Arts columnist Eugene Smith writes about the Edinburgh festivals

Street performance at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Street performance at the Edinburgh Fringe. - Credit: EUGENE SMITH

There are two Edinburgh festivals. The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947, concentrating on classical concerts, opera, ballet and drama.

What is now known as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival began in the same year, when various theatre companies decided to turn up uninvited. This shocking flouting of convention culminated in a performance of Everyman, a medieval morality play. Take that society!

The Fringe has now overshadowed its sort-of parent, and is still regarded as having a subversive, almost anarchic edge to it. Mainly by people who haven’t been for a long, long time.

Back in the nineties (as Bojack would say) its ethos was still more or less intact. Pretty much anyone could put on a show and guarantee a review in the national press, if not an audience. Rare is the Fringe veteran who doesn’t have tales of the cast outnumbering the paying customers.

It was never as guerrilla-style as some might believe, you still had to book a venue (church halls, rooms above pubs, that sort of thing), and advertise (the Royal Mile would be carpeted with flyers for weeks).

Even so, appearing at the Fringe was a genuine possibility for amateur groups of all kinds. But not any more.

So what happened? Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the punchline is “money”. While it was never free, it was affordable.

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Venue hire was cheap, and a decent run would recoup the show’s costs and sometimes even make a small profit. As with all art, there was always an element of commercialism.

Then at some point in the 2000s two things changed. The cost of renting a space to perform rocketed, and stand-up comedy became king of the Fringe.

Eugene Smith is our Hunts Post Arts and Theatre Columnist.

Eugene Smith is our Hunts Post Arts and Theatre Columnist. - Credit: EUGENE SMITH

The Fringe had always featured comedy, but for the past 20 years it has dominated the schedules. And we’re not talking about open-mic slots, we’re talking stand-ups off the telly. Often trialling their new shows, prior to touring or a London residency.

And while Edinburgh is a stunningly beautiful city, only the truly deluded would pay peak-season costs to see shows, which they could catch closer to home in the autumn. And don’t make claims about the “magical atmosphere”, unless absurd jugglers and stilt-walkers are your thing.

The true reasons for this over-commercialism are often glossed over, or lost in tiresome anti-capitalism tantrums. But the Fringe of today is the Fringe in name only.

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