With theatre festival season very much upon us, Whatsonstage.com looks at ten of the best - from the old and established giants to the young pretenders to their crowns.

THE BIG FIVE

Edinburgh Festival Fringe (5-29 August 2011)
The king of them all, the Edinburgh Fringe is now (by some margin) the largest arts festival in the world. It all started in 1947 when seven theatre companies showed up uninvited to the highbrow Edinburgh International Festival, aiming to take advantage of the increased theatre audiences by presenting their work in other venues around the city. Since these humble beginnings it has grown exponentially to the point where it now features well over 30,000 performances of more than 2,000 shows in over 250 venues. Of those, a significant number will be laughably terrible. But there are always a plethora of hidden gems and pretty much any big name entertainer you care to mention has flyered on the Royal Mile at some stage of their career.


Manchester International Festival (30 June-17 July 2011)
Billing itself as the “world‘s first festival of original, new work”, this biennial showcase has only been running since 2007 but has made a significant impact. Presenting work from across the performing arts spectrum, this year’s programme features Victoria Wood, Willem Dafoe, Björk and Johnny Vegas, among many, many others.


National Student Drama Festival (9-15 April 2011)
Founded in 1956 by Sunday Times critics Kenneth Pearson and Harold Hobson, and NUS president Frank Copplestone, the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) takes place every spring in Scarborough, and counts among its notable alumni Harold Pinter, Simon Russell Beale, Lucy Prebble, Mark Ravenhill, Timothy West, Meera Syal and Alan Yentob.


LIFT
LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) has been going for 30 years with a stated mission to deliver “adventurous, innovative and progressive theatre for London and beyond”.  Details of this year’s line-up are still to be announced, but in an anniversary year we can expect something special - for its 25th organisers grabbed headlines by parading Royal de Lux’s 42-tonne Sultan's Elephant through the streets of the capital.


Brighton Festival (7-29 May 2011)
The annual three week Brighton Festival started in 1967 and has become a leading commissioning and producing festival which attracts, according to its website, “over 300,000 attendances each year and contributes £20m to the local economy”. This year’s festival was guest directed by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Burma peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The festival also has a formidable - and very separate - Fringe (7-30 May), currently in its fifth year, which is itself the third biggest performing arts festival in the world.

UP-AND-COMERS

Latitude (14-17 July 2011)
Established in 2006 and marketed from the off as "more than just a music festival", Latitude has become renowned for the calibre of its theatre programme, which operates alongside the event's music, comedy, poetry and film arenas (under the stewardship of arts programmer Tania Harrison). The festival, which takes place annualy at Henham Park Estate in Suffolk, showcases both new and established companies, often with bespoke productions created especially for the weekend.


HighTide (28 April-8 May 2011)
Founded in 2007 with the support of patrons David Hare, Bill Nighy and Sinead Cusack, HighTide produces emerging playwrights and contemporary theatre in the annual Suffolk-based festival. Its work has subsequently transferred nationally and internationally, including to London and to the Edinburgh Fringe. This year’s festival featured new plays by former poet laureate Andrew Motion and Adam Brace, among others.


Suspense Puppetry Festival (28 October-6 November 2011)
When it debuted in 2009, Suspense was the first festival of puppetry to take place across London for over 25 years. Aiming to “prove that puppets aren’t just for kids”, its arrival has coincided with a renaissance in puppetry in the country heralded by the mainstream success of War Horse and Avenue Q. Produced by the Little Angel puppet theatre, this is one festival that’s proud to have strings attached.


Write Now, Liverpool (15-23 April 2011)
This international one-act play festival is a real gem. Based at the Actors Studio on Seel Street in the city centre, this year’s line-up featured eight new pieces of writing featuring, in the words of festival director Ian Moore, “Everything from pirates on a Mersey ferry to two people getting stuck in John Lennon Airport.” It’s a baby of the festival world, being only two years old, but is definitely one to watch.


24:7, Manchester (21-29 July 2011)
The 24:7 Festival was devised by David Slack when he was performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2002. Inspired by the creative vibrancy of the Scottish festival, he developed a plan to bring the most exciting elements of it to his native Manchester. The first festival took place in 2004 in bars and clubs around the city centre, and it’s gone from strength to strength since. Much like its counterpart in Liverpool, Write Now, it showcases works of under 60 minutes in length, with a panel of readers whittling down the entrants to a final ten.