Edinburgh. I came for three days. I somehow survived the maelstrom that was Fringe Festival 2017. It was the 70th anniversary year, so of course I ended up going, how could I pass that up? What an amazing 3 days spent. I am surprised I survived it. To think what the performers and artists do to survive it, there have been documentaries made on it I am sure, and if there aren’t any, they have probably been filmed this year. So much material, so many great performances, so little time. It’s the frenzy and fun of a festival and in a historic city. What an amazing combination.
I had been going non-stop through my tour of Ireland and Scotland for two weeks already when I rolled into Edinburgh. I had spoiled myself a bit and taken my first ride on a Virgin Train, I figured since it was the end of the highlands tour for me, I may as well go out in style.
I had scheduled some days in between big cities to do touring and have some down time. I am glad that I did. Edinburgh on a regular tour, is a great capital city to visit. Big and filled with much to do. Twisty winding streets (Wynds) and closes, and too many people at times. Add the world’s largest and oldest Fringe festival and you have a massive sprawl that will take you along with it, like a storm rain flooding a river. It can be overwhelming and exciting at the same time. How do you survive 3 or 4 intensive days of plays, comedies, music, and any other creative expression in an already teeming city, with a population that can explode to 3 times the normal capacity for the city? You try to have a game plan and be ready to take things on the fly, change at the drop of a show card and impromptu is the theme.
Before my trip, I had tried to book a few plays or comedy routines by ticket online. The online database of 3000+ shows got to be a bit much, and digging through them really daunting. Because I was not a UK resident, of course I did not know many of the performers at the shows. It is an international festival and acts come from all over the world to perform there. However, after years and years of watching UK shows on rerun and late night cable, often 5 years out of date, I h ad a fairly good grasp on many of the bigger names performing. But that’s the excitement, the discovery of new talent you haven’t seen before while traveling, taking a gamble on a artist or musician. I was well rewarded.
Lesson learned, book one to two paid shows in advance only. There will be other shows that you will want to see. Decide your show budget. While there are a lot of half price opportunities on certain days, you may not be there those days. Edinburgh is expensive, so maybe 3 shows a day and allowing for food and drink may fit into most budgets. Free shows are available, and great fun, but bring a few pound coins to drop into the hat. Edinburgh is one of the most expensive touring cities and the artists and performers have to pay to stay as well.
Not sure who to book because you usually only see US or Canadian acts? If you have some favorite UK stars, plug their names in the search on the main website. Some artists on Twitter or Facebook announce they may be doing Fringe. Many people give Fringe a whirl when they are new artists or actors and many stars came back this last year for the 70th. Look at the many play boards up. By the second week people review shows by plastering stars up on some of the playbills. Take a chance. There is no perfect way to do Fringe, so just be open and let most of it happen. That’s what’s so fun.
Every spare space in Edinburgh becomes a stage during the month of August. Every church with a spare room, all music venues and clubs get divided up and reworked by some really amazing planning people. The organizers of this amazing event hopefully get to go on holidays themselves when they are done. They do a bang up job. That said, you survival depends on your mindset. For the Fringe is a twisty wild ride of a beast. And it happens outside Edinburgh Castle gates on down through the wynds. The main maelstrom is in the upper Royal Mile, and spills out both sides into Grassmarket, the pub mecca of Edinburgh. Arm yourself with a map that includes where the Closes are, the small streets that are really winding, sauntering stairs that run in between and across the main streets. These are your well welcomed escape routes. For the Fringe indeed a teeming beast, and after being in it for an hour or two, you will need to take a break and look at the rest of the city. I found that if I worked in 3 hour cycles of being in it, watching shows and performers, then retreated to closes or even hiked Arthur’s Seat, it helped keep my sanity a few times. The Fringe has a handy app that you can load and check for performances near where you are. I had a few glitchy moments with it, but it was dealing with over 3000 shows and GPS locating. Don’t worry, there is something around every corner that you can see or do, and so many you may just not make it to. Tough choices.
Acts for The Non UK Audience
If you go somewhere like the UK and try to watch their drama or comedy shows without it being trickled down from PBS or Hulu, there are a lot of actors, singers, musicians, and any other artist you can imagine that you haven’t had the luck to see in action. We get a very filtered exposure to the worlds talent. I like it raw and out there, beyond the big networks. A whole different sense of humor than in America or Canada exists and it’s quite good. The culture in the UK is nothing like how we think in the US, and there are many very talented creatives we’ve never even heard of. That’s why going to festivals like this are so great, you can see what people in another country really find funny or entertaining and get a glimpse of culture that you would never see otherwise. I went to three planned shows, and found a few free shows that really surprised me. Here’s just a glimpse.
This show was a one man extravaganza about a Scottish darts great, Jocky Wilson. It takes place in the late 70s with the man being stranded in the Nevada desert desperately trying to get to get to an exhibition match tournament. The show was a workout and Grant took us on a journey all in one night with insight into a competitive world of dart playing and why someone would pursue that dream.
With a title like that and well, I knew I was at Fringe, may as well get out there with the humor. I decided to take the gamble, with a star that had just left Scotland’s long running soap, River City, Gary Lamont. This show was hilarious and gave me great insight to the UK humor centered around UK drama shows, what we call the soaps here. There were guest spots with some celebrities I knew, like Graham Norton, and a few references to East Enders and some other drama shows I had seen over the years. But for the most part there were references to things very Scottish or UK centric, many shows and politics. But that is what made it delicious. Hearing people talk and joke about their lives in this way, even with slang you may not get, helps you to understand the Scottishness of something, and I found that after being in the country before, I got a lot of the slang said and was just so excited about the freshness of it. It’s totally in your face and that is what is so great about it. Very talented performer and I wish him well on his future projects.
The Maydays at the Just the Tonic Venue, The Caves
I walked up, there was a poster with some very Tim Burton overtones. I know, Fringe is plastered with crazy play bills, not to mention being plied with show cards everywhere you went in the city. But this one tugged at my brain. Why? Well an ensemble promising the influence of one of my favorite directors, Tim Burton. Quirky, bizarre and Gothy. You got me. The promise was fulfilled by a great troupe of actors taking a subject cue subject from the audience and building a hour impromptu storyline. This one grew out of someone’s relative working at the post office. Not boring at all, centered around a missive that goes amiss. Engaging and twistedly Burtonesque, think Edward Scissorhands meets Big Fish, and some Gothy Fringe humor tossed in. Absolutely wicked.
Edinburgh has some amazing sights to behold, and while it is difficult to get to some during such a festival, give it the chase. Edinburgh has many themed walking tours, including underground tours for the spooky at heart. It is also the inspiration for the Harry Potter novels by J.K Rowling, and now boasts some great Harry Potter themed shops. Two of which were open while I was there, but I could not get anywhere near the doors as the lines to get in were well up the block. I was truly saddened by the many hours wait to get in. I had peeked in before they had opened and was astounded at the HP gear available, but had tickets to a show. Hopefully I can manage to make it in my next visit.
Edinburgh is an amazing city with so much to offer any tourist. There are a great many free things to do, plenty of great shops, and it boasts some great vinyl stores. I strongly recommend if you go during the Fringe next year that you plan your venues in a certain area, with a few hours between shows to go out and take in the sights. If it starts to get to be a bit much, there are plenty of escapes off the Closes or nature parks along the Leith area. Survival means join in the fray, then repose in a cafe, pub, or eatery. Then with the added excursions, you will cover every inch of this great city.