If you ask average theatergoers where the largest annual performing arts festival in the world takes place, they’d likely answer New York or London, or maybe Beijing. It’s unlikely they’d guess Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and home to half-a-million people. But if they’ve visited the city during August, they’d know that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is, by far, the largest annual arts celebration on earth.
The Fringe began as a reaction against (or addendum to) the Edinburgh International Festival, which was created by luminaries like Rudolf Bing and Tyrone Guthrie to soothe the wounds of war through the performing arts in 1947. That first year, eight theater companies that weren’t invited to be part of the International Festival showed up anyway, and performed in various venues around town hoping to capitalize on the Festival audience and critics. Today, the Fringe now overwhelms the curated International Festival by a longshot: August visitors can sample from more than 50,000 performances of 3,500 shows, spread across more than 300 venues – from proper theaters to pubs, hotel lobbies, parks, and even double-decker buses and public toilets. The city nearly triples in size, issuing almost three million tickets last year. Hundreds of comedy acts compete against theater, dance, music, and performance art for visitors’ attention, so on any stroll in the main part of town you’ll be accosted by hawkers in costumes to come see their shows. And it’s completely uncurated: anyone can show up, rent a venue and perform. Nonetheless, producers and presenters from all over the world descend on Edinburgh each year in search of acts and plays.
I just got back from my first trip to the Festival, and it’s just as overwhelming as those statistics suggest. Imagine an entire mile – the Royal Mile – turned into something like Times Square, given over to pedestrians, buskers, pop-up performances, and the like. It’s invigorating and not a little bit exhausting. Committed Fringe-goers can see their first performance of the day at 10am and not stop til they’ve seen as many as eight shows by the wee hours. I didn’t do nearly that much – I had to spend some time visiting all the Mary Stuart artifacts at Holyrood Palace! – but I did catch some fascinating work. Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, created by the National Theatre of Scotland (the company that toured Black Watch to DC’s Shakespeare Theatre a few years back), had a form that blew my mind: the audience sat in two concentric circles around the playing space, and each patron found a bound book on their seat that was half-graphic novel, half-script. Patrons and actors performed the work together, in a way assuming membership in the end-times cult the play was about.
Another highlight was watching a work-in-progress, Forgiveness, by Jonny Donahoe, the performer who co-wrote and initially performed Every Brilliant Thing. Performed in a Victorian Anatomy Lecture Hall (complete with curved, tiered wooden seating and a vaulted skylight), Forgiveness is a beautiful piece about Jonny’s unexpected road to fatherhood, and the exorcising of demons that he’s asked us not to write about online. (As a true story, some of the demons he exorcises are still alive.) I’m sure that its finished incarnation will be just as profound, funny, and touching as Every Brilliant Thing.
Nothing I saw, though, matched the splendor of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting of West Side Story, with an orchestra of some 50 musicians and 40 singers in a concert staging of this beloved work. We stretch financially to have 12 or 13 musicians in our orchestra pits for musicals, and hearing this West Side Story as Bernstein intended us to hear it reminded me why we need to stretch every penny. Nothing approaches the aural grandeur of a Bernstein score performed with such a large ensemble.
But I’d be awfully remiss if I didn’t tell you what the best performance I saw was: my niece was there with her high school performing a 90-minute cut of their production of Urinetown. Attending a performance, in Edinburgh in August, with and starring family is about as wonderful an experience as you can get.