Since 1947, theatre artists and aficionados alike have traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Fringe is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and in commemoration, Playbill is looking back on how a handful of independent theatre companies inspired the largest arts festival in the world.
In the years after World War II, Austrian opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing created the Edinburgh International Festival with the intention of healing the cultural wounds in the U.K. following the devastation of the war. With a focus on classical music, opera, ballet, and Renaissance drama, the International Festival was, at least initially, designed to appeal to the highbrow tastes of the aristocracy to which Bing himself belonged. The Fringe began, quite literally, 'on the fringes' of the International Festival, when eight community and amateur theatre companies from Scotland and England came to Edinburgh without having received the formal invitation. With all of the cities major venues occupied, they took over smaller and more unusual venues on the outskirts of the city, capturing the attention of the assembled audiences with their offbeat and unusual offerings. As the years went on, the idea spread, and soon there were more theatre companies coming uninvited than there were companies that had received an invite!
The Fringe developed into an official organization in 1951, when University of Edinburgh students began to provide food and lodging to the traveling artists. Late night revues and one person productions quickly gained prominence, with many barriers between audience and artist lowered in favor of person-to-person entertainment. As more theatre companies began to show up for the Fringe, both space and time became hot commodities, and venues were soon hosting six or seven different shows per day, from dawn to long after dusk.
The variety of options at the Fringe became one of its calling cards; there was nowhere else in the world where you could take in a one-man show, an improv comedy, a Shakespearean epic, a Victorian melodrama, an original musical, and a modern romantic comedy in the same day, live and in person. International audiences, and artists, began to show up in droves, looking to be a part of the melting pot.
With many shows offering free tickets, the Fringe was also a gateway for a new generation to fall in love with new forms of theatre. As the Fringe grew, so did the investment of the people of Edinburgh; just about every arts-inclined individual from the area has worked the Fringe at some point in their life, from running box office and back of house to busking on the streets of the capital city.
The Fringe has since grown to overshadow the International Festival with which it originally competed. Edinburgh now recognizes a series of festivals that descend upon the city in August, inspired by the intrepid artistry of the original Fringe companies, and thousands of shows are presented to an ever eager audience. Some, like Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss's SIX, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, have gone on to international acclaim. Others instead exist only in the heady mixture of inspiration and aspiration that the Fringe fosters, to be seen once, and remembered for all time.
The festival’s history is one of the many exciting aspects that Playbill writers Margaret Hall and Leah Putnam will be writing about as part of Playbill Goes Fringe, Playbill’s extensive on-the-ground coverage of the festival. Excited to learn more? Check out Playbill Goes Fringe: Meet the Correspondents Who Will Cover the Good, the Bad, and the Weird at Edinburgh Fringe to find out more about how to follow along and “live” the experience with them.