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At Fringe, art's the wild card

Anything goes in Edinburgh in August, but is that really such a good thing?

August 24, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Edinburgh, Scotland — It's a typical August day in Scotland's capital city. Fire-eaters, sword-swallowers in kilts, living statues painted gold or silver and a man on a unicycle juggling burning daggers line the tourist-magnet Royal Mile section of High Street. Never far away is the skirl of the bagpipes, that archetypal Scottish instrument with its intimidating, dissonant drone. On several street corners, lone pipers play for money.

On the sidewalks, young performers hopefully hand out leaflets and fliers for theatrical shows (offering a polite, surprised "Thank you!" when a passerby takes one).

For one month every year, this ancient, dramatically beautiful city utterly transforms itself. Usually it's a sober, industrious place -- the center of Scottish politics, law, banking and accountancy -- and its gray stone buildings can make it seem almost forbidding. Then August comes around, and Edinburgh becomes a noisy, colorful, exuberant party town, teeming with people, the vast majority young and casually dressed. The world's biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, gets underway, and the city's population of 440,000 is temporarily doubled.

Thousands of performers flood into the city, some intent on becoming famous. But the majority -- an astonishing array of stand-up comedians, musical and theater groups, dance troupes, children's entertainers and performers of every description -- are here for the sheer fun.

This year the Fringe has attracted 12,940 artists who are giving 21,594 performances of 1,541 shows at 207 venues through Monday. They commandeer as a performance space every usable piece of real estate in Edinburgh: schools, community halls, empty churches, even apartments. Almost certainly the biggest contingent is from the American High School Festival, who appear in several musical events around Edinburgh. "There's about 1,200 of them," said Fringe Director Paul Gudgin. The arrival of the performers and audiences makes Edinburgh a carnival city for a month. But there's a touch of Las Vegas about it too.

Why? Because attending Fringe shows is a gamble. There is a rough democracy about the Fringe. No artists are invited to attend; they are not paid, asked to perform specific work or censored. As long as artists or groups can find a Fringe venue -- and pay for it -- they are welcome to perform. But on the other side of the coin, no one administers quality control.

"There's a risk element," says Fiona Stewart of the Edinburgh and Lothian Tourist Board. "You can stumble on something wonderful. Or it may be a particular show is not for you." Most Fringe shows last only an hour and are cheap -- about $8 and up. Clearly the prospect of a gamble does not deter audiences -- they show up in droves. "Last year, we sold 975,000 tickets," Gudgin says, "and this year we hope to exceed a million."


What draws all these people here? The noise, the fun and party atmosphere play a part. But there's also the thrill of knowing you might be among the first people to see a show that becomes an international hit. The Fringe has a reputation for breaking shows that go on to global success.

Last year, it was the outrageous "Jerry Springer -- The Opera," which was staged this year at London's National Theatre, will soon transfer to the West End and may yet reach Broadway. Already there is the Irish play "Stones in His Pockets," which first attracted attention in Edinburgh. The dance revue "Tap Dogs" began here in the early 1990s. British playwright Gregory Burke's "Gagarin's Way" received rave reviews here in 2001 and is now translated into 18 languages.

The Fringe's hit-making potential goes back more than 40 years. In 1960, four bright young men from Cambridge University presented a satirical student revue, "Beyond the Fringe." A huge hit, it quickly transferred to London and made them all stars: Dudley Moore became a Hollywood leading man, Alan Bennett a playwright, Jonathan Miller an opera director and Peter Cook one of Britain's best-known satirists.

In 1966, Edinburgh was where the young playwright Tom Stoppard was first noticed, after rapturous reviews for his "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead." In 1976, a young undergraduate took time out from his engineering studies to perform skits in Edinburgh for the Oxford Revue. His name? Rowan Atkinson, creator of "Mr. Bean" and "Johnny English." Five years later, a young woman was discovered in the Cambridge University Footlights Revue; it was future Oscar-winner Emma Thompson.

In recent years, many stand-ups have advanced their careers by competing for Edinburgh's annual Perrier award; some, like Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans and Dylan Moran, have moved into TV and films.

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