How Edinburgh Fringe Became the Biggest Arts Festival in the World
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was born in 1947, from a group of eight theatre companies determined to perform in the Edinburgh International Festival. From these humble origins at the “fringes” of the larger theatre festival, “the Fringe” has grown to be the largest arts festival in the world. It has produced acclaimed alumni who have gone on to television, cinema and Broadway fame. At the same time, it has remained steadfast in its democratic tradition, hosting the voices of artists across diverse genres and seeking to make the performing arts accessible to all. Parvati Magazine spoke with Oliver Davies, head of marketing and development for the festival, to find out more about its vision and successes, and the role of art as a vehicle for social change.
Parvati Magazine: What is the secret to the Edinburgh Fringe’s longevity and success?
Edinburgh Fringe: We have spent probably the last three years in trying to return to that question, and we listened to all of the people that make the Fringe happen: the artists, the media, the local audience and communities that support it. We also had a look back to the origins story in 1947. More than anything else, we came back to this idea that at the Fringe, no one tells you what you can and can’t do. If you have a story to tell and a venue willing to host you or a stage that you can stand on, then that stage is yours. Ultimately, you have the right as an artist to total freedom of expression. The Fringe provides this platform for experimentation and for learning. There are very few festivals where that opportunity comes to an artist, to say, “The audience is responding to this, but they’re not responding to that,” in an almost chameleon-like way. I think this is why it’s not just so successful in Edinburgh, but is now a movement of 250 [fringe festivals] around the world. We’ve got 323 venues at last count, over 30,000 artists and just over 3 million tickets, which means that it’s bigger now than the last World Cup.
Parvati Magazine: There is such diversity in your lineup, from live performance, creative labs, and auditions to walking tours and culinary workshops. What would you say have been some of the most innovative and ground-breaking events to which Edinburgh Fringe has played host?
Edinburgh Fringe: You’re absolutely right. You and I could be in the same city—and [Edinburgh is] a pretty small city of only half a million people—and your Fringe experience could be entirely different to mine. But some of the standout moments from our 70-year history come to mind. We’ve had shows in the back of a taxi. Last year, we had a show where the artist comes to you, so your home is the venue. We have had shows in a haunted abbey on a remote island just off the coast of Edinburgh, where Shakespeare was put on as a big lavish experience. We have had the likes of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), who not only was a performer in the Fringe, but who also ran his own venue when he created the Wireworks and ran this very successfully for a number of years.
Parvati Magazine: You have also embraced the voices of artists from under-represented groups, such as LGBTQ. Has it been part of the tradition of the Fringe to support social activism through art?
Edinburgh Fringe: This really is a very rich seam that the Fringe has had for a long time, that goes way back to not long after it was formed. In the early sixties, there was a real countercultural movement and the Fringe was essential in that process. The satirists of that period were doing a lot of the stuff that wasn’t really mainstream, but the Fringe allowed it to be tested with a wider audience that was prepared to take a risk. Another interesting example is the lady boys of Bangkok, who first appeared on the Fringe around 1985, and the mainstreaming of drag culture. Because the Fringe naturally lends itself to experimentation. I think those sorts of voices—the punk voices, the cultural voices—are in its DNA.
Parvati Magazine: In a climate of funding cutbacks to the arts, you have come up with several solutions to keep the Fringe accessible to everyone, such as using crowdfunding. What does the accessibility of art mean to you and how do you decide which solutions will help you meet this goal?
Edinburgh Fringe: I think we’ll always be working to make the Fringe more accessible, more financially affordable, more open to those with disabilities, to make it more likely that someone who comes from a background that hasn’t engaged with the arts actually has a chance to do so. We are exploring ways to put more money back into the pockets of artists, through reducing the cost to them of our activities.
Our Fringe Days Out program hands out £70,000 worth of Fringe vouchers and bus tickets to young people and older people across the city, from a range of backgrounds. We don’t give them tickets to shows that aren’t selling out. We give them vouchers so they can pick exactly what they want, so they get that same process as someone who has the means financially. A lot of our work has increasingly gone into areas of access based on skin colour, ethnicity or gender, etc.
The third avenue of accessibility is for those with disabilities. We have the Venue Access Awards, which encourages venues to go through practical steps that they can take, from giving access information on their website, to a disabled toilet, or to making sure staff are trained on what to ask and how to make people as welcome as possible. 61% of all Fringe shows are fully accessible to those in a wheelchair. For street events on the Royal Mile, which is a big street arts festival, we provide sign language interpretation. We also provide sensory backpacks for children and adults on the autism spectrum.
Parvati Magazine: At Parvati Foundation, we have been preparing to roll out our Global Education for MAPS (GEM). GEM encompasses music, video, virtual reality, anime and books in support of the creation of the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary to alleviate global hunger and poverty. In what way do you see arts as empowering action for positive change?
Edinburgh Fringe: Last year, I was lucky to go along to the world’s first carbon-neutral venue for the Fringe that was made entirely of found objects, and designed to raise awareness of the negative impacts that we’re having on the oceans and our land. As part of that, I went along to another show where we have the full UN climate report being read from end to end by a number of guest speakers. There’s a real strong sense that artists are tackling that head-on and they’re prepared to examine their own activities as well as shining a light on the issue.
Oliver Davies is the head of Marketing & Development for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world’s biggest celebration of arts and culture, featuring 56,796 performances of 3,548 shows in over 300 venues in 2018. The lineup includes theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, children’s shows, musicals, opera, music, spoken word, exhibitions and events.