Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world, as I have said before. I never considered myself a fan of the theatre (yep, I spell it the English way. deal). before I went to live in the UK. I think that is because, here in the US, the vast majority of theatre that gets any attention on this side of the pond is musical theatre. I cannot possibly describe how much I hate musical theatre. Only the use of italics can lend the situation the necessary gravity. I don’t like to be sung at. I don’t like people who sing while smiling or smile while singing. I can take it in Disney cartoon form, but that’s it. When the people are in real life, and right in front of me, I want to escape, ASAP. The only musical theatre I have ever enjoyed was Rent and Wicked. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber (yep, enough to use bold). Anyway, so no wonder I dislike the theatre here.
But in the UK it’s really different. Yes, there’s the trite West End shows like Oliver and that one about Queen. And I’m sure they’re quite good if you like musical theatre. But if you don’t, then there are other options. And they are much easier to find there than in the US. There are tons of theatres in and around London, offering new plays, old plays, dramatic, comedic, historical, controversial. I went to see 12 plays during my 6 months in London. I would say I enjoyed 10 of them. None of them involved music. One was about the stock market. One was about a young, idealistic Muslim girl in the UK, one was about an American journalist (Richard Dreyfuss) forced to name his source for an article. They were all vastly different and interesting. They were also all pretty inexpensive. The thing about theatre in the UK is that it’s not such a big deal. People wore jeans. It didn’t cost $70 for each ticket, so there is more of a range of socio-economic status represented in the audience. It is just more accessible, not so fancy as it is considered here.
So now, I’m a theatre fan. If it’s that kind of theatre. Interesting, well-written, dramatic, and unpretentious. I first heard about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when I was living in the UK, from one of the other students in my program who was a theatre nut. She now works in theatre in some capacity. Unfortunately, my visa expired that June, so I wasn’t able to go. But this year, I finally went! So, based on my limited personal experience and lots of internet research, here are my tips and tricks for surviving the Fringe.
The Fringe Festival started when 8 different theatre companies who were not invited to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 showed up anyway and put on shows in small venues for small crowds. It has grown in size and attendance pretty consistently for the past few decades. This year, I don’t know if numbers have been released, but it seemed pretty damn busy to me!
The festival, because of its history, attracts weird and avant-garde performers and shows. Just be ready for anything and everything. Embrace the strangeness of it all.
Where to Stay
Edinburgh is a fairly small city, with lots of hotels and hostels. Some people even open their private homes and rent out rooms for the festival. They all seem to be booked at capacity during August, though. After all, not only are all the visitors staying in hotels and hostels, but most of the performers are too. We were able to find a hostel room at short notice, but only after an hour of internet searching. During a visit to the hostel’s pub, we were ‘treated’ with what I can only describe as a real-life version of Glee. A group of performers from Australia were singing and dancing to a selection of mid-90s pop songs. Not my favorite night in history, though that may be because an Italian man touched my hair with his cigarette-smelling fingers. If you’re fiercely antisocial, you might be better off at a hotel. Either way, aim for something in Old Town or New Town areas. Those are the most convenient to the various venues and also the tourist attractions. Anything with a view of the Princes’ Street Gardens is highly recommended, as it is a gorgeous part of the world.
What to See
There are two ways to do the Fringe, from what I can tell. 1-Plan, 2-Don’t. We did not plan. If you walk down the Royal Mile during any day of the festival, you will be accosted by approximately 5 million people handing out fliers for their shows, ghost tours, exhibits, whatever. You will have a handful of papers by the time you get your tea and muffin in the morning. There is no shortage of choice.
On the other hand, I can see the virtue in planning if you have things you particularly want to see. Or if you are just the planning type. Or if you find being handed fliers a troublesome experience. The festival website has a full program that you can order/download up to a few months beforehand. Once the schedules are finalized for the year, you can also search which shows are going on during a specific day or weekend or whatever. Warning, though, there are TONS of shows. Hundreds each day. Alphabetical order is not a great way to try to sort through.
Another word of warning. Avoid comedy shows. This mostly applies to those of us not from the UK. I wish I could find video of this, but there was an episode of the Simpsons where Groundskeeper Willie did some comedy. He said something like “Did you ever notice that people from Aberdeen hold their golf clubs like this, and people from Glasgow hold their golf clubs like this…” with accompanying motions. Get it? Me neither. That’s rather the point. Comedy is a difficult thing to translate across cultures. I am pretty aware of British culture, and have watched a lot of British shows. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get the cultural significance of ASDA when you mention it, or see why your story about buying a Cornetto is funny. There’s a big chance that I’m just not going to understand. Also, those venues in the Fringe are (or can be) very small. There’s always some chance that it’s going to be you and 2-3 other people in the audience. If you’re not laughing, the comedians can very easily see that. Also, try to sneak out and you will be heckled. In fact, you may, out of politeness, be forced to sit through an hour-long midnight show in which an Irish man rants incessantly about the IRA and government corruption. Then gets into an argument with someone in the audience about how nice Wales is or isn’t. Then complains about how the show isn’t going well, so he’s going to end it early after this next story. But then he DOESN’T. I’m just saying. Learn from my mistakes.
Another word to the wise. Sometimes the free shows are free for a reason. We only had time to see 4 or 5 shows, but the paid shows were much much better than the free alternatives. And the ones we saw that were paid were only like £5. It’s worth it.
Bring a raincoat or umbrella. It may be August, and therefore summer, but it’s still Scotland. It gets cold at night, it gets wet often.
The Radisson on the Royal Mile has a bathroom in the lobby that anyone can use. You have to go all the way through the lobby and down a set of stairs, but it’s there and it comes in handy during a long day wandering around.
There are a lot of stairs and hills. Don’t wear your platform heels or your shoes with no tread. It’s steep and they are often made of cobblestones.
There are other festivals going on simultaneously, including the book festival, art festival, and film festival. Allow some time to explore those as well. (Sadly, I didn’t heed my own advice on this one!).
Do NOT under any circumstances order a Long Island Iced Tea anywhere in Scotland. I only ordered one, in one pub, but I’m putting a blanket ban on them for the whole country. Do not assume just because it is listed on their menu that they know how to make it. Two shots of tequila and some generic-brand Coke is not a Long Island Iced Tea.
On that note, don’t expect any pub in the UK to be able to do proper cocktails. There are a few that can, but you have to seek them out. If you want something resembling a cocktail, your best bet is rum & juice or vodka & juice.
I have to say that I wish desperately that I could have had more time at the festival. The atmosphere was great, even when the weather wasn’t. The shows were fun and I was disappointed with not having more time to see all of them. People were incredibly nice, and I would go again every year if I lived less than 1000 miles away. Go if you can!