenty.
5. Judi Dench
In 1959 two years after making her first professional stage appearance, Judi Dench performed at Edinburgh Fringe in The Double Dealer with Maggie Smith, which subsequently played The Old Vic. Becoming an established actor in the years following, Dench has since performed successfully onstage and screen. She won a Tony Award in 1999 for performing in Amy's View and took home seven of her 15 Olivier nominations for performances in Macbeth in 1977, Juno and the Paycock in 1980, Pack of Lies in 1983, Antony and Cleopatra in 1987, Absolute Hell and A Little Night Music both in 1996, and The Winter’s Tale in 2016.
6. Maggie Smith
Maggie Smith began her acting career at the age of 17 in 1952 and made her Broadway debut four years later in the review New Faces of ’56 at Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Three years after that, she starred with Judi Dench in The Double Dealer at Edinburgh Fringe and in its subsequent run at The Old Vic. In the show’s audience at The Old Vic one night was Laurence Olivier, who took notice of Smith and invited her to join his National Theatre Company, which formed at The Old Vic in 1962. Smith established herself throughout the 1960s at the Royal National Theatre. In addition to performing often in the West End and earning seven Olivier nominations, she has returned to Broadway three times to perform in Private Lives in 1975, Night and Day in 1980, and Lettice and Lovage in 1990. Each performance earned her a Tony nomination with Smith winning Best Actress in a Play for Lettice and Lovage.
While Fringe has launched many British actors and comedians, the late American comedian Robin Williams also performed at the festival. As part of a student theatre company from California’s College of Marin, he starred as Tranio in a Wild West-inspired production of The Taming of the Shrew in 1971 at Fringe. The show won Best Production, leading them to perform for Princess Margaret of the British royal family. He would go on to play Off-Broadway in Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center Theater in 1988 and played the lead in the filmMrs. Doubtfire, now a Broadway show. Williams also performed on Broadway with his one-man show Robin Williams: Live on Broadway and in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in 2011.
8. Russell Brand
In 2000, Russell Brand was one member of a trio that performed the stand-up show Pablo Diablo’s Cryptic Triptych at Fringe’s Gilded Balloon. An audience member threw a glass at him, and Brand threw a microphone stand at the heckling audience. He would begin to gain recognition in the mid-2000s for his screen work, acting since in several films and television shows including Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as Trinculo.
Though many may recognize Rowan Atkinson best for playing Mr. Bean or Johnny English, he first performed at Fringe in 1973. He returned in 1975, and again in 1976 with Oxford Revue alongside Richard Curtis. Curtis would go on to write Blackadder and co-write Mr. Bean which both starred Atkinson. It was also how Atkinson was discovered, as television producer John Lloyd saw his 1976 Fringe performance. Since then, Atkinson has performed on screen and also starred in the 2009 West End revival of Oliver! as Fagin, which earned him an Olivier nomination.
10. Jude Law
While a teenager, Jude Law performed at Edinburgh Fringe in National Youth Music Theatre’s world premiere of The Ragged Child in 1986. Since his youth, Law has continued to perform onstage in addition to his film and television work. He earned Olivier nominations for his performances in the 1994 production of Les Parents Terribles as well as the 2010 Donmar production of Hamlet and Anna Christie in 2012. Hamlet transferred to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, earning Law his second Tony nomination. He received his first for Indiscretions in 1995.