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Festival Countdown: Assembly Rooms Founder William Burdett-Coutts' Edinburgh

Born in Zimbabwe, William Burdett-Coutts began his career as a theatre director in Scotland in the late 1970s before setting up the Assembly Rooms in 1981. Since then, the Assembly Rooms has gained a reputation as one of the most prestigious venues at the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, sometimes referred to as the “National Theatre of the Fringe”. In 2007, the Assembly Rooms was joined by several new venues which resulted in Burdett-Coutts being responsible for 144 shows from 22 countries playing over 2,826 performances and selling more than 700,000 tickets.

Outside of Edinburgh, amongst other roles, Burdett-Coutts has also run Glasgow’s Mayfest and the Channel 4 Sitcom Festival, launched the Brighton Comedy Festival and Manchester’s Festival of Arts and Television, and acted as head of arts at Granada Television and chairman of Faze FM radio. Since 1993, he has also been artistic director of west London’s multi-arts complex, Riverside Studios.

When was your first Edinburgh Fringe & what took you there?
I first came to Edinburgh in 1979. We had planned to do a production of Paradise Is Closing Down by the South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys and had this booked into the Young Vic in September. At a dinner someone pointed out this was just after the Edinburgh Fringe and why didn't we try and do the show there as well. So we did and I was sent off to Edinburgh to work out how to do it. We put the show on at the Old Chaplaincy Centre. That was 30 years ago making this my 31st festival in a row.

What’s been your most memorable Fringe experience since then?
Zak Matalon. In the early years of Assembly he brought what purported to be a new Broadway musical to the Fringe. It was a nightmare from the start and he threatened to sue everyone in sight from the Fringe Office to our technical crew. Unfortunately, towards the end of the festival he had created such bad feeling that the show was pelted with raw eggs. Unfortunately, our lawyer was in the auditorium and got hit on the back of the head.

How has the Fringe changed since you first attended?
It has changed out of all proportion. When I started it was a relatively small and friendly affair driven more by goodwill than anything else. It’s now turned into the biggest showcase in the world for live work, and inevitably, the stress of the very scale of it has made it far more competitive. Also, when I started, the Fringe was very much the poor relation of the International Festival; people used the analogy of the Fringe being the carriage pulled along by the train of the main event. Today the Fringe is way bigger and has become an amazing nurturing ground for new talent and work and feeds into every part of the arts and entertainment industry; and which attracts massive audiences.

What’s the biggest challenge for the 2009 Fringe?
The greatest challenge of every festival is just to survive. Despite the fact it has been all going so long, in fact the Fringe remains an extremely fragile organism. If we don't attract the public, we don't earn enough money and we can't afford to make the programme exciting. The most important thing for me is always to try and generate great work. The panorama of the festival takes in young students through to the best opera in the world. Assembly sits in the middle ground between the Fringe and the International Festival, and our aim is to create a fantastic programme of theatre and comedy.

What are you most looking forward to about the 2009 Fringe?
It starting. A new festival is always an enthralling discovery because you never know until it starts quite how it’s going to go.

How would you advise keen theatregoers in particular to get the most of the Assembly Rooms programme?
My advice to everyone is always wait till three people you trust have told you something is good, then go. That said, inevitably I am bound to say that the best work is to be found in the Assembly Rooms and the Assembly Hall and if you never leave these two buildings you'll have a great time.

What’s your top tip for surviving - and getting the most out of - the festival?
The rule I always try and set myself is not to drink, which is way easier said than done. One always ends up on the go for more hours of the day than is imaginable and it’s hard not to resort to some sustenance. Drink good whisky, if you have to, because you never get a hangover. But also don't see too many shows. My view is three a day is sensible because then you stand a chance of remembering and appreciating what you have seen.

And, beyond the festival, what’s your top Edinburgh city tip?
Explore the city because it has one of the most fascinating histories of any place in the world, but also take in a lot of good restaurants. For something special, go to Oloroso because the view of the castle is wonderful.

The 63rd annual Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, runs this year from 7 to 31 August 2009 and involves an estimated 18,901 performers from over 60 countries presenting 34,265 performances of those shows in 265 venues. For full coverage of Edinburgh 2009, including more countdown interviews as well as news, gossip, reviews, blogs, features and video throughout the festival, go to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009. And for further details specifically about the Assembly Rooms’ programme in August, visit www.assemblyfestival.com.