What is the Edinburgh Fringe and Why Is It So Big? | Playbill

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Playbill Goes Fringe What is the Edinburgh Fringe and Why Is It So Big?

Playbill explores the history of the legendary arts festival, and how outsiders became the most popular people in town.

Hamlet front of house signage at Ashton Hall - Edinburgh Devin de Vil

To newcomers, the Edinburgh Fringe can be nigh impossible to comprehend.

The arts festival is absolutely massive; in 2022, more than 3,300 different shows from 63 countries sold over 2.2 million tickets to 50,000 performances. Those numbers make it one of the most popular ticketed events in the world, with only the biannual Olympics competitions and quadrennial World Cup tournament garnering a larger response.

What makes the Fringe even more remarkable is its natural, grassroots development; since the beginning, anyone and everyone was welcome to express their creativity in whatever way they wished. Originating in 1947, the Fringe began when independent theatre companies decided to produce their own small budget shows alongside larger offerings in the Scottish capital.

In the years after World War II, Austrian opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing created the Edinburgh International Festival with the intention of healing the cultural wounds in the U.K. following the devastation of the war. With a focus on classical music, opera, ballet, and Renaissance drama, the International Festival was, at least initially, designed to appeal to the highbrow tastes of the aristocracy to which Bing himself belonged. The Fringe began, quite literally, 'on the fringes' of the International Festival, when eight community and amateur theatre companies from Scotland and England came to Edinburgh without having received the formal invitation. With all of the cities major venues occupied, they took over smaller and more unusual venues on the outskirts of the city, capturing the attention of the assembled audiences with their offbeat and unusual offerings. As the years went on, the idea spread, and soon there were more theatre companies coming uninvited than there were companies that had received an invite!

The Fringe developed into an official organization in 1951, when University of Edinburgh students began to provide food and lodging to the traveling artists. Late night revues and one person productions quickly gained prominence, with many barriers between audience and artist lowered in favor of person-to-person entertainment. As more theatre companies began to show up for the Fringe, both space and time became hot commodities, and venues were soon hosting six or seven different shows per day, from dawn to long after dusk.

The variety of options at the Fringe became one of its calling cards; there was nowhere else in the world where you could take in a one-man show, an improv comedy, a Shakespearean epic, a Victorian melodrama, an original musical, and a modern romantic comedy in the same day, live and in person. International audiences, and artists, began coming in droves, looking to be a part of the melting pot.

With many shows offering free tickets, the Fringe was also a gateway for a new generation to fall in love with new forms of theatre. As the Fringe grew, so did the investment of the people of Edinburgh; just about every arts-inclined individual from the area has worked the Fringe at some point in their life, from running box office and back of house to busking on the streets of the capital city.

The Fringe has since grown to overshadow the International Festival with which it originally competed. Inspired by the intrepid artistry of the original Fringe companies, Edinburgh now recognizes a series of festivals that arrive in August (besides Fringe and the International, the city is also home to Royal Military Tattoo and the International Book Festival). Thousands of shows are presented each year to ever-eager audiences. Some, like Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss's SIX, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, have gone on to international acclaim. Others, instead, exist only in the heady mixture of inspiration and aspiration that the Fringe fosters, to be seen once, and remembered for all time.

The festival’s history, and its continued expansion to welcome artists of every variation, is one of the many exciting aspects that Playbill will continue to explore as a part of Playbill Goes Fringe, Playbill’s extensive on-the-ground coverage of the festival. Excited to learn more? Check out Playbill Is Packing for a Trip to the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival to find out more about how to follow along and “live” the experience from abroad.

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