Why Edinburgh remains unrivalled as a festival city
A huge number and variety of festivals take place each year
This article is from 2011.
In 1961, a theatre director made a proposal. It was his opinion that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was getting too big. It would be much better, he said, ‘if only ten halls were licensed’.
Nobody listened. Had the director been able to travel forward in time 50 years to 2011, he would have found not only a Fringe that had grown exponentially (he’d see his ideal ten venues swollen to more than 250), but also a city that had caught the festival bug on a scale he would not comprehend.
Forget ten venues: in 2011, Edinburgh has more than ten whole festivals. Officially, there are a dozen of them – and that’s not counting smaller programmes such as the Dead By Dawn horror film festival or community events such as the Old Town Festival. They take place throughout the year and are a major reason so many visitors flock to the city. Locals can’t get enough of them either.
What people call the ‘Edinburgh Festival’ is actually a combination of several festivals in August. Because of its scale, the Fringe is the most visible. Presenting more than 2,000 shows, it colonises church halls, lecture theatres and basement bars, and spills out on to the Royal Mile, where companies tout for trade and street entertainers busk for the attention of a city heaving with cultural tourists.
The distinguishing characteristic of the Fringe is its open-access philosophy: anyone who can afford to rent a venue can put on a show. It is a principle that has led to the discovery of many of today’s great names in comedy, theatre and music. This creates a tremendous excitement in audiences and performers alike. With so many shows, there are inevitably misses as well as hits, but even the disappointments are part of the fun.
If the Fringe provides the energy, the Edinburgh International Festival offers the artistic backbone in a line-up of world-class orchestras, opera singers, drama companies and dance ensembles in the city’s major concert halls and theatres. It began in 1947 in an altruistic mood of post-war reconciliation (the Fringe was started in the same year by a group of companies who hadn’t been invited) and has never lost its high-minded pursuit of excellence. Under artistic director Jonathan Mills, the programme has strong thematic links and, in 2011, will focus on the cultures of Asia, with visits from the National Ballet of China, the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.
Enormous though the Festival and Fringe are, you could still fill days in August without going anywhere near them. Having warmed up with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, a great showcase for Scottish and international acts, you could lose yourself in the city’s galleries in the Edinburgh Art Festival or go under canvas in Charlotte Square for an all-day line-up of famous authors in the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Come nightfall, you could join the throngs on the castle’s esplanade for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Having acquired a taste for cultural overload, you will want to be in the city again for the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April, the Bank of Scotland Imaginate children’s theatre festival in May, the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay to bring in the New Year. And there are plenty more where they came from.