A healthy dose of Edinburgh Festival skepticism

This article is from 2008.

Kirstin Innes' festival blog

Today and tomorrow are the sort-of starts of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Although of course the official opening is Saturday. I think. The Art Festival opens tomorrow, properly, as does the newly-minted Comedy Festival, and the Book Festival kicks off next week. Is there a Jazz Festival, too? There is, says my colleague in the music department, and it began last fortnight. And we had the Film Festival in June this year, the EDGE Festival is on and neither the Mela nor the Festival proper start for another two weeks.

It’s all academic if you’re a journalist, anyway. The first Fringe show press release - full of hope, promise and attention-seeking grammatical errors - arrived in our inboxes in about April, and we’ve been wading through them at an increasing rate (peaking at 37 in a day) ever since. We’ve been writing about the Festival for months. We’ve been TALKING about the Festival for months. We’ve been saying the word, Festival, over and over again, and it’s become devoid of meaning. Festival. Festival. Festival. Fetsiavl. Efstalvi. The fatigue has already set in.

This is my sixth Edinburgh (Fringe/Art/Jazz/Book) Festival(s) working: four years as a press officer or show promoter, two as a journalist. You could make it nine if you factor in sixth year and student summers spent sweating into the nachos at the Gilded Balloon late-night cafe, back when it was still on the Cowgate; twelve-hour shifts avoiding the wandering jazz hands of Oxbridge revues. Round it up to ten if you count a local children’s theatre production of Bugsy Malone at Tollcross Primary School, hastily renamed Venue 3,4963,7561 by a cardboard sign strapped on the railings. Jailbait lipstick, purple satin pillowcase-as-flapper-frock, five whole speaking lines and a grand total of eight audience members not directly related to the cast (actually, what were they doing there? Ach, the 80s were a more innocent age).

So. My sixth/ninth/tenth, not counting years and years as a regular punter. And I’m not even what you’d consider a proper Festival veteran. A lot of my colleagues have already been out reviewing shows. Mine don’t start till tomorrow, and I’m worried about working up enough enthusiasm to be objective and fair to them. I’ve felt my soul harden up with every impending sign of apocalypse: flyerers out on the Royal Mile; the decade-old publicity shots of comedians who are only every famous for three weeks of every year popping up on bus stops; an increase in press releases describing shows as ‘wacky’ or ‘totally bizarre’; the proliferation of clear-skinned, posh-voiced lambs pending slaughter in venue t-shirts. Despite the fact that the Fringe and gets bigger and bigger every year, a whole extra eco-system, swollen and feeding off the city proper, it all feels wearingly familiar. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling it. Surely, as someone who loves theatre, dance and art (even as someone who absolutely and utterly hates comedy), the prospect of submerging myself completely in the world’s biggest arts festival ought to excite me and give me a renewed sense of purpose? I’m worried that I’ve become so jaded that only something so experimental that it goes beyond nudity will shock me out of my torpor. At least I’m in the right place for it.

There was a lot of debate last year, and there probably will be this year again, about over-saturation. Performers generally accept that they’re going to come here and make a loss now, and most smaller theatre companies will end up with their expectations so dashed that an audience of fifteen counts as a good night. It begs the question, why bother at all?

I wrote all this on the train coming through from Glasgow, preparing myself. Now I’m in yer actual Edinburgh, preparing for the big glitzy List party tonight, and despite oppressive heat, enthusiastic flyering teens and dreich weather, there’s something infectious about being in a city where normal behaviour is officially suspended. And the clubs are open til laaaate. And the Traverse programme looks mind-blowingly brilliant. What was that? Oh, boohoo, it’s so hard to be a journalist? Ach well. Maybe this time. Tomorrow is another day.

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