The Edinburgh Fringe survival guide

Street performers on Royal Mile
The crowds watch a street performer – or is that the box office queue?

UPDATE: For anyone who’s come to this page via a search engine or an old link, this article has been updated for 2014, and you can find it here. If, for some reason, you want to see the old version – you never know, maybe you want to know what I used to write about the comedy festival – I have kept the old version for posterity.

Right then. My Buxton Fringe Survival Guide only got a trickle of the traffic compared to my Brighton Fringe Survival Guide, but, what the hell, I may as well finish off this series. Here is my guide for how to make the most of the Edinburgh Fringe as a punter.

This will be a little different from my last two articles. Before, I was writing guides for people used to the Edinburgh Fringe on how to make the most of Brighton or Buxton. This time, however, it makes sense to write tips aimed at someone who’s never done a fringe before. The other difference is that whilst I’ve never seen anyone else do a guide for Brighton or Buxton, loads of people do guides for the Edinburgh Fringe. Therefore, rather than attempt to do a comprehensive guide to everything there is to know, this is mostly a list of things I wish I’d known when I first went. Some tips are widely-held opinions, others might be more controversial.

Okay, here we go …

1: Understand what a Festival Fringe means

There are two common misconceptions of what the Edinburgh Fringe is all about. One is that it’s the pinnacle of cutting-edge theatre. The other is that it’s the place where all the big-name comedians do their best stuff. There is some truth in both descriptions, but neither of them are the definitive description. The simple remit of the Edinburgh Fringe – something that most of the theatre world glosses over – is that anyone who wants to take part can do so. In practice it’s not quite that simple (more on this in a moment), but that’s the principle, and it’s a principle that is dearly held by everybody who’s anybody on the Festival Fringe Society.

What this means for you is that, as well as seeing some good plays or comedy, you will probably also see some mediocre, poor or incomprehensibly dreadful plays. Fringe veterans like me develop a bad play radar, but even then some slip through the net. But that’s part of the bargain. If your reaction to a bad play is to ask why the organisers allowed this to be included, then this is not the festival for you. There are plenty of theatre festivals around the country where an artistic director carefully vets the programme – but I’ve lots of good acts at the Fringe that have come out of nowhere and would never have made it through any vetting procedure. For me, it’s worth it. For you, only you can tell.

If this doesn’t put you off, there’s one other thing you need to know.

2: Almost all fringe plays are one-acts

Go to any theatre out of fringe season and the play will probably last about 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. At the Edinburgh Fringe (and most of fringes, for that matter) however, the typical length is closer to an hour. There is no rule against this – just that it’s such common practice now, two-hour plays are virtually unheard of.

This has mainly come about because most fringe punters now expect to see several plays in one day. Long plays and intervals just get in the way of this. Even when two-hour plays go to the fringe, they usually cut the interval. This takes a bit of getting used to, but don’t worry – you can do a damned good piece of theatre in one hour.

3: Don’t expect a hotel room unless you’re made of money

This is such an obvious thing to tell you it’s barely worth putting in here, but I’ll point it out anyway. There are over 2,000 events running concurrently, and everyone taking part needs somewhere to stay. So does the multitude of press representatives. And that’s before we consider the people actually coming to see it. On top of that, you’ve got people coming to see the Edinburgh International Festival, the Military Tattoo, or one of the many other festivals. And, unfortunately, you have people who are visiting Edinburgh for reasons other than the festivals! Grr, go away! You should have come in July or September! I’m sick of you lot clogging up the street for yet another bloody photo of you standing in front of Greyfriars Bobby.

Anyway, the net result of this is great news for owners of hotels, and bad news for everyone else. If you want to stay in a room to yourself in Edinburgh City Centre, you will need to pay astronomical rates and book months in advance. Assuming that doesn’t appeal to you, your have the choice of either staying in the outskirts of Edinburgh and travelling in each day (which isn’t a great option if you want to watch late-night things), or staying in a hostel (and possibly pay as much as you’d normally pay for a single room bed and breakfast). One other option is to simply do a day trip if you live close enough – I estimate that from where I live (Durham), you could get there and back in one day and still have time for five plays. What you do is down to your personal preference – but hotels are for people with spare kidneys to sell on the internet.

4: The Royal Mile is the centrepiece of the Fringe

This is something you’ll find out on day one if you don’t know already, but the Royal Mile is the definitive part of the fringe. This is packed full of street entertainment, groups doing excepts from their shows (mainly musicals) and lots, lots and lots of acts trying to flyer you to get you to see their shows. Some of the flyering techniques get predictable after a while, but that means groups fight for ever more spontaneous and unexpected ways to get your attention. There’s not really any equivalent to this anywhere else in the country – Brighton has a weekly-ish Fringe City and Buxton has a Fringe Sunday, but neither of these things are on such a scale.

Sometimes, however, it can get a bit much. If you are in a hurry, it sometimes pays to take a detour that avoids the Royal Mile. But beware, flyerers lurk elsewhere, and if you’re holding a fringe programme, you are fair game.

5: Avoid getting tickets from the central Fringe Box Office

One thing you’ll find on the Royal Mile is the central fringe Box Office. This is the only place where you can buy tickets for any fringe show, so this has a convenience factor.

However, most of the time, it’s not worth it. It is not unusual to have to wait half an hour or more to queue for tickets. That’s time you could have spent seeing half a play. It is normally better to either buy tickets on the internet and collect, or to go straight to the venues and buy the tickets there. If you must use the Fringe Box Office, try to plan ahead and get several tickets at once. No point queuing any more than you have to.

6: The Edinburgh Fringe Daily Guide is no more

Now, one useful and convenient thing there used to be is the Daily Guide. The problem with the main fringe programme is that it’s not much good if you want to see something round about 6 p.m. Plays are listed in alphabetical order. This used to be where the Daily Guide came in – this listed plays in order of time. But, annoyingly, it needed a sponsor, the sponsor pulled out, and it’s not done any more. Fest used to do something similar, but now that’s gone too. The only place you can get a Daily Guide now is on the internet, printed off yourself. Since most people don’t take their printers with them to Edinburgh, this only helps if you remember to print it off in advance (most people don’t).

If you have an Android or Apple smartphone, however, there is a nifty official Edinburgh Fringe app. This does a lot of things, but the best bit is that it shows you which shows are coming up near to where you currently are. Cool, eh? It’s a large app to download, so try to do that either in advance at home, or somewhere that has wi-fi. Several options open to you – just don’t try flicking through that damned programmed to decide what to see in an hour’s time.

7: Do not confuse Assembly with Assembly Rooms

Now might be a good time to explain the difference between spaces, venues, chains of venues and super-venues. A space is essentially a room with acting area, seats and lighting. A venue is a building used for a fringe that contains one or more spaces. A few venues are stand-alone institutions (e.g. the Bedlam Theatre is a single-space independent venue), but most of them belong to chains. The big ones include C, Underbelly, Pleasance, Zoo and the Space, and the biggest ones are often known as “super-venues” for the presence they have all over the fringe. All these chains have limited numbers of slots so, in theory, they can pick and choose who goes into their programme and have a different artistic slant, but in practice the audience experience is about the same regardless of venue. The only major exception is the Traverse Theatre, which does heavily vet plays into a programme of its taste (so if you absolutely must have the safeguard of a vetting committee, the Traverse is probably the place for you). Also, the super-venues have their own ticketing systems, so you can, for example, buy tickets for Pleasance Dome at the Pleasance Courtyard box office, and vice versa.

Last year, however, a new piece of confusion emerged. There is a venue called “Assembly“, and until 2010 they ran spaces including the Assembly Rooms and Assembly Hall, hence the name. Then the Assembly Rooms closed for redevelopment, and there was a big scare that it would close to the Fringe for good. In the end, this didn’t happen, but not before the Assembly venue chain relocated to George Square, and when the Assembly Rooms re-opened, they came under the management of a new venue, “Assembly Rooms“. And as if that wasn’t confusing enough, the Assembly Rooms are on George Street, which is in a completely different part of Edinburgh than George Square. Are you still following this?

Anyway, what this means is that you can’t buy tickets for the Assembly Rooms at venues managed by Assembly, and vice versa. And, whatever you do, make sure you are going to the right venue with the words “Assembly” in the name and “George” in the location. If you discover you’re at the wrong venue with five minutes to go, you are in trouble.

8: Allow time for outlying venues

One other thing to avoid getting caught out on is outlying venues. Most plays at the Edinburgh Fringe take place within ten minutes brisk walk of each other. Because of this, it’s easy to get complacent and assume you’ll easily get to your next play in time. And you usually will.  Just occasionally, however, the venue is a long way out. Don’t get caught out with this, check when you buy the ticket.

There are two venues of note where you need to allow some time. One is the Traverse Theatre, which may look central being the other side of the castle, but that’s actually quite a way on foot. The other one which is easy to overlook is the venue Northern Stage is using at St. Stephen’s church. That is quite a trek northwards, so again, allow yourself time.

9: A note about the “Comedy Festival”

Although this is a theatre blog, here’s a quick note for anyone coming for the comedy.

One quirk about the Edinburgh Fringe is that whilst very few big theatres will tour their major productions to the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a different matter for comedy. Almost all big-name comedians do a run at the Edinburgh Fringe to big audiences, and for this reason the Edinburgh Fringe has often been known as the “comedy festival”. It never used to be an issue – little groups did comedy acts alongside the big names, and provided you remembered to book in advance for the really big names, everything went fine.

But a few years ago, a thing emerged that was branded the “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” – and not everyone’s happy about this. It is, essentially, five venue chains (Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Underbelly and Just the Tonic) pooling together their comedy acts into one brochure. Already this is controversial, because this suggests that five venues are dictating what can be in the “comedy festival”. And now the really controversial bit: you have to pay extra to be a comedy act at these venues, which doesn’t appear to serve any purpose other than make it even harder for small acts to stand a fair chance against the big ones. I’ve seen a suspiciously high number of comedy acts put themselves into the theatre category, and I suspect it’s to avoid the comedy fee.

What does this mean for you as a punter? Well, I don’t impose my ideals on other people, so if you’re there for the big name comedians, enjoy your shows. But I would urge everyone to remember that there’s more to comedy on the Fringe that the so-called “Comedy Festival”. If you want to search for the next bit of undiscovered talent, use the official fringe programme – don’t leave it up the Pleasance et al to make your choice for you.

10: Don’t rule out the half-price ticket hut

The Edinburgh Fringe has something called the half-price ticket hut. The rules are that any acts who want to sell tickets for a particular day at half price in order to fill up seats can notify the half-price ticket hut, and – ta-dah! – there they are on sale. You can release tickets for half price as and when you like for individual days. And punters turn up, look at the list of tickets, and decide what they want to see.

Now, you might think that this is something you ought to steer clear of. One might reasonably assume that if they’re selling tickets for half price, they need to get more bums on seats. And if they’re having trouble getting bums on seats, it can’t be very good, can it? But, in practice, there is little evidence to support this theory. I have seen abysmal shows on both full-price and half-price tickets. And I have seen outstanding shows on both full-price and half-price tickets. Maybe if I did some number-crunching I might find a difference in quality of the average full-price vs half-price show, but off-hand I can’t tell the difference. So if you’re not too bothered about what you see, this is a better option than you might think.

11: Don’t rule out the free fringe

The Free Fringe is a recent development. Certain new venue chains, such as PBH and Laughing Horse, run entirely free events. Well, when I say “free”, there is a bit of compulsory voluntary donation at the end of the show, on pain of being glared at harshly. But, on the whole, it’s a good deal all round. Pubs get to hire out rooms for little or no fee that they’d be unlikely to use for full commercial fringe rates, and they revenue for drinks. Some free acts pay the registration fee and appear in the Fringe programme proper, whilst others only appear in the free fringe programme – a fringe of the fringe, if you like. For performers, it’s a less expensive way of taking part, especially if you only want to run part of the festival.

The free shows do not offer you the same variety as the paid shows. Most of the spaces lack proper stage or lights and so are unsuitable for most conventional plays. But for aspiring stand-up comedians, what can be more ideal than a room in a pub? The Free Fringe spaces tend to also be good venues for those plays (usually solo performances) which, for one reason or another, don’t need stage and lights to be performed. I shall never forget the Duke of Edinburgh (aka George Telfer) telling us about his life in the back room of a pub. There is less variety on offer than the main fringe, but there’s still some good stuff on offer.

12: Beware of “studenty” productions

Much as it’s tempting to bait 1,000 performers desperate to get you to see their show, it’s only fair to think about high how the stakes are for some of these people. A lot of these performers will be drama school graduates who invest a fortune in the hope they are discovered. Then there are writers, directors and small groups trying to build a reputation with good reviews. All of these people have a strong incentive to put on the best possible production they can. They may fail – but they certainly try very hard to succeed.

One glaring exception to this is student productions. Here, the stakes are much lower. It costs thousands of pounds to put on an Edinburgh Fringe play, but if you share the cost between 15 of you, it’s no more than you’d pay for a holiday. And it is pretty much a holiday. No matter what people think of the play, it’s a fun three weeks, conveniently at a time when you have no academic commitments (unless you’re a postgraduate, grumble grumble). Unfortunately, there is one bit of bad news from all of this: there is little incentive for their plays to be any good.

Now, I say beware of “studenty” productions rather than student productions, because it’s not fair to tar all student productions with the same brush. The best ones are as good as the professionals. But there are a lot of poor ones, which tend to be poor for the same reasons. FringeReview did a good checklist of common offences committed by bad student theatre (which is aimed at performers but is still relevant to punters), but the two things I would urge you to watch out for the most is 1) plays where the actors are clearly too young for their parts, and 2) plays where the company is just having a laugh. It’s not always easy to spot these, but if you can develop a good eye for this it should save you several wasted hours.

13: If you watch classic plays, manage your expectations

Anything is allowed at the Edinburgh Fringe. New writing? Good. New takes of existing scripts? Go ahead. A play published by Nick Hern or Samuel French? Sure, anything goes.

However, my personal view is that most productions of established plays are nothing special. There are a number of problems. Firstly, you’ll notice that there’s always several productions of the same play on – there’s even a game where you guess how many times Abigail’s Party and Bouncers appears in the programme. A lot of these will be student productions – not necessarily a bad thing, but it will be if you’ve got twentysomethings playing middle-aged men. The set will probably be minimal, and yes, that’s the same for all plays at the Fringe, but when it’s a play that’s usually performed on a lavish set it’s a bit of a climbdown. It will have to be heavily cut if you’re performing a full-length play in one hour, which admittedly most productions do well, but it’s still not the same thing.

My personal preference is to only bother with plays I recognise if 1) I really want to see it on stage, or 2) I can see it being suited to a Fringe environment. In most cases, you can probably see a better production back home when someone next produces it at a local theatre. If this is your thing, then go ahead and see it – but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t live up to high expectations.

14: Take reviews with a pinch of salt

This might be a controversial one, but I take this to an extreme and try to avoid looking at reviews when I choose what to see. This is because I want to decide for myself what to see and make up my own mind. I sometimes looks at reviews afterwards. In fact, I even create an annual award for this, the “well I liked it” award for a play that I thought deserved better. (Actually, I also give a second award known as the “How the hell did that get four/five stars?” award, but that stays in my head.) But I appreciate that other people will want some guidance in what’s any good.

The thing you need to be aware of is that the people doing these reviews aren’t necessarily any more authoritative than you are. Publications such as ThreeWeeks, Broadway Baby, FringeReview and FringeGuru rely heavily on volunteers, and although they are supposed to review things objectively and there is some editorial oversight, they might not have much experience. Not that experience matters much. Even established reviewers in broadsheet newspapers are quite subjective, and they generally don’t do a great job in separating artistic merit from personal preference. It can be interesting to read a review after you seen a play to see what you do and don’t agree with, but that’s not much use when you’re considering seeing the play in their first place.

Ultimately, people have different opinions, and different reviewers give contradictory reviews of the same play. If, however, all the major reviewers are giving the same play 4 or 5 stars, that usually a safe bet that it’ll be good.

15: In case you’re thinking “I fancy doing this” …

This isn’t so much a tip for punters but a tip for anyone you goes along, thinks about taking part, and sees all the performers enjoying themselves and thinks “I wish I was taking part in this.” And for regulars following this blog, my advice will be of no surprise.

My advice is: unless you have secure financial backing, please please please do a smaller Fringe first, like Brighton or Buxton. It’s just not worth the risk diving straight into Edinburgh – few people can comfortably afford to lose £3,000-£5,000 on a show that bombs. Even if money’s no object, do you want to be running a show that flops halfway through week one? Another two weeks performing to empty seats is not a nice way to go out. There are a lot of things you need to get used to in a fringe environment, so get used to them before you take the big gamble. Trust me, the smaller fringes are just as enjoyable to take part in – but it’s much much much less of a risk.

16: For God’s sake, enjoy yourself

This might be a strange tip from some who keeps saying that real men see five plays a day, no less, but don’t take that two seriously. Don’t turn the Fringe into an endurance test for the sake of it. Some people boast of seeing seven on eight shows a day, but as soon as you stop enjoying doing that, you defeat the object.

Don’t forget that, at the end of the day, the purpose of any form of art is so that the people on the receiving end enjoy themselves. If it’s not fun, why bother? You might want to laugh, relax, or kept on the edge of your seat, but above all, you should be aiming to go home and think about what a good time you had. That, after all, is what all the performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are trying to do for you.

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