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The Edinburgh Fringe and the Great Beyond

Jun 26, 2008
The Fringe Festival has been in existence for just as long as the Edinburgh Festival proper. Both inceptions are inextricably knitted together and began life bound up way back in 1947. Our story begins when what can only sufficiently be described as a mob of eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival. Taking advantage of the huge crowds pulled in by the official festivities, these rogue gatecrashers bolstered their way in with one grisly intent: to showcase their alternative and edgier drama to the unassuming masses.

The following year Scottish playwright and journalist Robert Kemp covered the festival. In his report he described how "Round the fringe of the official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before... I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!" Coverage like that was obviously something too enticing to be passed up and Kemp's description was taken on by the companies. From this point on the ramshackle bunch of illegitimate performers were banded together, drawn in by one report and given a name. They were no longer the shabby, uninvited trouble makers at the party; they were 'The Fringe'.

During the 1950s and 60s the popularity of the Fringe element of the Festival underwent somewhat of, well if not a boom, than a definite and distinctive blossoming. In the twenty years from 1959-1989 performance companies at the Fringe expanded from just 19 to 494. Since the 90s the popularity of the Fringe has simply exploded. Last year it is estimated that 1,697,293 tickets were sold to Fringe sector productions alone.

And there, it would seem, is the rub. How can you compare the handful of studenty productions that kicked around the first years of the Edinburgh Fringe to the million selling shows of today? Frankly, in quite a literal sense, the Edinburgh Fringe has sold out. It has sold out because it has had little choice to do otherwise.

The popularity of the festival is not just the only threat to the Fringe's identity though. For the past twenty years detractors have commented on the slow invasion of stand-up comedy. In fact, The Stage reported on the 5th June that this year will see the first time that comedy shows will out number any other genres. It stated that there will be 668 comedy shows in 2008, a whopping 32% of the total. What's more, where as the Fringe has long been associated with rising talent, many have criticised the recent move of established names putting on huge shows at the festival. Ricky Gervais charging over 30 GBP for a ticket to his stand-up show amassed a lot of negative attention before it was announced that all proceeds were being donated to Cancer Research.

So, as many have asked, how has this been allowed to happen? How has this fairly bohemian rebellion been turned into a playground for the stargazers and the super rich? Well, the answer, as is so often the case, is embedded in the very seed of the thing itself. If we peer back through the history of the Fringe, through the success, the smoke and the mirrors to the grimy digs of its origin, we come to its hazy vague manifesto... or lack thereof. In 1959 a constitution was drawn up in which the policy of neither vetting nor censoring shows was established. From that point forward the principles have reached, well their logical conclusion.

When questioned about the influx of comic acts current director of the Fringe Jon Morgan exclaimed quite plainly "The fringe is an open access festival". In effect, it is open to everyone who wants to perform and it always has been. The experience of the Fringe may be very different now to the one in the 40s and 50s, but the underlying principles that created whatever 'golden' era of the festival you care to remember are the same that now pull big brash names and bigger and brasher crowds. To claim that it's lost its integrity, artistic or otherwise, is pointless because, by design, it never had any.

The only way to revert to the bygone bohemian age, if that is really possible or indeed what anyone wants, is to move on to pastures, places and performers new. Experimental drama need not be tied to any time or location, by its nature it should be free, unfettered and malleable.

However, if you simply want to sample the distinct magic of the Edinburgh Fringe then you'll just have to look a little harder. Ignore the hype, and the crowds, and the press, and the celebrity, and the hangers-on, and seek that which really interests you.

With such diversity and variety bursting from every venue, the modern Fringe must have something to suit your taste. Seek, it seems, and so you shall find.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver
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