Scoping Out The Edinburgh Festival

FEATURE by Willard Manus

The first thing to remember about the Edinburgh Festival is that it's a misnomer. The annual August arts jamboree in Scotland's capital city should really be called the Edinburgh Festivals, if only because there are eight festivals taking place concurrently (film, books, jazz, etc.) The prestigious one is the International Festival, which, being heavily subsidized by public and private donors, concentrates on the "high" arts--symphonies, operas, dance, theatre, chamber music and solo recitals, presented by established companies and performers. It was launched in 1947 as an impetus for peace and unity in Europe after WW II.

Then there is the more brash, plebian, upstart Fringe Festival, a 60s counter-cultural response to the decorous goings-on in the plush auditoriums. The Fringe, a cultural smorgasbrod offering everything from drama to mime, cabaret, drag shows, mini-cirques, performance art, student productions and stand-up comedy, had a record breaking year in 2005, with ticket sales hitting 1,335,000 and more than 800 shows being mounted.

I had a twofold reason to attend the Fringe: I wanted to see some strong, visceral theatre--and scope out the scene with an eye toward possibly mounting a play of my own in the future.

Finding good shows to see was easy, if only because the Fringe offers theatre from morning to midnight in a slew of venues, everything from pub basements, ballrooms, dance studios, tramworks, catacombs (under the Edinburgh Castle), art galleries and hotels. Productions had even been booked into the Quaker Meeting Hall and the Edinburgh Theosophical Society!

For advice about taking part in the Fringe, I interviewed as many actors, directors and producers as I could--especially if they were from Los Angeles--and what I learned from them was instructive and sobering.

First stop was the venue where Festival Theatre USA was in residence. Formed back in 1966 by John Blankenchip, a USC emeritus professor of theatre studies, Festival USA was the first American company to perform at the Fringe. "I brought out some of my students and we did a Cocteau play, the Archie and Mehitabel musical, and a mime show," said the 86-year-old Blankenchip. "We've been back to the Fringe every year since. We've done hundreds of plays over the years, the most successful of which was Follies back in 1978 and Buried Child in 1970. The late John Ritter got his start with us, doing multiple roles during his two years at the Fringe."

Blankenchip has seen the Fringe change radically over the past five decades. "There were just a few venues at first; you didn't need much money to mount a production. Now the prices have shot way up. That includes not just theatre rentals, but food and lodging. It means we must raise money outside the university to come here. And because the Fringe is all-inclusive--anybody can put on a show; there are no restrictions or censorship--it is bulging at the seams, especially with stand-up comics, over three hundred of them. You've got to compete against them to find a place to work. I can do it because I've got a big support team behind me."

From Blankenchip I also learned that there are two options when renting a space: subletting from a venue manager or finding your own space and running it. However, at the end of the day it's up to you to secure the space and make all arrangements that this involves. Finding a venue and finalizing the rental agreement is a lengthy, time-consuming process, but as Blankenchip said, "it can't be stressed enough how important it is that you find the right venue and are happy with the financial deal relating to it."

The Fringe has become a marketplace, a big, fiercely competitive one. The cost of venues varies greatly: it may be as high as $10,000 a week or as little as $200 a week, depending on the location, the time of day you are performing, the week or weeks that you have chosen and what facilities are offered as part of the rent (e.g. ticket printing, venue publicity, quality and quantity of lights & sound, etc.) For complete information on venues and tariffs go to

Because of the vast numbers of productions, most of which operate on miniscule advertising budgets, the battle to find an audience is fought out daily in the streets. Actors and staff roam the Royal Mile, the Festival's main drag, proffering handbills, twofers, zeroxed reviews. They must compete with the buskers who turn the Royal Mile into Mardi Gras--pipers, jugglers, clowns, singers and mimes.

"Doing a show at the Fringe can be a rewarding experience and an excellent springboard," said LA-based actor/director Barold Phillips, whose solo performance in "Nymphs and Sheperds," a play about an aged pedophile looking back on his tragic life, was memorable. "But there are something like 16,000 performers at Edfest, all of whom want to be seen, taken up. If you can't afford to hire a publicist, guerilla marketing is the order of the day."

By festival's end I realized it would be impossible for me to bring my own one-man play to Edinburgh. Not only would I have to raise an estimated $25,000 to cover travel, lodging and production expenses, I would have to wage all the street warfare myself.

The Fringe is a young man's game--and an expensive and brutally competitive one at that.