How to choose a show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing various tips for punters, mainly on how to make the most of the various festival fringes. This year, I’ve not done a new article for the Edinburgh Fringe because there isn’t much that needs updating. So instead, I’m going to concentrate on a specific dilemma that punters face: how do you choose what you want to see at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Anywhere else, it’s quite straightforward. You look through the programme, pick out plays that are on at a time and place suitable to you, are affordable, and sounds like your sort of thing. Then you can pick out something from this list. You might go for the play/author/company/venue you like the best, which one has the best reviews, which one is best value for money, or whatever you choose. Regardless of what’s important to you, you make a choice. And this simple method works for Brighton Fringe, Buxton Fringe, any other Fringe, or pretty much any regional theatre scene out of fringe season. But in Edinburgh? Not a chance. Even if you want to see a play in, say, late afternoon somewhere in the city centre, you have gazillions of plays to choose from. In the time it takes you to list them all and narrow them down to the one you want to see the most, you could have seen the damn play. Which means instead you have to make hasty decisions which you may bitterly regret later. Who’d have thought choosing a play could be so complicated?

So here to help you is a list of possible techniques that can be used to pick shows in a realistic timescale. There is no single correct method, and what suits one person won’t suit another. But if it helps anyone make the most of their fringe, that’s a good thing.

Before we begin …

Prior to suggesting different methods, I’m going to do some expectation management. Even if you know what you’re doing 100%, no method is perfect. Here are three inescapable truths about the Edinburgh Fringe:

  • No matter how carefully you choose your shows, you will see something god-awful. (Even if you only see shows that have great reviews, or shown at highly selective venues, eventually you will see some piece of absolute shite that inexplicably is praised by reviewers and has a headline slot in a major venue.)
  • You will be spoilt for choice, and you will have to give something a miss that you really liked the sound of.
  • There will be a show that you would loved to have seen if you’d known how good it was, but you didn’t. Either you made a wrong call and gave it a miss, or you didn’t even consider it.

That is going to happen no matter how hard you try to avoid it. But there is one upside to this:

  • Eventually you’ll see something that you only have so-so expectations of, and it will turn out to be brilliant.

That’s all part and parcel of the Edinburgh Fringe. But you can increase your chance of seeing the good shows and reduce your chance of seeing the bad ones. Or you can concentrate your efforts on seeking out unexpected gems. How can you do it?

Methods worth considering

So, with that big disclaimer out of the way, here’s a list of methods you might want to consider. There is no right or wrong answer here, only methods that may or not be for you. Methods like:

Method 1: Lucky dip

The simplest answer to the question of finding a good show is quite an easy one: don’t even try. Just pick out any old show and see what you get. You can stick a pencil in a fringe programme if you like, but a more practical method is to find a show near you, using the daily guide, one of the fringe mobile apps, or just walking into the nearest venue and seeing what’s on. Narrowing it down to a few things on and picking the one that looks the best is permitted. You will then see a show that could be great, mediocre or abysmal.

It’s best to treat any outcome as a success. If the show you saw truly was dire, well, think of the amusing anecdotes you’ll have for later. And if you’re a writer or performer yourself, this is a good exercise is thinking what went wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistakes. But if it’s good – believe me, nothing beats the thrill of seeing a brilliant show that you had no idea existed until a few minutes before you saw it.

Recommended for: Everyone to try at least once; idealists who want every show to be given a fair chance.

Not recommended for: Someone who’s already seen three abysmal shows in a row and can’t face a fourth.

Method 2: Be flyered

Possibly the most fun way to decide what show to see is to turn up to the Royal Mile (or any other busy location in Edinburgh) and let people come to you with their shows. Flyers will tell you a lot more about shows then entries in a fringe programme, and you can actually talk to the performers about their plays. That is a big difference from conventional theatre where talking to actors in the street is almost unheard of. There’s also plenty of performers finding every method under the sun to get your attention. It might be costumes, it might be characters in character, or it might be something completely random. I remember at my first fringe two men ran along with a giant chest full of rubber chickens shouting “move along, nothing to see here!”

There’s also plenty of groups who do excerpts from their shows. It’s nearly all music (they’re really the only people who can be heard about the noise), so it’s not that useful for theatre selection, but it is nonetheless part of the experience.

However, do be prepared to reach the point where you get sick of it. For every group that does something interesting, there are three who do something predictable. Common offences include lying down in the road (oh, puhlease), reciting stuff about their show by rote, or – worst of all – paying other people to recite stuff about their show by rote. Also be aware that you will get more flyers for shows than you can possibly see. Quite apart from the amount of paper, once unfortunate effect is that you will have to disappoint most of the hopefuls pitching their show to you. But it’s a tough world, this Edinburgh Fringe.

Recommended for: All fringe newbies, naturally sociable people.

Not recommended for: Cynics who’s seen it all before; environmentalists with issues over paper wastage; anyone prone to guilt-trips.

Method 3: Reviews

Get other people to tell you what the good shows are. Surely you can’t go wrong there?  Surprisingly, this is far more complicated than you might think. From week 2 of the fringe onwards, you can expect lots of flyers to have at least one four- or five-star review stapled to them, but when you notice the sheer number of shows with a four star review from one place or another, it can look a bit suspicious. The main things you need to know about reviews are:

  • Most fringe reviewers will send along someone who is interested in that sort of play. This means that a five-star review of, say, a piece of physical theatre, is not necessarily going to appeal to you if that’s not your thing.
  • Different reviewers have different opinions. It is not unusual for the same show to get reviews from two stars to five from different shows.
  • You should be especially wary of any reviews from publications you don’t recognise. It might be a perfectly fair review, but some of these sites are complete farces that give nothing but four- and five-star reviews – either to their mates, or shows that fit some particular ideology.

There’s a good guide to how to use reviews on Fringeguru’s old site (don’t know why it’s not on the new one), but if there’s one tip to take from this it’s to read the review itself and don’t just go on the star rating. (One side-effect of this, of course, is that it takes away some of the surprise.) Most of all, try to look for consensus. A single review, good, bad or lukewarm, could mean anything. But if lots of reviews are saying the same thing, that’s quite a reliable way of telling what’s good and what’s bad

Recommended for: People who want to see the hits and avoid the turkeys (and are aware of the ins and outs of reviews).

Not recommended for: People who shun spoilers; people who insist on making up their own mind; gullible people.

Method 4: The half-price hut

The half-price hut is a fringe-managed box office where shows have the option of selling tickets at – yes, you’ve guessed it – half price. You might think that anything that needs to sell tickets at half-price can’t be that good if they need more sales. But, in practice, it doesn’t work out that way. I’m sure there’s all sorts of complicating factors in play over what goes the the half-price hut, but the end result is that shows on sale from the half-price hut are about as equally likely to be good or bad as any show on sale at full price.

There’s still a lot of shows to choose from at the half-price hut, but it’s a good way of narrowing down your choice at a certain time to something manageable. Ultimately, you can treat this as a variant of the lucky dip method – your chosen show could be excellent, average or terrible, but at least you only pay half price for it. The only snag is that you will probably rule yourself out of some of the really popular shows that are selling well. But if you’re happy to give something you don’t know a try, you may as well give it a whirl.

Recommended for: Punters on a tight budget; anyone who likes the lucky dip method.

Not recommended for: Anyone who wants to go to the most popular shows.

Method 5: The supervenues’ joint programme

A recent development of the fringe is that four of the “supervenues” (the largest chains than manage lots of spaces) have been working together quite closely. It started when Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly and Gilded Balloon created a controversial brand of the “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” – controversial because, amongst other reasons, it implied that comedians in other venues weren’t part of the Edinburgh Festival. That brand has now been discontinued, but the four venues still work together, such their agreement to sell each other’s tickets. One particular thing they kept from the “Comedy festival” was the joint programme for all four venues’ shows (and, sometimes, a fifth venue chain, Just then Tonic).

If you prefer the mainstream fringe, this programme is a convenient way of choosing shows. They are listed in order of time, so you can expect a choice of 10-20 shows at a particular time all on the same two or three pages (rather than flicking through the main fringe programme where the alphabetically-sorted shows are all over the place). These four supervenues are considered to be harder to get into, so it’s unlikely you’ll get many shoddy amateurish productions here – although they may still be horribly pretentious. Be aware, however, that these supervenues tend to be pricier than the smaller venues. And if you’re looking for emerging grassroots theatre, you won’t find it here.

Recommended for: Fringegoers after safe bets and established acts.

Not recommended for: Fringegoers on a budget; fans of grassroots fringe theatre; anyone who objects to the power of the supervenues.

Method 6: Programmes of individual venues

As well as the supervenues’ programme described above, most other venues and venue chain also publish their own programmes detailing what’s on at their venues. These programmes, of course, will be aimed at saying how brilliant all of their shows are and why you must come and see them all. In general, this is a method I’d only advise for veteran fringegoers – the differences between different venues is mostly subtle, and to the untrained eye, some venues might as well be a cross-section of all the fringe shows going on.

However, some venues have more prominent difference than others, and many of these venues can be considered festivals in their own right. Here’s a list of some of the venues with their own distinct characteristics:

Bedlam Theatre: The most prominent of the small venues, this converted church is a theatre for Edinburgh University Student Union most of the year. In fringe season, they host the odd production of theirs there (quite good for student theatre, in my opinion), but most of the spots go to other acts. They are spoilt for choice, the acts tend to be good but – interestingly – they like to keep themselves new, and they expect last year’s acts, however successful, to move on. They are also famed for their chocolate brownies.

Assembly Rooms: Not to be confused with Assembly. Being located in the New Town, out of easy walking distance of the main hub, the Assembly Rooms concentrates quite heavily on plays that will appeal to Edinburgh locals. So you can expect quite a bit of local interest, and it’s also a popular venue for the Made in Scotland Showcase. Be warned that this venue is a little pricier than average, and popular shows are liable to sell out, so buy early if this is your thing.

Hill Street Theatre: Also knows as Hill Street Solo Theatre, you won’t be surprised to know that this venue’s programme consists entirely of solo theatre. I’ve also found the standard to be quite good. Well, do you like solo plays or don’t you?

Greenside: This is a venue a little bit out the way, but not too far enough to be a massive trek. They seem to have an even spread of programming in their fringe, and nothing too different from the next venue. However, with it being a little out of the way, it’s a more relaxed venue and the tickets are a little cheaper. Good option for anyone who wants the Edinburgh Fringe without the full intensity.;

Traverse Theatre: Most of Edinburgh’s permanent theatres host the International Festival, but the Traverse makes itself part of the fringe. They are a year-round new writing theatre so their plays tend to be ones that fit into the overall artistic vision. The plays tend to be higher-budget fully professional ones. Like Assembly Rooms, it’s pricier, shows and liable to sell out, and it’s out the way. Unlike most venues, their plays tend to have different time-slots on different days. I recommend getting a morning slot if you can, because they’re the cheapest and least likely to sell out.

Summerhall: Hmm. Summerhall is another year-round arts venue, occupying a former medical school. Like the Traverse, they have a programme heavily influences by their tastes, but it’s an interesting one. They have quite a lot of interest in “experimental theatre”, but also a lot of interest in science, and their venue is one of the quirkiest. Be warned, however, they sometimes develop a reputation of being too big for their boots, and they can sometimes be uncomfortably pretentious. Make of it what you will.

Northern Stage: Used to be set in St Stephen’s Church in the new town, now located in Summerhall’s grounds but keeping their own artistic programme. This is an outreach project from the Newcastle-based theatre of that name, and aims to host theatre groups from across the north of England. You can again expect high professional standards, although I’m not sure it’s a fully representative of the north of England. With the north lacking any kind of open-access fringe festival, it does tend to be a bit cliquey. But it’s certainly a distinctive programme.

Forest Fringe: Finally, one venue that’s quite highly thought of amongst other performers is Forest Fringe. This has quite a different business model that expects performers to muck in and keep the venue running, but for you as a punter you can expect an innovative and experimental programme – although, like Summerhall, it is at risk of crossing the line into pretentious.

(One other thing I must regretfully point out: there were people high up in Summerhall and Forest Fringe who supported last year’s disgraceful campaign to censor what other venues could perform. I’m not quite into an outright boycott of these two venues, but it puts me off quite a bit.)

Ultimately, this method works best if you have venue whose tastes are the same as yours. And that can take some time to work out. But this approach works for some.

Recommended for: People whose tastes match those of a certain venue.

Not recommended for: Anyone who hasn’t got their head round which venue is which; people who want the full diversity of the fringe (and, in two cases, people who have a problem with that venue’s attitude to censorship in an open arts festival).

Method 7: The free fringe

Alternatively, instead of browsing the programmes of the paid venues, you can browse the programmes of the free venues. Like the half-price hit, it’s easy to believe that anything that’s free can’t be any good, but in practice that’s not the case. You do need to be aware that, unlike the half-price hut option, in the free fringe you will have to make sacrifices. Almost all the venues are back rooms of pubs or something similar. Very rarely do you see a space with a proper sound or lights system. As a result, the free fringe is dominated by comedy – after all, if you’re a grass-roots stand-up comedian, where better to perform than the back room of an Edinburgh pub?

You don’t get much theatre at the free fringe, but there are still some excellent examples of free fringe theatre around. A lot of the acts in the free fringe aren’t officially part of the Edinburgh Fringe – they forego the entry in the brochure to save on the registration fee. However, there a a number of issues with this bargain basement business model – landlords of their spaces mess performers around, and performers with low overheads are liable to cancel without any notice. And finally, do be aware that the free fringe isn’t totally free – you are expected to “donate” a fair amount, on pain of being glared at very harshly.

Recommended for: Punters on a very tight budget; fans of the most grass-roots performances (especially comedians),

Not recommended for: People who don’t like being messed about, anyone who doesn’t get that the free fringe isn’t totally free.

Method 8: The hardcore method

I wouldn’t suggest this one were it not for the fact that some people seem to do this. If you don’t want to make decisions on the fly whilst in fringing, you’ll have to painstakingly plan the whole thing in detail months in advance – but some people actually do this. They draw up detailed schedules of what to see when, and have all the time in the world to plan everything they want to see on whatever detailed criteria they set.

These tend to be the people who also think that anything less than 8 plays per day is for wimps. Which is all very well if that’s what you want to do, but don’t forget the fringe is supposed to be fun. Unless your idea of fun is exhausting yourself over your entire visit, pleased don’t feel obliged to keep up with the people doing this. No-one will think any less of you if you just choose shows on the fly like everyone else.

Recommended for: The most hardcore of hardcore fringers.

Not recommended for: Everyone else.

Afterword

There is of course the question on whether it’s healthy for the fringe to be this big. Few people would suggest the people should be given less choice in Edinburgh for their own good, but there are a number of problems with demand from so many groups outstripping the supply of venues. I would never back forcing a limit of who can take part in Edinburgh, but I wonder if it would be better if we could persuade 20% or so of the groups to pursue other opportunities, such as the other festival fringes. But that’s a debate than can rumble on elsewhere.

Anyway, there’s eight methods for you. You can of course mix these methods. For what it’s worth, I tend to use a combination of 1, 2, 3 4 and 7 – and, of course, I have shows I’ve been invited to review too. If anyone has any other approaches, I’d be interested to hear them. You never know, if I like your method, I might add this to the list.

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