The Edinburgh Festival Fringe welcomes shows from all over the world. This year, there were around 3,500 individual shows presented at the Fringe. Of those 3,500, 386 were from American artists. And it's safe to expect that number to grow in the future. Naturally, when there's that many American artists in one place producing shows, an entity like Playbill will follow to see what all the buzz is about. After all, Edinburgh birthed works like Six, Fleabag, The Shark Is Broken, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. We weren't the only American publication there this year. The New York Times sent two critics to cover the festival.
Clearly, there's a growing American interest in the Fringe. As a reporter who has been writing about theatre for over a decade professionally, I have always wanted to go to the Fringe. But it seemed so intimidating and expensive—flying across an ocean, for theatre? I'm not made of money. And besides, how can I choose what to see out of thousands of shows so that it's worth the money for me?
But this year, I got to realize a longtime theatrical dream for myself. The Playbill staff were able to spend the entire month in Edinburgh. I was there for three of those weeks; I saw 26 shows and wrote about 99 percent of them (the remaining 1 percent I paid money for and saw for fun). I did the theatre journalist equivalent of a marathon. And I have learned why the Fringe has been such a beloved institution for artists and audiences for the past 76 years.
One is a question of economics. It is just, by the numbers, cheaper to produce a show at the Fringe than in other major metropolitan areas—especially if you're an artist who is self-producing your show (meaning you're paying for the venue, the production costs, the marketing, travel, and lodging yourself). One New York-based artist I spoke to says putting up her show in Edinburgh cost a third of what it does in New York—and that includes the money it costs her to house herself and travel there. Because the Fringe is not curated, if you have the money and can find an available venue, you can be a part of the festival.
Some artists were generous enough to give Playbill the hard numbers for how much their shows cost. The Canadian team for God Catcher—Cassie Muise and Tyler McKinnon—said their total costs was £40,000 (for a musical with a multi-person cast). Another multi-person musical, Dusk, cost $25,000.
As The Shark Is Broken director Guy Masterson told the Scotsman, "The Fringe remains the one place on Earth where you can get more producing bang for your buck. If we were to have premiered The Shark in London, it would have cost us at least three times more and likely lost us a leg as well as an arm." Masterson would know, he's produced at the Fringe for 29 years.
A Strange Loop's Larry Owens, who had a one-man show at the Fringe, posits that the Fringe can be a way for experimental theatre artists to have an audience for their work, especially since it has become prohibitively expensive to produce such work in New York and many longtime Off- and Off-Off Broadway institutions are closing their doors. "It's so important to have these spaces and it's so sad that New York doesn't have them," says Owens. "And if the artists start coming here, I think [producers in New York] will see how important it is. And hopefully, our institutions can rebound."
Granted, that's not to say it's easy for artists to self-produce—all of it depends on the generosity of family, friends, and their ability to write a good grant proposal to get some award money. As New York-based experimental theatre duo Natasha Roland and Xhloe Rice told Playbill in a joint statement, "We joked that if we had known our first year how hard the process of getting here was going to be, we would have never committed to going." They then added, "but we wouldn’t change it for the world." It's a lot of money, but for many, it seems to be money well spent.
But besides economics, it's also reach. According to the Edinburgh Fringe Society, which provides resources for artists looking to produce at the Fringe, there were 1,359 accredited producers, programmers, bookers, talent agencies, festivals, and other industry professionals from 49 countries at the Fringe in 2023. And there were 840 outlets covering the Fringe—which included official outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times, The Scotsman, and yours truly. But it also included independent bloggers. But overall, that is a gargantuan amount of coverage, especially compared to New York, where you are lucky if you get one outlet to write about your Off-Off Broadway show.
Comedian Maria deCotis confirmed this for me, saying, "The Edinburgh Festival is a chance to get your show reviewed in ways that you couldn't if you just did a run in New York—it might be hard to get people to come out to see it or review it. But here, there's so many reviewers, who are around and who you have contacts for. And so you can at least get one good review and bring that back with you." DeCotis didn't get just one review, she got a pile.
Back home in New York where theatre is year-round, the stage is competing with film, television, and even social media for audience attention. By contrast, a funny thing happens to you when you go to Edinburgh. Because you are there to specifically see theatre, you make sure to see as much theatre as you humanly can. I knew producers who saw six shows a day while they were in Edinburgh. And there was an openness to a wild concept (such as a musical set in a bathroom) or a wild venue (such as a comedy show in the basement of a bar).
There was no expectation of seeing an overly polished or overly produced show. When productions only had a few minutes to set up their show and take it down after in order to make room for the next show coming into that venue, you can't disguise a play with production value. Here in Edinburgh, theatre goes back to the basics: storytelling, performance, and a hungry dream.
And because tickets are only, on average, £12, there's a forgiveness on the part of the audience when you see a show that doesn't quite work. Oh well, you think, that was only £12 and hour of my time—I'll just go see something else.
Despite the formidable barriers to artistic success—international travel, foreign audience, fast set-up and strike time—a majority of the work I saw at the Fringe, I would whole-heartedly recommend to any theatre lover. Having been to other Fringes in the U.S., I had expected works to be a tad half-baked, a tad messy, more duds than hits. But what I, and the staff at Playbill, were surprised by was: We liked a lot of things.
That's because the Fringe isn't a place to premiere the first iteration of a show, it is the place to present the most polished version of the show as can exist at a low-budget level—many of the American shows had premiered in the States before going to Fringe. For these artists, going to Fringe was a way to put their work in front an even wider audience, in hopes that someone there will want to take that project to the next level. This meant that there were no half-baked ideas here, the work had to be as ready for primetime as possible.
And seeing all those works—from a solo show about a serial killer, to a musical about a murder mystery podcast—it was invigorating to me as a theatre lover. Because here was an unrelenting fountain of human creativity. The modus operandi wasn't to make as much money as possible. The whole reason to put on a show at the Fringe for a low ticket price of £12 is to see if there is an audience for it. There are no price barriers to entry, so it's a true test of concept: Can your show stand on the strength of its idea and its artistry?
The Fringe is what happens when artists are given money and their imaginations are allowed to run wild. At the Fringe, any show is possible. And anything was possible—you could be performing to one person one night and sell out your show the next.
In short, the Edinburgh Fringe was the craziest theatrical experience of my life. I can't wait to go back.
To read more of Playbill's on-the-ground coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe, click here.