A Closer Look into the World's Largest Media Festival
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world’s largest media festival, and one of the greatest celebrations of music and theatre that there is. A veritable breeding ground for culture, its unjuried selection process produces a joyfully eclectic programme of events which consumes the city throughout the month of August.
This year saw the festival’s triumphant post-pandemic return, with 3,334 shows and 3,284 street performers descending on Scotland’s capital to showcase everything from comedy and theatre to opera and spoken word. A packed day was enough to give anyone whiplash: attendees could start with a student production by hopeful thespians such as St Andrews’ Women You Know or the Durham Revue’s Deja Revue; continue with a quick stopover at the frankly bizarre comedy/cabaret/naked clown show Stamptown; and conclude with a sell-out stand-up performance from household names such as Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show, Ed Gamble’s Electric, or Rob Madge’s phenomenal My Son’s a Queer.
As the festival gardens across the city get packed away and venues go back to being what they were before (basements, streets, bars, and theatres), The Saint caught up with Rachel, a St Andrews student who spent her August working at the Fringe, in order to gain a bit of insight as to what its inner workings are like and how it shapes the cultural life of Edinburgh.
First of all, could you tell me a bit about what your role at the Edinburgh Fringe was, exactly?
I was a member of the box office team for one of the companies promoting, producing and accommodating Fringe shows. My role as a box office assistant primarily involved selling tickets, but also answering customer queries and directing customers to venues.
Could you tell me in your own words what the Fringe is?
It is a festival of arts and culture, featuring performers from across the world bringing a massive variety of different acts. It’s widely perceived to be an essential box to tick for up-and-coming comedians - for example Nish Kumar described it as “where [he] learned to be a comedian” - and it is similarly important for other genres including theatre, cabaret, circus and music.
You’re from Edinburgh, so you’ve a good bearing on the feel of the city. How do you think the atmosphere changes when the fringe comes into town?
There is kind of a sense that the city doesn’t sleep for a month. The Fringe definitely injects so much energy and life into Edinburgh. The shows run all day, with some not even starting until midnight, and a lot of clubs and bars extend their opening hours to 5am. It also definitely makes the city a lot more diverse and exciting, since the festival is attended by people from across the world.
What do you think the importance of the festival is to the city?
It is really important for the tourist industry in Edinburgh, bringing in thousands of people every summer - many of whom have never been to Scotland before. It also bears an impact on wider connected industries, like hospitality. The Royal Mile is never busier than during the month of August, and pubs and restaurants are always packed. The pandemic has unfortunately had an impact, though - there was certainly still a sense of nervousness this year from some customers surrounding the return to large venues operating at full capacity.
More broadly, what do you think the significance of the festival is to broader culture in the UK and beyond?
As I’ve already touched upon, it’s a brilliant learning ground for up-and-coming performers, giving many of them an essential opportunity for experience and exposure. A classic example is the musical Six. It was brought to the Fringe in 2017 by the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society - two years later, it opened on the West End, and last year it opened on broadway.
It is also really positive in the way that it provides a platform for minority groups - I think it is striking how many shows draw attention to feminist, queer, and anti-racist causes. It is a brilliant way to give these stories a voice in mainstream culture.
What is the best thing that you saw?
I saw musical comedians Flo and Joan’s show Sweet Release (twice!) and they were brilliant. I also really enjoyed Grubby Little Mitts - a sketch comedy show that won the Muse Award for Best Debut Comedy Sketch Show.
What is your top recommendation for anyone wanting to go to the Fringe next year?
If you can, go to as many shows as possible. To avoid breaking the bank, check out the Free Fringe for the range of free shows available, or just hang about on the Royal Mile to see a range of street performers and soak up the atmosphere.
Will you be returning next year?
Photo by Harriet St Pier