I am a snob.
Five years into my association with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and having just completed the second successful Festival with the venue company I co-founded and manage, I admit this: I have to grit my teeth to keep from correcting the lovely, hard-working, earnest, theatre-loving, innovation-encouraging people involved with other fringes when they use the phrase “fringe festival”. I don’t want to belittle anyone’s festival–god knows I know what it takes to produce a thing like that. But I do think we should know the meanings of the words we use, so let’s take a moment and check in with some history.
In 2012, there are festivals all over the world using the name “fringe”, and many people know that the concept started in Edinburgh. But how? Here’s how. In 1947, to raise spirits in the aftermath of WWII, in one of the world’s great intellectual and arts centres, a committee began to plan a festival. The Edinburgh International Festival. They invited applicants to submit their works, and they accepted the best opera, ballet, theatre, and music. Among those not selected, however, were eight theatre companies with (as it turned out) remarkable determination. Those eight companies decided they would go to Edinburgh anyway, and do their shows at the Festival. On the edges of the Festival. That is to say: on the fringe of it.
So look: while around most of the world the term “fringe festival” denotes an annual festival of new works, often with a quirky edge to them, here in Edinburgh, the Festival Fringe has never referred to style or content in the slightest. You can find classics on the Fringe; you can find new writing; you can find ballet and modern dance and aerialists and marching bands with tap dancers. Now the largest part of the still-mighty Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe is nonetheless the outsider’s festival, for those who decide to put on a show in a barn that just happens to be in Edinburgh, because this city of brooding rain-dark stone is the mightiest of arts cities, at least in August. The Fringe is what happens on the edge of the juried, highbrow International Festival, an extravaganza of undiluted creative impulse that ranges from Shakespeare and Strindberg to any ridiculous thing you can dream up to put onstage.