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Surviving the Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe, which launches this week, is so vast – and manic – that you can tear your hair out deciding what to see. But can a producer survive Fringe fever and remain sane? James Seabright, one of the festival’s most prolific producers, says you can survive Fringe fever without going bald.

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This year’s Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest ever, once again breaking its own record as the largest arts festival in the world. With 2,088 productions appearing at 247 different venues across Scotland’s capital city during August, the Fringe is as daunting as ever. And with its ever-increasing scale combined with the average visit being just a few days of the Fringe, there are tough choices to be made about which shows to see.

One of the unique aspects of the Fringe is its all-encompassing breadth, from the tiny to the epic – from the legions of unknown actors to world-famous stars. At one end of the scale, there’s emerging company Top of the World’s practically wordless production of Paperweight staged in an office in the Assembly Rooms, and at the other, the legendary Joan Rivers saying “let’s talk” in her self-penned autobiographical play Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress at the Underbelly’s Cow Barn – plus wonderful and terrible shows of all shapes, sizes and standards in between.

Fringe-goers may be spoilt for choice, but so are producers when deciding what to present. Much of my year is taken up with making these choices and then putting productions together in the hope that they arrive in Edinburgh in fine fettle and stand out from the crowd. Sometimes this requires a sideways glance at generating publicity, whether it’s getting a unique photograph at a dawn photoshoot atop Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, or turning some token backstage gossip into a local news story that might alert people to your show.

This will be my tenth Fringe outing. What keeps me coming back? What keeps me sane? Frankly, it’s the unpredictability of it all. The best Edinburgh experience is when a small show becomes the talk of the Fringe and goes on to a successful national tour or a London run. Sometimes the flipside happens, when what might have shown all the signs of being a golden hit turns out to be a leaden flop. The Fringe is a great leveller in that regard, which is part of the enduring attraction for me as a producer. I always reckon that if I can survive August then I must still be in the right business.

Decisions, decisions & more decisions

But when it comes to deciding what to see, I find it just as confusing as anyone else. I spend the whole of August in Edinburgh, but being so busy with my own shows means that I get to see no more productions than an average Fringe-goer might squeeze into a long weekend. So based on how I make my own choices, here are my tips for making the most of the Fringe.

Get a Fringe programme. You can pick up this free, 288-page bible in many theatres around the country, or for a £3.50 postage charge you can order one from www.edfringe.com/programmes. Do also check out the online listings as they’re more up-to-date than the paper programme. Some gems don’t make it into print – including one of this year’s major offerings, Steven Berkoff’s stage adaptation of the classic Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront.

Check out the big four. Although there are hundreds of venues that run performances during the Fringe, there are a handful that dominate in terms of boasting the best shows and the biggest names. This year, Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly are sharing a brochure, and - controversially -branding their comedy line-up as the ‘Edinburgh Comedy Festival’ (< a href=\"//www.EdFest.com\">www.EdFest.com), with some (but not all) of the best comedy on offer, ranging from stand-up and sketch comedy to more theatrical offerings like Stewart Lee’s new play Elizabeth and Raleigh: Late But Live.

New writing at the Traverse. Another essential venue is the Traverse Theatre, one of the few permanent venues in Edinburgh that offers a Fringe programme. Each August its two spaces are turned over to a mouth-watering range of new work from an impressive selection of companies. The Traverse’s track record means that it pays to book ahead for their biggest shows at www.traverse.co.uk.

Take in a few Highlights. The Festival Highlights (www.FestivalHighlights.com) is my own banner that this year helps audiences find a range of 22 productions across different genres and venues. So I’ll shamelessly suggest looking out for Footsbarn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will play in a big top on Edinburgh’s spectacular Calton Hill, and the premiere of My Grandfather’s Great War adapted and directed by Fringe favourite David Benson.

Get a good deal on travel and digs. If you can visit mid-week rather than at the weekend, you’ll find everything is less expensive, including your theatre tickets. The cheapest train deals are bookable direct at www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com and there’s a good range of accommodation searchable online via the official tourist board site at www.edinburgh.org, with an independent range of B&B offerings available at www.festivalbeds.co.uk. If you’re happy to stay a little outside of the city, it’s a lot cheaper, and public transport links are good and run late during the festival season.

Don’t forget the other festivals. The Fringe is just one of several festivals that run in Edinburgh during August. The other main one of interest to theatre buffs is, of course, the Edinburgh International Festival (www.eif.co.uk), which was the official line-up that first spawned the rebellious fringe, but has since been dwarfed by its offspring! Bear in mind that 2008 EIF shows - including Matthew Bourne’s take on Dorian Gray and the National Theatre of Scotland’s 365 - can also be seen in London this autumn.

More quick tips for Fringe survival

  • Don’t fill up your schedule before you get to Edinburgh. Leave some gaps to fit in wildcards based on word-of-mouth recommendations, which abound during the Fringe.
  • Avoid big queues for tickets by using phone or online booking methods and then collecting your tickets from the pre-paid window at the venue or Fringe, which normally involves a shorter wait.
  • Try out a line-up show like those presented by Mervyn Stutter, Jim Bowen or the Hamiltons. They can help you to find other interesting productions you might not have otherwise discovered.
  • Wander off the beaten track and see something different in one of the many smaller venues. For example, this year the venue Club West is presenting a festival of Asian work with some fascinating premieres.
  • Allow plenty of time between shows. With many productions sharing each theatre, it’s a regular fringe problem that shows run a little late!
  • Check out the reviews in advance. The main local papers put theirs online at www.edinburgh-festivals.com and the national press carry lots of Fringe coverage too. (Editor’s note: Plus, this year, at Whatsonstage.com we’re running our own dedicated Edinburgh microsite, including selected news, reviews and gossip as well as our communal featuring contributions from a variety of festival performers, directors, producers and other theatre practitioners and commentators.)

    James Seabright is a theatre producer based in London. You can read more about his shows at www.seabright.info. He is currently writing a beginner’s guide to theatre production which will be published by Nick Hern Books in 2009. A version of this article appears in the current July/August issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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