We were standing atop Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, looking down across this staid and regal city, when the man in yellow feathers wandered into view.
I thought I was hallucinating. But he was soon followed by a guy in blue fur, then by two women in tangerine tutus. Before long, an entire percussion orchestra had assembled — adorned in bright colors and equipped with all manner of percussion instruments — and as a crowd of bewildered tourists looked on, they began banging out the sort of infectious polymeter one associates with Rio de Janeiro or Mardi Gras.
That impromptu concert is the sort of surreal experience you come to expect at the Edinburgh Fringe, a late-summer festival of performance art where anything can happen. For three weeks each August, artists arrive from across the globe, filling every venue in this imperial city with dance, comedy, performance art, storytelling, song, juggling, sword-swallowing, fire-breathing and other forms of manic creativity. It’s one of the most celebrated cultural festivals in the world.
My wife and I had been tempted to attend for some years, but we were always intimidated by its size and complexity: More than 700 artists giving 3,000 performances at some 300 venues spread across an entire city. When I went to print out the official program, it ran to 440 pages. Where do you even start?
As luck would have it, last year Walker Art Center organized a trip for a group of Twin Cities travelers, with a curator who is a veteran of the festival and an expert in the performing arts. Over four days we saw 10 performances at eight venues. They ranged from an elegant reworking of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” (a production worthy of Broadway or the Guthrie stage), to a one-woman show that started with love songs and finished with a Spider-Man costume and a trampoline. We felt as if we had crammed an entire Walker performing arts season into four busy days. But we also learned that it’s possible to navigate the Fringe without being overwhelmed and to come away having seen some of the most brilliant, creative performing artists in the world.
First, a bit of background. What people call “the Edinburgh Fringe,” is actually three festivals at once. The center of gravity is the Edinburgh International Festival, a high-culture event that dates to 1947 and draws the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, opera singers, dance companies and theater groups. Its three-week program is carefully curated by a professional staff, who start lining up star performers — think Neville Mariner or Yo-Yo Ma — years in advance.
The second festival is the Fringe, which was founded by lesser-known performers who didn’t receive invitations to the first Edinburgh International and so invited themselves. The Fringe is not curated and is essentially open to anyone who can raise the cash for a ticket to Edinburgh and book a small theater or the back of a pub. This crowd can range from brilliantly talented alternative theater groups (think Theatre de la Jeune Lune) to cringeworthy comedians you wish you’d missed. This is where you discover stars when they have just begun to twinkle, including famed British comedy actors Rowan Atkinson and Steve Coogan, who both made their reputations at the Edinburgh Fringe. Finally, there is a book festival of more modest ambitions but extremely high quality.
Getting the most from this movable feast requires an odd blend of skills — both meticulous planning and a willingness to improvise at the last minute. Here’s a guide, in three steps:
Plan in stages
In March, the Edinburgh International Festival begins posting its lineup. This typically includes giants of the stage and orchestral music — Ian McKellan was there recently — performing at Edinburgh’s major theaters and concert halls. Shows sell out quickly, so it’s good to move fast. This year, the schedule will be posted on March 18.
If you find two or three shows you want to see at the main festival, then you have a framework for your visit.
In March or April, book a hotel room. The attractive places book up fast — but most will offer refundable deals in case you change your mind.
In May or June, begin reading up on Fringe festivals from previous years. The best performers create international buzz and often are invited back for subsequent years. We got tickets for an extraordinary comedian/storyteller named Daniel Kitson on the basis of a recommendation from his previous year’s appearance. Assemble a wish list.
Sometime in July, the British critics will start posting previews of Fringe artists that have been announced. Two good starting points are the List, a British online guide to arts and entertainment, and the Arts Desk, an excellent online compendium of arts criticism and journalism. You’re likely to encounter a lot of unfamiliar names, but then the whole point is discovery, right?
A bit closer to festival time, two Scottish newspapers, the Scotsman and the Herald, begin publishing feature stories and interviews that are likely to have some detail about the performances they’re planning. Now’s the time to contact the festival and reserve tickets for a handful of performances. If you’re the sort who likes a trip tightly planned, you can reserve one to two shows per day and you’ll have a full dance card. If you like to improvise, just book one or two shows ahead of time.
In Edinburgh, listen up
On the ground in Edinburgh. This is where it gets crazy — but also exciting and unique. Just step out of your hotel you will see walls plastered with posters and have handbills pressed into your hand. A good place to sample the possibilities is on High Street near St. Giles’ Cathedral and the Fringe office, where many of the smaller-scale performers will give free street performances during the day to advertise their work.
Soon every restaurant, pub and hotel lobby will be buzzing — with both raves and rants. It’s worth tuning in, making friends, and collecting recommendations.
Friends of ours from Minneapolis hit upon two genius-level strategies. They would hang out at Summerhall, an arts collective housed in an old university building that has several small theaters and is one of the major hubs of the Fringe. Each morning, the staff posts overnight reviews on a lobby bulletin board. Festivalgoers and performers gather here to read reviews, share gossip and trade recommendations. Our friends also discovered that even though the hot shows sell out quickly, most venues reserve a tranche of tickets to be released an hour before showtime. If you hover near the ticket desk — or even chat up someone in the box office — they’ll remember you and alert you when the tickets become available.
On our final night in Edinburgh, we had an encounter that typified the scene. A friend had recommended a 10 p.m. show at one of the Summerhall stages, so we raced across town to its ticket desk. The clerk gave us a puzzled look, then said: “Oh, that show is at 10 tomorrow morning.” Our hearts sank. “But we do have a different show tonight — Daniel Kitson, and he’s terrific!” Our hearts soared. “But that show is sold out.” Sank again.
Just then, a fellow appeared behind us, trying to return four tickets to the show. We bought two and everyone was happy. Kitson was without question the funniest and most brilliant storyteller/comedian we’ve ever seen.
Dave Hage is a book author and a former editor at the Star Tribune.