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Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh International Festival is a festival of performing arts that takes place in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, over three weeks from around

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 the middle of August. By invitation from the General Director, the International Festival brings top class performers of opera, theatre, music (especially classical music) and dance from around the world to perform.




The first International Festival (and the first Festival Fringe, although it wasn't known as such until later) took place in 1947, in the wake of the Second World War, with an optimistic remit to 'provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit' and enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe. The founders of the Festival included Rudolf Bing, (then the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera Festival), Henry Harvey Wood the Head of the British Council in Scotland, and a group of civic leaders from the City of Edinburgh. The festivals have taken place every August since.

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In 1999, the International Festival moved to a permanent home in The Hub, formerly 'The Highland Tolbooth' - an architecturally remarkable building a couple of minutes' walk from Edinburgh Castle, originally built as an assembly house for the Church of Scotland. Its gothic spire is the highest point in central Edinburgh, and can be seen for many miles around.

The Festival aims to cover its costs every year. The total budget for the 2004 Festival was £6.8 million, covered by a combination of ticket sales (27%) and other earned income - broadcast fees, publications and so on (4%); sponsorship & donations (27%); and public grants (42%, mostly from the City of Edinburgh Council). Almost 335,000 people attended EIF events in 2004. 60% of these were Scottish, another 26% came from the rest of Britain, 14% came from overseas.

Besides the performances during the Festival itself, a range of education and outreach workshops, talks and lectures take place throughout the year.

The dates for the next few International Festivals are as follow: 2007 - 10 August - 2 September; 2008 - 8 August - 31 August; 2009 - 14 August - 6 September; 2010 - 13 August – 5 September

Festival venues

The principal venues of the Festival are:

  • Usher Hall (capacity 2,300)
  • Festival Theatre (1,800), primarily used for opera productions.
  • The Edinburgh Playhouse (2,900)
  • Royal Lyceum Theatre (650)
  • The Queen’s Hall (920)
  • The Hub (420)

Festival Administration

Festival directors:

  • 1947 - 1949: Rudolf Franz Josef Bing
  • 1950 - 1955: Sir Ian Bruce Hope Hunter
  • 1956 - 1960: Robert Noel Ponsonby
  • 1961 - 1965: George Henry Hubert Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood
  • 1966 - 1978: Peter Diamand
  • 1979 - 1983: Sir John Richard Gray Drummond
  • 1984 - 1991: Frank Dunlop
  • 1992 - 2006: Sir Brian McMaster
  • From October 2006: Jonathan Mills

Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe (officially the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, commonly just The Fringe) is the world’s largest arts festival. It takes place in Scotland's capital during three weeks every August.


The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is just one part of the Edinburgh Festival. In fact, there is no single Festival as such; the term is shorthand for all the discrete festivals which take place in Edinburgh from late July through to early September. Alongside the official Edinburgh International Festival (started 1947) and the Festival Fringe (1947) other roughly concurrent festivals in Edinburgh include the Edinburgh International Film Festival (1947), the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (1979), Edinburgh International Book Festival (1983), the Edinburgh People's Festival (2002) and the Edinburgh Art Festival (2005). Plus there is the ever-popular (and audible to other festival-goers) Edinburgh Military Tattoo every evening on the Castle Esplanade during August.

In addition to the summer festivals, Edinburgh plays host to a range of other festivals throughout the rest of the year. [1]

It matters little to the festival-goer which events are part of which festival, except that each festival has a separate programme (and website) and sells tickets only for its own events.

The Fringe mostly attracts events from the performing arts, particularly drama and (the big growth area in recent years) comedy, although dance and music also figure significantly. Theatre events can range from the classics of ancient Greece, Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, through to new works. However, there is no selection committee to approve the entries, so any type of event is possible: the Fringe is well-known as a showcase for experimental works which might not be admitted to a more formal festival. The organisers are the Festival Fringe Society: they publish the programme, sell tickets and offer advice to performers from the Fringe office on the Royal Mile.

Teviot Row House, on Bristo Square, Edinburgh. Run by the Edinburgh University Students' Association, seen here as a Gilded Balloon venue during the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe.


Teviot Row House, on Bristo Square, Edinburgh. Run by the Edinburgh University Students' Association, seen here as a Gilded Balloon venue during the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe.


The Fringe started life when eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. They aimed to take advantage of the large theatre crowds and showcase their own, more alternative, theatre. It got its name in the following year (1948) after Robert Kemp, a Scottish playwright and journalist, wrote during the second Edinburgh International Festival: ‘Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before … I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!’.

There was no organisation initially until students of the University of Edinburgh set up a drop-in centre in 1951 where cheap food and a bed for the night were made available to participating groups. It was 1955 before the first (not wholely successful) attempt was made to provide a central booking service.

In 1959 there came the first signs of organisation with the formation of the "Festival Fringe Society". A constitution was drawn up in which the policy of not vetting or censoring shows was set out and the Society produced the first guide to all Fringe shows. 19 companies attended the Fringe in that year. In following years problems began to arise as the Fringe became too big for students and volunteers to deal with. Eventually in 1969 the Society became a limited company, and in 1971 it employed its first administrator.

Between 1976 and 1981 the number of companies performing rose from 182 to 494. In 1988 the Society moved to its current headquarters on the Royal Mile. Since then the Society has increased the amount of technology used by introducing computerised ticketing and in 2000 the Fringe became the first arts organisation in the world to sell tickets online in real time. In 2006, over 1.5m tickets were sold for Fringe performances, and the Fringe Society now plans years in advance.

Much of the history of the Fringe has become obscure in popular terms but there is general agreement that the artistic credentials of the Fringe were established by the creators of the Traverse Theatre, John Calder, Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco in 1963. While their original objective was to maintain something of the Festival atmosphere in Edinburgh all year round, the Traverse Theatre quickly and regularly presented cutting edge drama to an international audience on both the Edinburgh International Festival and on the Fringe during August. It set a standard to which other companies on the Fringe aspired. The Traverse is occasionally referred to as 'The Fringe venue that got away', reflecting its current status as a permanent and integral part of the Edinburgh Arts scene. However, it continues to form the bedrock of drama on the Fringe at festival time.

The advent of the Fringe was not warmly greeted by some sections of the International Festival (and the Edinburgh hierarchy), leading to outbursts of animosity between the two festivals. They were particularly prevalent in the 1950s, 1960s and through into the 1970s. It has gradually disappeared, apart from the occasional flare-up. In particular, periodic attempts by the official Festival to compete with the Fringe were stopped by Brian McMaster when he became the director of the International Festival in 1991. It is somewhat ironic that their most successful attempt to compete, Beyond The Fringe back in 1960, is now wrongly thought of by many people as a Fringe show.


No history of the Fringe would be complete without a mention of the venues. According to the Fringe Society there were 261 in 2006, although over 80 of them housed event(s) or exhibition(s) which are not part of the main performing art genres that the Fringe is generally known for.

Over the first 20 years each performing group had its own hall. However, by around 1970 the concept of sharing a hall became popular, principally as a means of cutting costs. It could be possible to host up to 6 or 7 different shows per day in a hall. The obvious next step was to partition a venue into two or more performing spaces; the majority of today's venues fit into this category. This approach was taken a stage further by the early 1980s with the arrival of the super-venue - a location that contains many performing spaces. The Circuit was one of the early super-venues; it was in fact a tented “village”, including one space with room for an audience of 400, that was situated on a piece of empty ground, popularly known as “The Hole in The Ground” where the Saltire complex, which now houses the Traverse, was subsequently built in the early 1990s.

Due to legacy, close partnership and the commercial nature of their operations, the perceived super-venues are Assembly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, C venues and UnderBelly. Venues with multiple performing spaces, either on a single or multiple sites, include: Roman Eagle Lodge, Rocket, Sweet, Laughing Horse Free Festival Venues, The Holyrood, PBH's Free Fringe, Paradise Green and Zoo Venues.

Nowadays, venues come in all shapes and sizes, with use being made of every conceivable space from proper theatres (e.g. Traverse or Bedlam Theatre), custom-made theatres (e.g. Music Hall in the Assembly Rooms), historic castles (C venues), to lecture theatres (Pleasance, George Square and Sweet ECA), conference centres, other university rooms and spaces, temporary structures (The Famous Spiegeltent and the Udderbelly ), churches and church halls, schools, a public toilet, the back of a taxi, and even in your own home/place of rest.

The groups that operate the venues are also very diverse: some are commercial and others not-for-profit; some operate year-round, while others exist only to run venues at the Fringe.

From the performers' perspective, the decision on where to perform is typically based on a mixture of cost, location (close proximity to other venues is seens as a plus), and the philosophy of the venue, i.e. some will prefer a site where commercial consideration is not the obvious primary driver, a site where they will feel more comfortable and more an integral part of the venue.


Unjuried Festival

The role of the Fringe Society is to facilitate the festival, concentrating mainly on the challenging logistics of organising such a large event. Alistair Moffat (Fringe administrator 1976-1981) summarised the role of the Society when he said, “As a direct result of the wishes of the participants, the Society had been set up to help the performers that come to Edinburgh and to promote them collectively to the public. It did not come together so that groups could be vetted, or invited, or in some way artistically vetted. What was performed and how it was done was left entirely to each Fringe group”. This approach is now sometimes referred to as an unjuried festival.


Over the years this approach has led to adverse criticisms about the quality of the arts on the Fringe. Much of this criticism comes from individual arts critics in national newspapers, hard-line aficionados of the Edinburgh International Festival, and occasionally from the Edinburgh International Festival itself.

It is inevitable that with 2000+ shows there will be wide variations in quality, from the top 50 shows that can readily compete with items on the International programme in terms of professional rigour and artistic content (in their own fields), to those inevitably dire shows at the bottom. In between, there are a range of shows that will have varying appeal to festival-goers.

The Fringe's own position on this debate may be summed up by Michael Dale (Fringe Administrator 1982-1986) in his book Sore Throats & Overdrafts, "No-one can say what the quality will be like overall. It does not much matter, actually, for that is not the point of the Fringe ... The Fringe is a forum for ideas and achievement unique in the UK, and in the whole world ... Where else could all this be attempted, let alone work". Views from the middle ground of this perennial debate point out that the Fringe is not complete artistic anarchy. Some venues do influence or decide on the content of their programme, e.g. the Traverse and Aurora Nova.

A frequent criticism, well-aired in the media over the last 20 years, has been that stand-up comedy is "taking over" the Fringe, that a large proportion of newer audiences are drawn almost exclusively to stand-up comics (particularly to big comedy stars "off the telly" in famous venues), and that they are starting to regard non-comedy events as "peripheral". While it is true that comedy has been a growth area, it is still the case (but only just) that the largest number of shows are to be found in the area of drama, while dance & physical theatre are currently in rude health.

The perceived freedom to put on any show has led periodically to controversy when individual tastes in sexual explicitness or religion have been contravened. Some city councillors have gained a reputation for regularly wanting to have offending groups "run out of town". Needless to say, there have been the occasional performing groups who have deliberately tried to provoke controversy as a means of advertising their shows.

The Power of the Super-Venues

The advent of the "super venue" in the late 1970s and early 1980s has also prompted much debate. They are large venues that may contain 6 or more discrete performing spaces: the most notable organisations are The Assemby, Pleasance, The Gilded Balloon and The Underbelly (the term organisation is used rather than venue because they all now host multiple venues). It is thought by some that each of these big, central, one-stop-shops becomes in effect a "festival within the festival". By staging many well-known acts in one place it is thought that they are able to attract audiences away from the more modest (and more difficult to find and get round) venues which, by charging performing groups less, offer more "traditional" fringe events involving newcomers. Concerns over what can be seen as the disproportionate power of these super venues have been heightened by their use of corporate sponsors and various attempts to work together, e.g. the production of a programme covering their venues has been tried.

Ticket Prices

There have been concerns in recent years about rising ticket prices: in the mid 1990s only the occasional top show charged £10 per seat, while the average price was £5-£7; in 2006, prices were frequently £10+ and £20 was reached for the first time in 2006 for a show that lasted 1 hour. Some of the reasons that are put forward for the increases include: the increasing costs associated with hiring large venues; theatre licences and related costs; plus the price of accommodation during the Edinburgh Festival which is expensive for performers as well as for audiences.

In recent years a different business model has been adopted by two organisations; The Free Fringe and The Laughing Horse Free Edinburgh Fringe Festival have introduced the concept of the free show. There were 22 shows that came under this banner in 2005, growing to 69 in 2006 and 148 in 2007. Ninety percent of these free shows are comedy.

Reviews and Awards

Sources of Reviews

For many groups at the Fringe the ultimate goal is a favourable review which, apart from the welcome kudos, may help to minimise any financial losses that are suffered in putting on the show.

Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman, often seen as the 'bible' of the Edinburgh Festival for its comprehensive coverage, originally aimed to review every show on the Fringe. They now have to be more selective, as there are simply too many shows to cover, although they do see more or less every new play being staged as part of the Fringe's theatre programme because of their Fringe First awards.

Other Scottish media outlets that provide coverage include: The Herald (Glasgow), Scotland On Sunday, Sunday Herald and the Scottish edition of Metro. Scottish arts and entertainment magazine The List also provides extensive coverage.

Several organisations have appeared in recent years who freely offer a comprehensive mixture of printed and web-based reviews. They aim to cover shows that are missed by the larger organisations. They include: Edinburghguide.com, Scottish entertainment freesheet The Skinny which is known as SkinnyFest during the festival, not-for-profit ThreeWeeks,BroadwayBaby, and Chortle which is limited to comedy.

Most of the London broadsheets also review, in particular The Guardian and The Independent, while arts industry weekly The Stage publish a large number of Edinburgh reviews, especially of the drama programme.

In addition, journalists / reviewers from all over the world are in Edinburgh during the festival, and their reports and reviews appear in media outlets around the globe.


There are a growing number of awards for Fringe shows, particularly in the field of drama:

  • The Scotsman introduced the prestigious Fringe First awards in 1973. These awards are given only to new works (or new translations), and several are awarded for each of the three weeks of the Fringe.
  • The renowned Perrier Awards for Comedy came into existence in 1981 when it was won by the Cambridge Footlights. Perrier, the mineral water manufacturer withdrew in June 2006 and have been succeeded by the Scottish-based company Intelligent Finance. It is now known as the 'if.comeddies' award.
  • Herald Angels are awarded by critics of The Glasgow Herald to performers or shows who are deemed worthy of recognition. Similar to Fringe Firsts, they are given each week of the Fringe.
  • The Stage has awarded the Stage Awards for Acting Excellence since 1995. There are currently four categories: best actor, actress, ensemble and solo show.
  • In 2002, Amnesty International introduced the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award [2], the 2006 winner being Unprotected [3].
  • In 2004, the Carol Tambor Edinburgh to New York Award for best drama was introduced. To be eligible for this award a show must have received a four or five star rating in The Scotsman and must not have previously played in New York, as the prize is to put the show on in New York.
  • The List magazine's The Writers' Guild List Festival Awards appeared in 2005. The categories are: best comedy, best comedy newcomer, best theatre, and best theatre newcomer.
  • Also introduced in 2005, the ThreeWeeks Editors' Awards [4] are given to the ten things that have most excited the ThreeWeeks editors each year - these might include artists, shows, companies, venues and marketing initiatives.
  • Introduced in 2006, the Terrier Awards (hosted by The Scotsman Piano Bar) joined The Tap Water Awards (hosted by the Holyrood Tavern) as alternative awards.

High Profile Names & Shows

During the 1960s and 1970s it was fairly common for a reasonable number of high profile names to appear in theatrical productions on the Fringe. From the 1980s onwards, celebrities were more likely to be comedians although their standard of performance often varied: some giving consummately professional performances; while others could be somewhat unsatisfactory.

2003 saw the interesting development of an adaptation for the theatre of the renowned 1957 film, 12 Angry Men using well-known stand up comedians in the roles of the 12 jurors. Staged at the Assembly Rooms on George Street 12 Angry Men was directed by Guy Masterson and starred Bill Bailey and Stephen Frost. It was the "hot show" of that year. In the following year, Masterson directed a stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but quit the project before it opened [5], and was replaced by Terry Johnson. The problems continued when Christian Slater twice contracted chicken pox, and the opening was further delayed. However, tickets for the run sold out before opening. The production subsequently transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. In 2005, Masterson's

I would like to clear up one issue. Guy Masterson's production of The Odd Couple in 2005 received 80% positive reviews. Only two out of about 30 could have been perceived as "poor" with most of the criticism levelled at Alan Davies and not at the production as a whole which was extremely well reviewed. Thanks. Guy M

production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, starring Bill Bailey and Alan Davies, became the fastest selling show in the festival's history [6] despite poor reviews. The theme continued in 2006 with a production of Midnight Cowboy which failed to excite the critics and resulted in disappointing attendances. Some feel that the Fringe is not the place for any kind of high profile shows, but that it should be reserved for more experimental and independent theatre.

High profile names constitute an extremely small percentage of the performers at the festival; the vast majority are a mixture of journeymen professionals of varying experience, amateurs, and students. The Fringe showcases a great deal of local Scottish talent, with many local clubs and individuals taking part. Edinburgh People's Theatre, one of Scotland's most respected amateur theatre companies, is the longest serving Fringe participant, having taken part every year since 1959.

Use of Technology

A computerised booking system was first installed in the early 1990s, allowing tickets to be bought at a number of locations around the city. The age of the Internet eventually arrived in 2000 with the launching of the official website, which had sold over half a million tickets online by 2005. An E-Ticket Tent was introduced in 2004, allowing people to book tickets online at the festival. In the following year, a Half Price Ticket Tent was added in association with Metro, offering special ticket prices for different shows each day, selling 45,000 tickets in its first year. All major venues are now using electronic and computerised ticketing systems that are linked to the central Fringe system.

Recent years have seen the gradual introduction of mobile, audio and video technologies to the Fringe to increase the channels by which content can be distributed and feedback obtained, including:

  • The official website lets people post their own reviews and ratings for shows. In 2005 a text rating system was introduced, whereby audience members could 'text in' ratings out of 5 for shows they have seen.
  • In 2003 Sweet TV [7] became the first online TV station for the Fringe with daily webcasts of shows, performer interviews and daily news bulletins. In 2004 they linked up with web portal Yahoo! [8].
  • Festival FM was launched in 2004. It broadcasts during the festival on 87.7 FM within the city, and streams on its website from a temporary studio in Bristo Square. It features interviews with performers, reviews and competitions.
  • One of the first 'User-Generated-Content' mobile video trials was run in 2003 by Pocket Video, who ran open filming sessions for artists and acts to plug their shows, which was then aired free on 2.5G Mobile Phones.
  • The Podcast Network launched the Edinburgh Fringe Podcast in 2005. Producing a daily podcast of news, interviews, reviews and recommendations, it went on to receive a Scottish BAFTA nomination for Best Interactive Media 2005. It continued to be available throughout the 2006 Fringe.
  • ThreeWeeks has provided multi-media coverage at the Festival, sometimes piloting digital media platforms being developed by its publishers UnLimited Media. These have included an SMS ticket offer service and the provision of content for Pocket Video's Festival coverage in 2003. Since 2005 ThreeWeeks has provided podcast coverage via its website and via a WAP-enabled platform. The ThreeWeeks team also host a show on Festival FM.
  • Broadway Baby started video podcasting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006 and will be collaborating with The Podcast Network in 2007 to offer a combination of video reviews and audio features throughout the festival.

The Fringe Today

The Fringe has grown dramatically over the 60 years of its existence. Statistics for the 2006 festival which are published on the official website concluded that it was the largest festival on record: there were 28,014 performances of 1867 different shows in 261 venues, while ticket sales reached 1.5 million, the fourth year in a row that they had exceeded 1 million. In 2007 it is estimated that there will be over 2000 shows.

Of the 2000+ shows, theatre continues to be the largest genre. Comedy, the major growth area over the last 20 years, is only marginally behind and may well overtake theatre soon if recent trends are maintained. Other genres include: Dance & Physical Theatre, Music and Children's shows.

Choosing which shows to see from such a large programme can be a daunting task. However, it is possible to sample some shows before committing to seeing them. The best opportunity is afforded by "Fringe Sunday", which is held on the first Sunday of the festival when many companies, 200 estimated for 2006, perform all or part of their show for free on The Meadows. Alternatively, on any day during the festival the pedestrianised area of the High Street around St. Giles Cathedral and the Fringe Office becomes the focal point for theatre companies to hand out flyers, perform scenes from their shows, and attempt to sell tickets.

The inexorable growth of the Fringe continues to generate controversy. On one side critics who were brought up on the ethos of the early festivals become ever more convinced that the dilution of overall quality, coupled with the growth of comedy diminishes the Fringe. Another view, mainly from some of the venues, is that growth is necessary to fight off the competition that has recently appeared from other UK cities, principally Manchester, who are keen to have a piece of festival action as a means of boosting tourism. During the 2006 festival 20 venues got together to form the Association of Independent Venue Producers (AIVP). It's main role is to lobby public bodies for better publicity for the Fringe, and to seek improvements to Edinburgh's infrastructure to support increased numbers of festival-goers.

Fringe Legacy

The most significant legacy of the Edinburgh Fringe is arguably the fact that it has provided a model for unjuried festivals; the concept of Fringe Theatre has been copied around the world. The largest and most celebrated of these spawned festivals are Adelaide Fringe Festival and Edmonton International Fringe Festival. The number of such events continues to grow, particularly in the USA and Canada.

In the field of drama, the Edinburgh Fringe has premiered several plays, most notably Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1966) and Moscow Stations (1994) which starred Tom Courtenay. Over the years, it has attracted a number of companies that have made repeated visits to the Fringe, and in doing so helped to set high artistic standards. They have included: the London Club Theatre Group (1950s), 7:84 Scotland (1970s), National Student Theatre Club (1970s and various other periods), Communicado (1980s and 1990s), Red Shift (1990s), and Grid Iron more recently.

In terms of artistic form, the Fringe can legitimately be viewed as the home of 'the one man show'. While it cannot claim to have invented it, the Fringe has provided the vehicle for its subsequent blossoming.

In the field of comedy, the Fringe has provided a platform that has allowed the careers of many performers to bloom. In the 1960s, various members of the Monty Python team appeared in student productions, as subsequently did Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, the latter three with the Cambridge Footlights. Notable companies have included Complicite in the 1980s and the National Theatre of Brent. More recent comedy performers to have been 'discovered' include: Reduced Shakespeare Company, Steve Coogan, Jenny Eclair, The League of Gentlemen, Al Murray and Rich Hall.


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