6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Fringe Festival


The Fringe Festival is an annual event. It began in Edinburgh in 1947 and now takes place in many different cities around the world. The festival grew out of a tradition of street performance, originally called the “Fringe Theatre.” Throughout the years we have seen street performers from all around the world come to Edinburgh to get their chance to perform.

The original Fringe Festival was a very small festival which took place within a few weeks of the start of the war, in 1940. The first Fringe was staged by just four people, on a piece of open ground at Nicolson Street in Edinburgh’s West End. A few years later, in 1944, a small fringe theatre was set up on Calton Hill during a wartime air-raid shelter party. In 1947, after World War II, a larger fringe festival opened on George IV Bridge near Blackford Hill. This became the Fringe’s new home and continues as such today.

In the early 1990s, the figure of the fringe performer had a certain cultural cachet, as if his or her presence somehow marked an event or moment. Today, there seems to be a lot of skepticism about these performers. The question is: how did fringe performers become so popular?

Do you remember when the fringe festival was first organized in 1981 by a collective of artists in Philadelphia? I do. It was my first real job in the arts, and it was also the first time I saw what Fringe Festival ironically means. I saw the power of performance even then.

The concept of performance has always been part of Fringe Festival, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became central to Fringe Festival’s identity. At that time, Chester Himes and David Mamet were writing plays about living on the edge; they borrowed from American history to explore American life in all its sorrow and anger. Theater historian John Kenley’s seminal essay “The New American Play” (published in 1984) argued that since our society has been so violent and self-destructive, we need to turn toward those energies to connect with each other again. That’s when fringe began to mean something more than just

You can find fringe events all over Britain. But the Fringe Festival is one of the most famous, and has been running since 1960. But how did it start? Who started it?

What we now call the Fringe Festival started in the 1950s in a then-unfashionable part of Edinburgh called Leith, which has changed very little since then. If you walk along Leith Walk from Edinburgh’s main train station to Princes Street, you will pass a series of small warehouses, mostly used for storage. These are all that remain of the original Fringe Festival venue.

In those warehouses there was a variety of theatrical events staged by young performers who were new to Edinburgh and wanted to try out their new ideas in front of an audience. The first festival lasted three weeks—and was a disaster, partly because the performers weren’t ready to perform before an audience, and partly because the audience wasn’t ready to see them. The event was revived after only three days, but it seems that this time they had learned their lesson, and spent more time preparing their shows. At any rate, the second festival went better.

In the early days of the Fringe Festival, they used to have a “fringe street performers” area. The idea was that street performers could be found in all sorts of different places, and the Fringe wanted to make sure that people who were going to a certain area would know about it. They were not just trying to create another place where street performances could take place; they were trying to create a venue for fringe performers.

Street performers were often criminals, but many were not – and this was important to the Fringe organizers. The public perception of street performers was that they were dangerous and creepy and weird, but the reality was often quite different.

Street performers often played with fire…

The Fringe Festival is a thirty-day annual festival of comedy, comedy writing, and comedy performance. (The Fringe was originally called The Edinburgh International Comedy Festival; it has been called a “fringe” festival since its first year.) The Fringe Festival began in 1947 as an informal gathering of Scottish comedians who went to each other’s shows, but it grew into a true festival after its first official year in 1961. In 1973 the Fringe became Scotland’s national festival when it was recognized by the Scottish Arts Council.

The festival also has a history of being political, and for a while was even more political than today. In the early years there were many hard-right comedians who saw the Festival as a platform from which to express their views. There were also many anti-war protesters; this was before the Vietnam War became an embarrassment to American liberals, so no one would see protesters or military bands marching through Edinburgh.

More recently in some years the Festival has become something other than a celebration of comedy. It used to be called “the theatre of ideas,” but now it might be better described as “the theatre of political protest.” It is now perceived as a place where people can come together and protest whatever they want: neoliberal global capitalism, war ,

A large part of the Fringe’s appeal is its unpredictability. This year, for instance, one of the shows was an hour-long PowerPoint presentation about subatomic particles and their place in human life. Another was a show about a website about bears and their love lives. And another was a performance by a band called The Damn Snakes.

The Fringe is different every year and every night. It is not even the same thing twice in succession: there are no two nights with the same programme, despite the opening hours during which it repeats all those programmes again and again, day after day.

But there’s more to it than that. The Fringe exists because of a tradition going back to the 1960s when Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre began staging fringe theatre outside its normal Monday through Saturday schedule. This led to Britain’s first “fringe festival” in 1969; today, Edinburgh’s annual Fringe Festival draws more than 100,000 people over ten weeks and has a total audience of one million each year.

The Fringe is a wonderful thing. But maybe it shouldn’t be.

The Fringe Festival is one of the world’s great festivals of new work, an annual celebration of unconventional art and performance. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly popular, with ticket sales reaching record levels in 2008 and 2009.

Tickets are expensive – £25 for a three-day pass, £50 for a weekend pass – with the Fringe Society promising that an “incredible” 50% of all tickets will go unsold this year.

But perhaps the festival should not be so popular. When I started writing about the festival ten years ago, there was only a handful of fringe companies performing outside London and Edinburgh; now there are more than 200, still fewer than half as many as in 1999. For every company that is sold out we have another that is struggling to sell tickets at all. The Fringe Society should not be so powerful, so influential and so rich.

Why does such a small number of companies get such a good deal? Why should they recoup their expenses and make a profit? What are they doing right? And why should we pay so much to see them?

It is no coincidence that the companies who are able to recoup their


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