With only six months to go until the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, let's get to know the main venue operators. Known as the Big Four, these spaces dominate the programming for the world’s largest international arts festival.
While hundreds of performance spaces exist at the Fringe, Assembly Hall, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, and Underbelly are some of the most coveted stages in town, with carefully curated selections that are sure to tickle your fancy.
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While the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland serves as a religious meeting place during the rest of the year, in August it transforms into a performance space for theatre that will make you think, and occasionally, tap your toes. The oldest of the Big Four, Assembly traces its roots to the 1981 Fringe, laying the foundation for what became the Big Four system. The company operates 17 theatre spaces and eight bars during the Fringe, with hundreds of shows programmed every summer. Assembly’s Fringe operation alone is more than three times the size of the rival Edinburgh International Festival, with an audience equivalent to the annual BBC Proms. Talk about underdogs winning the day! Visit AssemblyFestival.com for their lineup.
Begun by Karen Koren in the mid 1980’s, Gilded Balloon is comedy central, with solo shows and stand-up acts dominating their lineup. While the venue operates year-round, they leap into action during the Fringe, operating primarily out of Cowgate, Bristo Square, and the Teviot Row House. Gilded Balloon is the unofficial home of Australian artists at the Fringe, and it is here that you’re most likely to find a form of performance art you aren’t familiar with. Legendary artists such as Craig Ferguson, Alan Cumming, and Tim Minchin have honed their skills at Gilded Balloon, and since 1988, the venue has hosted the annual competition So You Think You’re Funny. You’re sure to find a reason to laugh when you visit Gilded Balloon! Click here for more.
The Pleasance Edinburgh is a theatre, bar, sport, and recreation complex situated on Pleasance Street in Old Town Edinburgh. With multiple large capacity locations at the main courtyard and at Pleasance Dome, Pleasance is the perfect home for large scale productions, such as the Fringe favorite improv musical Showstoppers!, as well as many international comedy and cabaret acts. With a courtyard deemed “the biggest beer garden in the city” during the month of August, it is a great spot to grab a bite to eat, a drink, and your breath in between shows. (Hot tip: Make sure to try Sea Buckthorn Ice Cream from one of the sweets vendors; this orange berry is almost impossible to find in the United States, with a flavor somewhere between a melon and an orange.) See what's on at Pleasance.
The Underbelly is perhaps the most visually distinct of the Big Four Fringe venues, with its iconic flipped cow imagery (including a massive purple cow shaped tent called the Udderbelly). First opened in 2000, Underbelly operates off of Cowgate, as well within the George Square Udderbelly, with different styles of programming for each location. Underbelly is home to the offbeat and the unusual, with shows like Ellie MacPherson’s Happy Birthday Mr. President and the delightfully silly Coming Out Of My Cage finding a home at the Cowgate location, and Rob Madge’s My Son’s A Queer (But What Can You Do) settling inside the Udderbelly. Standup comics such as Joan Rivers and Russell Howard have summoned belly laughs from Fringe crowds at Underbelly, as well as comic musicals such as Jerry Springer – The Opera. Keep your eyes peeled when you visit the Underbelly; you may be seeing an artist on the precipice of stardom! Click here for Underbelly programming.