Founded in 1947 in an attempt to reinvigorate post-World War II Britain, EIF sought to provide a cultural “platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. Selective in which artists it would allow to perform, those excluded from the International Festival set up their own festival, literally as a “Fringe” to the main events. Contrary to expectation, the Fringe Festival grew to be a crowd-puller in its own right, and now, as the world’s largest arts festival in and of itself, questionably overshadows its more sedate parent.
Although for most of their shared history, the two festivals have run concurrently, since 1998, they have uncoupled their dates. Most years now, as in 2010, the Fringe tends to commence at the end of the first week in August, running for a little over three weeks, with EIF commencing mid-month and trundling on into early September. When the scheduling change was first implemented, analysis at the time suggested that the Fringe may have suffered from the new dates. Now, however, it’s EIF that’s starting to feel like the odd-man-out. As Guardian critic and Edinburgh veteran Lyn Gardner recently Tweeted, “Strange to think that EIF continues to plough its lonely furrow after everyone has gone home. EIF and Fringe should see sense over dates”. Why doesn’t EIF just admit isolationism is unwise and realign themselves?
And on a similar separatist note, where does the Traverse Theatre really fit these days? It’s supposedly part of the Fringe, but it may as well switch its dates to those of EIF for as much as it enters into the Fringe spirit. In many ways, of course, it doesn’t need the Fringe. It’s a year-round theatre, with a top-notch reputation for delivering the dramatic goods that extends well beyond any August craziness.
It’s no accident that the lion’s share of Fringe Firsts go to the Traverse, particularly in the first week, or that the majority of reviews for national papers at the start of the festival are for Traverse productions – any national critic in town is booked in for back-to-back Traverse openings for the first full weekend. The Traverse simply doesn’t have to fight for attention in the way that 99.9% of the nearly 2,500 other shows on the Fringe do. And they don’t have to make do in any other way either – their performers have full rehearsal periods and you’re unlikely to see them out flyering on the Royal Mile.
Traverse audiences are often quite separate from those of the rest of the Fringe too, if only because the Traverse’s non-conformist scheduling can make it difficult to plan around. While most Fringe shows adhere to rigid daily schedules and lengths - ie they start at the same time every day and usually run no more than 90 minutes - those at the Traverse tend to be longer, to start and end at different times to other venues, making them much more difficult to plan around. All of which makes the atmosphere at the Traverse generally less frantic – and less Fringey.
It’s easy to think of Edinburgh in August (if not early September) as a microcosm of the theatrical world, as a transformation of what is normally a widely scattered community into one body, galvanised by its en masse endurance of a long-distance train journey. Unfortunately, this sense of community would seem to be something of an illusion.
- Helena Rampley & Terri Paddock