How to make the most of the Edinburgh Fringe

Edinburgh Comedy Fesitval logo crossed out
Here’s the big change in 2014

Hmm. My guide to making the most of the Buxton Fringe has got lots of attention this year round, but the Brighton Fringe guide not so much. Last time round, it was Brighton that got the flood of pageviews and Buxton that got only a trickle. Well, anyhow, let’s finish this off with the updated guide for Edinburgh, seeing as that’s only two week away now. Remember, these guides are about how the fringe works as a whole, and it doesn’t have any recommendations of individual shows. That will come later (once I’ve had a chance to check all the entries in the programme – oh boy, that’ll be fun). Apologies to any performers from Buxton waiting for my roundup – my brain is still fried and it will take a few days to get it back into sufficient working order to write that. But I can just about manage to update an old article now.

About this guide

My guides for Brighton and Buxton were aimed at people who have previously been to the Edinburgh Fringe and wants to know what to expect at a smaller one. As a result, it skipped over a few of the details that apply to all fringes. However, as most people who go to see the Edinburgh Fringe have never heard of the Brighton or Buxton Fringes, let alone been to them, this guide is more aimed at people who need to know what fringe theatre is all about. This is a theatre blog so most of the emphasis is on theatre, but much of this applies to the comedy too.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to every practical aspect of the fringe – there are plenty of guides elsewhere that can help you there. Rather, this is a list of tips that I think are particularly useful to know. Some are widespread consensus, but others are my own personal view. This time, the guide is basically the same as last year’s guide, with a few updates and clarifications – the big one being that the controversial “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” brand has been dropped. If you read last year’s guide, you can probably skip the rest of this article. If not, read on …

The tips

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 you think it’s bad that awful plays and untalented performers are allowed into such a prestigious festival, then this is not the festival for you. If you want a festival with a carefully vetted programme, there’s plenty of festivals where an artistic director does that. There are even choices for vetted entertainment in Edinburgh if you want that  – but I’ve seen lots of good acts at the Fringe that have come out of nowhere and would never have made it through any vetting procedure. I think it’s worth it. You will have to decide for yourself.

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 other fringes) however, the typical length more like an hour. There is no rule insisting on this – just that it’s such common practice.

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 – and these are very rare – they usually cut the interval. One-hour plays take 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 it’s barely worth saying, 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 group photo in front of Greyfriars Bobby.

Anyway, the net result of this is great news for owners of hotels, and bad news for anyone hoping to stay in one. If you want a room to yourself in the city centre, you will need to pay astronomical rates and book months in advance. Assuming that doesn’t appeal to you, you then have the choice of either staying in the outskirts and travel in each day (which isn’t great 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.

(Oh, and just to state the obvious, in fringe language, the “Royal Mile” means the mostly pedestrianised stretch past Cockburn Street and Bank Street. I’m not aware of anyone who’s taken it literally and gone looking for the magic of the Fringe outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but it’s probably happened.)

5: (NEW-ish) A note about venues

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.

If you are a performer, your choice of venue is one of the most important decisions you will make. Do you go for an expensive big-name venue in a central location or a cheap venue in the suburbs? Should you perform in a large space or small space? Conversely, venues can only accommodate a finite number of acts, so they have to pick and choose who applies to them. In theory, this means that venues can pick an artistic slant for themselves and set themselves apart from the others. You will hear quite a lot of people say that you should familiarise yourself with which venues put on what kind of shows to maximise your viewing pleasure.

In my experience, however, you don’t really need to worry about this as a punter. As far as artistic content goes, the differences between most venues are subtle. The only particularly noteworthy observations I’ve got are:

  • Some outlying venues, such as the Traverse and Summerhall have heavily vetted programmes in line with their artistic vision. I’m not terribly convinced this level of vetting adds that much quality to a programme, but if you really want a festival in Edinburgh with a vetting committee to protect you from bad plays, stick to these ones.
  • Small venues, particularly the ones outside the city centre, are also where you’re more likely to find low-budget quirky and/or site-specific stuff – or it might be low-quality bargain basement stuff from someone who’s sunk all their money into getting in the Fringe programme.
  • Two venue chains are “free” venues, which are substantially different from regular venues. I will come on to this later.
  • Finally, I’m afraid to say I’ve got low expectations of The Space. I don’t know whether it’s just me being unlucky with my choice of plays, or some underlying problem, but The Space does seem to have a lot of mediocre “studenty” productions (again, see later).

Other than that, you don’t need to worry. The mix of theatre and comedy varies between venues, but, let’s face it, the easiest way to work out whether it’s a theatre or comedy piece is to check which section of the programme you’re reading.

6: Avoid getting tickets from the central Fringe Box Office

Okay, now that I’ve explained what venue chains and super-venues are, I can give my first tip connected to this: it’s better to buy tickets from venues. Venue chains will generally sell tickets for all their shown at all their sites, so you can buy tickets for Pleasance Courtyard at Pleasance Dome (and vice versa), C Central at C cubed, Zoo Roxy at Zoo Southside, and – you get the idea. However, you can’t buy tickets for, say, an Underbelly show at Gilded Balloon. The only place that has the convenience of being able to buy tickets for any Fringe show is the Fringe Box Office on the Royal Mile.

(Update for 2015: Actually, now you can buy tickets for an Underbelly show from Gilded Balloon. Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly now have a unified ticketing system where you can buy a ticket for any show at any box office. So that makes things easier still.)

However, most of the time, the convenience of the central box office isn’t 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, damn it! You might fret that if you don’t get your ticket now, it’ll be sold out later, but in general the only acts where you need to worry about sell-outs are the big-name comedians. For everything else, usually the worst thing that can happen is you’ll have to see the show tomorrow instead of today. (One other advantage of buying at the venue: the acts gets more money – sales through the Fringe box office take a cut.)

If you must use the Fringe Box Office because you want to make 100% sure you see your favourite act, you’re probably better off booking online, stomaching the handling fee, and collecting the ticket from the box office. If you absolutely insist on actually buying the tickets at the box office, you can cut down on queuing time by doing it first thing in the morning. And try to buy all the tickets in one go. Trust me, once is enough, you don’t want to be joining that queue twice.

7: Bring along some sort of Daily Guide

Now, one useful and convenient thing there used to be is the Daily Guide. The problem with the main fringe programme is that a lot of the time, you’ll be looking for something to see at a specific time. Got a ticket for a show at 9, facing filling in a gap some time around 7? No use looking in the Fringe programme, because it’s all listed in alphabetical order. Instead, you referred to the daily guide that lists everything by time, and you took your pick. Sadly, that needed a sponsor, the sponsor pulled out, and the printed version is no 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).

Update for 2015: Actually, Fest did do a daily guide in 2014 after all. Not sure what their plans are for 2015, but worth a try.

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. (Not a 100% reliable option though – it kept crashing on my Galaxy Mini last year) Several options open to you – just don’t try flicking through that damned programmed to decide what to see in an hour’s time.

8: Do not confuse “Assembly” with “Assembly Rooms”

Here’s another bit of confusion over venue chains. There is a venue called “Assembly“, and until 2010 they ran spaces including the Assembly Rooms and Assembly Hall (hence the name, obviously). 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 and completely different brand, “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.

9: 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.

The three outlying venues I’ve already mentioned are particularly prone to catch you out. The Traverse Theatre might not look far away, being the other side of the castle, but that’s actually quite a long trek on foot. Summerhall is south-west of the city centre and that’s also a trek. This is also where Northern Stage are based this year. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT go north to St. Stephen’s Church. Northern Stage aren’t based there any more. You don’t want to go there and discover you’ve gone in exactly the wrong direction.

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

The Edinburgh Fringe has something called the half-price ticket hut (on Princes Street, and not to be confused with the main booking office on the Royal Mile). 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 if you don’t cough up. But, on the whole, it’s cheap for you and 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 get revenue from 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 at a fringe. There are a number of problems. Firstly, you’ll notice that there’s always several productions of the same play on – it used to be Abigail’s Party and Bouncers, although lately it seems to be an infinite number Titus Andronicus productions.

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 your usual expectations.

14: Don’t be a slave to star ratings

This might be a controversial one,so I’d better explain this properly. I generally avoid looking at reviews when I decide what fringe plays to see. Being a reviewer myself, I want my decision of what to see and what I make of it to be free of influence of other reviewers – also, I want to make up my own mind of what to see rather than have someone else decide it for me. I sometimes look at reviews afterwards, but only to compare my opinion to other people’s. 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 secret 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. Reviews can be useful, but it’s not simply a matter of counting the number of stars. 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, it is ultimately one person’s opinion. Not that reviewers from broadsheets are necessarily any better at being objective – if anything, they are more likely to get the idea that their word is authoritative. You also need to be aware that at fringes, most reviewers choose which plays to see based on what grabs their attention. A reviewer who gives five stars to a play about football probably likes that sort of play – if that’s not your thing, you are unlikely to feel the same. Finally, be aware that the broadsheets tend to be stricter with their star ratings, so a three-star review in The Scotsman is still quite an achievement.

If there’s one piece of advice I want to give on how to use reviews, it’s this: treat all reviews as one person’s opinion. Okay, you can maybe give more weight to a reviewer’s opinion than a random punter on the street, but opinions of other punters count too. Most importantly, are people saying the same thing? A single review, positive or negative, could mean anything. It helps to read the review itself and not just the star rating, but unless you know the reviewer personally, it’s impossible to know if you’ll think the same thing. But lots of people are telling you the same thing, good or bad, that’s a surer sign. It doesn’t matter if the consensus is coming from reviewers, audience, other companies, or a mixture of the three: if you like the sound of a play, and multiple people are singing its praises, that’s a safe bet.

(Update for 2015: This year, one tip I’m going to add is to be especially wary of star ratings from obscure websites. Some of them are absolutely farcical and give nothing but four- and five-star ratings, either to their mates’s productions, or productions that fit the website’s own ideological agenda. There’s too questionable websites to list here, but be highly sceptical of a star rating stuck to a flyer if you don’t recognise the reviewing publication.)

15 (NEW): Please don’t buy any of this “unbored” merchandise

Okay, this isn’t so much a tip for how to enjoy the Fringe but a plea from me. If you haven’t come across the term unbored – sorry, #unbored, apparently everything needs a hashtag these days – you will soon. And you will carry of hearing it. And still carry on hearing it. Because evidently someone in marketing think this is the most brilliant soundbite ever in the history of advertising, and marketing people are always right, aren’t they?

All right, no point going on about this, I’ll only encourage them. Just ignore it and it’ll go away. But don’t buy any of this #unbored merchandise, or they’ll carry on doing it. Please.

Update for 2015: This year, it’s the not-quite-so-irritating #WTFringe. Still moderately annoying, but at least they’re not plastering this hashtag over ever single sodding square inch of Edinburgh.

And one tip for would-be performers.

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 fancy doing 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, both financially and psychologically.

And one final tip from me …

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 too seriously. Don’t turn the Fringe into an endurance test for the hell 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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