5 Pivotal Moments in the History of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe 5 Pivotal Moments in the History of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

With more than 75 years of artistic excellence under its belt, the Fringe has had its fair share of watershed moments.

Arts festivals, like artists, are always evolving.

As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe prepares to enter its 76th summer season, we're looking back at 5 pivotal moments in its illustrious history that reshaped the beloved festival as we know it.

Students Set the Stage in 1951
While the Fringe began life in 1947, everything changed in 1951 when a group of students from the University of Edinburgh decided to come together in support of the event, creating a drop-in centre at a local YMCA where they provided cheap food and a bed for the night to traveling artists. In time, this youth-led organization would formalize into what became the Fringe Society, which continues to support the Fringe to this very day. It's amazing what can be accomplished from the foundation of human kindness!

John Cairney Brings Back Robert Burns in 1965
While solo shows had existed on the Fringe before 1965, it was John Cairney's masterful take on Scottish poet Robert Burns in There Was A Man that catapulted the practice into the mainstream. Known as one of the greatest recitalists in the English speaking world, Cairney breathed life into the centuries-dead Burns, carving out a space for literary work at the festival that remains to this day. While Burns holds less name recognition in the United States than he does in Scotland (you may be familiar with his poem-set-to-music "Auld Lang Syne"), his artistic influence can be felt throughout the Fringe. If it's your first time visiting, make sure to stop by the free Writers Museum of Edinburgh right off of the Royal Mile to learn more!

The Festival City of 1983
In 1983, the Fringe joined forces with the International Festival, the Royal Military Tattoo, and the Film Festival to establish Edinburgh as the Festival City. The moniker stuck, and now the city fosters a rich variety of festivals throughout the year, turning Auld Reeky into an official haven for creatives. The city has even received official UNESCO status as a world heritage site for writers and artists! If theatre, comedy, film, or music aren't your beat, why not try out the Book Festival, the Art Festival, or more?

The Comedy Explosion of 2008
While comedy had been a substantial part of the Fringe since the mid-20th century, it came for the crown in 2008 when the number of comedy acts presented by the Fringe came to surpass the number of theatrical productions, with 660 comedy entries to 599 theatre. Several these comedy shows, ranging in style from stand-up to improv to sketch, have learned a thing or two from their more traditionally theatrical compatriots, with dramatic tendencies working their way into many a set. And cabaret, the genre that blends comedy and theatre into a musical performance art, has reached significant prominence at the festival. 

Return from the COVID-19 Shutdown
Since 1947, the Fringe had not missed a single year of performances until the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown made such an internationally vibrant, thickly populated, in-person performance event impossible. After a limited return in 2021 to test the waters, the Fringe roared back to life in 2022 with nearly 50,000 performers returning to Edinburgh, and more than 2 million tickets sold to intrepid audience members. Now, the Fringe is gearing up for an even bigger 2023; will you be joining?

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