If there’s one thing that’s clear, from the huge flowering of fringe festivals in cities across the world, it’s that “fringe” is a word of many meanings, even when we only apply it to the arts and performance. When the term was first coined in 1948 to describe the eight companies who had decided to present their own shows during the first-ever Edinburgh International Festival the previous year, it referred to geography as much as anything else; most of the recognised city-centre venues were occupied by the Festival, and the eight companies appeared around the “fringes”.
Within a decade, though, “Edinburgh Fringe” had become the recognised phrase for the self-organised festival that had sprung up in Edinburgh in August; and the word began to pick up other connotations, to do with dissent from an official cultural agenda.
Many of the original Fringe companies were motivated by the lack of Scottish content in the international festival, and by its failure to reflect some of the radical movements emerging in post-war British culture, from agitprop drama to the folk music revival; they were “fringe” not only in their location and organisation, but in their impatience with the slightly stuffy cultural pieties of post-war Britain.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that by the mid-1960s, when the Fringe was presenting more than 50 different shows, this informal festival had become a huge attraction for young student theatre companies, including the Cambridge group who first opened up the space in the Lawnmarket that, in 1963, would become the original Traverse Theatre; and by the 1970s, as the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s took hold, the whole concept of fringe theatre and performance was becoming a major part of the western cultural landscape.
“Fringe”, by this time, carried meanings to do with radical and daring content, with a willingness to perform in unconventional spaces, and with a relative cheapness and simplicity of form. And although many ideas and artists from the Fringe were rapidly adopted by mainstream theatre companies and others, the idea of fringe theatre still survives and thrives all year round in cities like London and New York, as a vital adjunct to what happens on Broadway, in the West End, or in the big subsidised theatres.
All of which means that there are as many ways of interpreting the idea of fringe as there are cities on earth, and as many ways of creating a successful fringe festival. Fringes can focus on opening up new spaces, on presenting small-scale shows that challenge overblown production values, on exploring new trends in performance, on bringing international work to town, or on presenting a deliberate, in-your-face alternative to bigger festivals in the same city. Or they can do as Edinburgh has always done – and as the world’s second biggest fringe, in Adelaide, also does – and embrace the idea of a fringe festival with no managed agenda at all, which takes the ultimate radical step of welcoming any performer who wishes to appear, and just seeing what happens. This is the famous “open fringe” model; and as every Edinburgh citizen knows, it has its advantages and disadvantages, compared with the much smaller, but greatly appreciated, programmed fringes in cities like Dublin and Prague.
Its most obvious feature, of course – and the one least understood by those who issue yearly litanies of complaint about the Fringe – is that no-one, least of all the Fringe Society which offers advice, prints the programme, and runs the central box office, has any control over the size of the Fringe, which has grown from those original eight companies in 1947, to 2,870 companies this year, presenting a record 3,398 shows.
“It’s too big!” wail the critics, poring over the phone-book-sized programme, and fighting their way through the impenetrable crowds that swirl around the Fringe’s central area in August. Yet they rarely if ever suggest exactly how these companies should be prevented from coming to Edinburgh – roadblocks at the city bypass, perhaps? – or who should have the power to decide who comes and who doesn’t; perhaps because it’s pretty clear that unless the Edinburgh Fringe is to conform to the norm of programmed festivals the world over, and lose its special status as the world’s largest and most anarchic arts festival, that power should never be given to anyone.
This is not to say, of course, that there are not other problems raised by the open quality of the Fringe. As with the size of the festival, no-one has any control over its shape, its location, and the structures that grow up within it. The Fringe Society cannot deliver a Fringe with less comedy and more theatre, although claims that the Fringe has been “taken over by comedy” are statistically wide of the mark. It cannot spread the Fringe more evenly across the city, beyond offering gentle encouragement and advice. And despite the demands of some nostalgists, it cannot end the age of the huge professional supervenues – Assembly, the Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly – that have grown up within the Fringe since the 1980s, effectively programming their own vast mini-festivals of comedy, theatre and music.
And then finally – and most importantly – there is the question of cost; for the sheer scale of the 21st century Fringe means that both venues and accommodation in the city come at a huge premium, and present an insuperable barrier to many would-be performers. The Fringe is a free market in performance, and like all free markets it favours the rich; hence its predominantly white and middle-class character, its sometimes exclusive atmosphere, and the presence in the programme of huge numbers of daft or pointless shows, created by privileged people just because they can.
Yet this is a free market in short-term summer performance, not in some vital public good like health care, education or year-round cultural provision; and its riotous scale, and large element of negligible work, are the price paid for its magical qualities of unexpectedness and serendipity, and for its sheer openness – if they can only gather the support they need – to those who might otherwise go unheard.
The Edinburgh model is not the only way of creating a fringe, in other words. Yet it is still the mother and father of them all, a vital part of the world’s cultural landscape, set in a city which has found itself capable, over the last 70 years, of hosting and absorbing a gigantic international jamboree which almost literally doubles the population of central Edinburgh for three weeks in August.
Not every city wants or needs this, of course; but for Edinburgh – the shabby post-war provincial capital that suddenly found itself transformed into the world’s first and greatest festival city – the phenomenal presence of the ever-expanding Fringe has been vital and transformative, and is itself the greatest single tribute to the sheer power of the Festival idea.
Back in 1947, that idea and that dream drew creative people to the city, on their own initiative, without invitation or permission; 70 years on, it draws them still. And in a world where the transformative power of art and imagination has never been more desperately needed, that remains something to celebrate; not only in Edinburgh, but in cities across the planet where the same spirit has its moment, for a few magical weeks each year.