What I learned from a month at Edinburgh Fringe

During the month of August, a transformation occurs. A metamorphosis. Edinburgh, a city of cold cobbled streets and winding alleys, becomes saturated with people and fairy lights.

Edinburgh is a city of contrasts; for most of the year it is an anachronism, with the castle and medieval streets echoing the past. However, during August, Edinburgh embraces the future and promotes innovation. The city becomes host to the largest arts festival in the world, attracting over 450,000 people – the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, exhibiting over 3000 acts in over 300 venues throughout the city encompassing theatre, comedy, dance, physical theatre, circus, musicals, opera, and spoken word.

This summer, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Fringe for the month, becoming immersed within the atmosphere of creativity and passion. It provided me with a new perspective on the importance of events such as this.

“The existence of art purely created for enjoyment rather than for productivity or necessity is significant”

I saw over 40 shows at the Fringe, however, one which I found particularly impactful was called ‘This is Not Culturally Significant’. Often it feels as though nothing is. There is an absence of culture in modern life. Or at least culture that feels important, impactful, or enduring. Art, music, and film – the modern incarnations of these mediums that exist within the popular realm often feel generic and recycled and so culture becomes diluted.

We live within a culture of mediocrity, occasionally experiencing something profound or innovative. ‘This is Not Culturally Significant’ raised the important question of whether art must be significant in its meaning. However, the show, like the fringe itself, was significant purely in its existence. The existence of art purely created for enjoyment rather than for productivity or necessity is significant.

In 2017, there were 53,232 performances at the fringe, the majority of which were unimportant and meaningless in a wider context, existing only to entertain and distract. However, in the current political climate, characterised by conflict and uncertainty, the very existence of these shows and the fringe is significant. The fringe is an act of defiance. It is flamboyant and frivolous and a manifestation of the capacity for human cooperation.

“Expect everything and it will be delivered”

The signs of the current political climate were present, in the vehicle bollards installed on the Royal Mile (one of the busiest festival streets in Edinburgh) and the increased police presence, but they did not detract. The bollards were disguised with posters and the police blended in with the street performers – Edinburgh adapts and endures and this is a lesson for all of us.

If immersing yourself within an environment of such cultural significance sounds appealing, the following is a small guide to the Edinburgh Fringe:

  • Maintain an ‘open door policy’ – This idea emerged from one of my favourite shows at the fringe – ‘Juan Vesuvius: I Am Your Deejay’- which was an exploration of House music throughout history. The show promoted an ‘open door policy’ in reference to a state of mind, adapted from the early house scene where everyone and everything was welcome, except judgement. This idea is integrated into the functioning of the fringe. There are no preconceptions here. Expect everything and it will be delivered. Eccentricity and absurdity are an inevitability, in reference both to the shows and the people. Everyone I met at the fringe was different, coming from polarised backgrounds and disparate presents but they were united by a warm openness and passion for art. The fringe allows for and encourages unrestrained self-expression so approach it with an open mind.
  • Embrace the posters and flyers – Every show at the fringe has a poster and they are everywhere. The streets of Edinburgh become an art gallery of names and faces and five star reviews. Although it can be overwhelming, embrace it. Immerse yourself within the colour and the possibility of discovering an unknown masterpiece in the thousands of flyers. Throughout the festival, hundreds of people are employed to promote the various shows through handing out flyers in the streets of Edinburgh. If they try and give you a flyer, take it. Many of these people (or ‘flyerers’) are volunteers and will have been stood outside all day. There is no obligation to go and see the show but a smile never hurts.
  • Accept you can’t see everything – The fringe democratises theatre, ensuring anyone is able to take a show to Edinburgh. Although this is an incredible opportunity, it means there are an overwhelming number of shows at the fringe. It is impossible to see everything and difficult to know where to start. There are four big venues at the fringe (Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly and Gilded Balloon), offering more established and professional acts. Although tickets to these venues are often more expensive they are all worth a visit. However, the ‘free fringe’ is also an option and operates in hundreds of venues across the city from old pubs to abandoned office blocks. The Edinburgh Festival app is particularly helpful, enabling you to filter shows by genre, time and location and therefore lessening the pressure of finding something to see. It allows you to plan your day as you go which is the best way to enjoy the fringe, embracing spontaneity and unpredictability.

There are two guarantees at the fringe: you will not be able to see everything and you will see something awful, but you might also see something incredible and culturally significant. And isn’t that worth the chance?

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018 will run from the 3rd-27th August.

Eleanor Gray

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Image courtesy of Ian_Woodhead1 on Flickr



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