The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with over 3,000 shows. This year, Playbill will be going to Edinburgh in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along with us this spring and summer as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
As Lyndsey Jackson, The Fringe Society’s Deputy Chief Executive puts it, the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival is “absolutely bonkers.” But another way Jackson continually describes it as is magical. “It’s the size of the festival compared to the size of the city. It’s like trying to put an elephant in a suitcase. Who doesn’t want to see someone attempt to do that, right?” she jokes. Her hands mime trying to pack things into an imaginary bag as she says, “You can’t press it all in tight enough that it doesn’t just explode. It’s an overspill of people and energy and excitement, all wanting to talk about the work that made them laugh or made them quiet, the things they hated… The collective effervescence is quite magical.”
The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world. With over 3,000 shows, it can get overwhelming for a newcomer. Luckily, the Fringe Society is here to help. Jackson began working for the organization about 10 years ago, and her favorite part of the festival remains the artists’ meet-the-press day during opening weekend. “I come out of it drowned in the energy of creative people,” she shares. “They all just want to tell a story in some way.” Given the size and nature of the festival, making it happen is “not easy at times,” she says, “but it's remarkable to be able to sit in the middle of this amazing festival and be like, ‘Oh, I kind of helped make this happen.’”
Connecting the artists with their audiences—through the media and other ways—is at the core of the Society’s mission, she says. “We help [them] find each other. It's like a banquet. There's so much that could be consumed, but it's really difficult to take that in unless you've got a plate to eat from. So, The Fringe Society is kind of like the plate,” she explains. “We’re not going to tell help you make your selection; we're going to give you the tools so that you can actually make sense of and digest it.” Those tools the Society provides include the extensive print program of every show in the Fringe, and a mobile app.
At the Scottish festival, which happens every August, the audience is the curator. There’s no artistic director who selects works that align with their tastes, no theme which the works are selected around. It really boils down to if a show or an artist has found a venue, then it’s part of the Festival. That’s part of the beauty of the Fringe and its over 3,000 shows: there’s such a wide range of theatre for every theatregoer. “It's the thing that I think makes the Fringe completely unique,” Jackson says. “Work gets programmed here that no other venue or producer would program anywhere else because it's difficult to program an obscure multimedia-style black-light show about a cigarette-smoking bear,” she explains, by way of a colorful real-life example. At the Fringe, there’s an audience member somewhere in the hundreds of thousands attending who would love such an eccentric piece. “Programmers can take that risk here because there's enough audience with enough, ‘What's the weirdest thing we can find?’ that you don't get anywhere else.”
When it comes to how to choose a show to see, Jackson advocates for embracing the unknown. “There’s been so many shows where my heart has been broken, where I've laughed so much I felt I was going to vomit, where I found myself going, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most beautiful thing in the world,’” Jackson marvels.
For those wondering how to really enjoy Fringe at its fullest, Jackson recommends booking the shows you really want to see ahead of time—but leave a fair amount of space in your schedule open. “It’s that festival environment where you can stand next to somebody in a queue and they'll tell you about the show they've just seen and you'll be in that show the next day,” she says. “There’s an element of magic and alchemy to how you can bounce around the festival. Follow your noses or follow a tip and get a flyer and go, ‘Yeah, I'm free in the next 20 minutes. Let's do that.’”
So, what unites Fringe-goers? Jackson answers: It’s seeing something you can’t see anywhere else. And it’s not only the eccentric and niche side of the programming. It also means getting to see mainstream acts and big names like Olivier nominees and winners, developmental productions of the next West End and Broadway hits (shows such as SIX: The Musical and Fleabag got their start in a tiny venue at the Fringe). At Fringe, people have a chance to see things they normally wouldn’t get to see because it’s too far away, or the tickets are too expensive. For others, it’s a chance to see something before it gets big—or to see something or someone big in a more intimate venue than anywhere else.
The mix of offerings, and the audience members’ agency in curating their experiences, are only part of what makes the Fringe so special. Jackson, who’s attended a lot of festivals, says “the energy and the atmosphere of Edinburgh is not reproducible” in part because of the city itself. Edinburgh’s hilly geography is situated right on the coast, and at the center of old town lies a dormant volcano crowned by Edinburgh Castle. It's a picturesque place for an arts festival.
Jackson does, however, have some tips for Fringe-goers on how to pace themselves through the festival. First, she advises giving up on the idea of seeing everything (and she’s not wrong. It would take actual years to see every one of the festival’s more than 3,000 shows). “I think that every one of us has a limit of the number of shows we could see in a day,” she admits.
Her other piece of advice? Be OK with stepping away from the Fringe. “The best way to not get overwhelmed at the Fringe is to allow yourself the time to enjoy the city and explore the greenery—get to a hill, the sea, the countryside, there's loads of really beautiful things to see,” she points out. Taking care of yourself during the festival is important. Jackson advises that you should be willing to give up a ticket or hand it out to someone on the street if you need a break. “Sometimes you’ll be like, ‘I'm supposed to be going to show in 10 minutes, but I'm really tired and I want to go have a cup of tea.’ That's OK, too. It's OK to miss a show. It's OK to be like, ‘Does anybody want this ticket because I want to go to bed.’”
And while every time slot might feel precious, be open to sitting through something even if it isn’t your favorite. As Jackson says, “you have to let the festival push and pull you a little bit.”