PACE at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

September 26, 2019

The first great Edinburgh International Festival took place during the heady post-war year of 1947 with a stated goal “to heal the wounds of that great conflict through the language of the arts”. The original Festival program featured major events like grand symphonies, world premieres of new operas, and re-stagings of classic plays from Scottish and English antiquity. That very same year, a group of 8 performing arts organizations, unhappy that they were not invited to participate in the official International Festival program, decided on their own to perform their work in venues located “on the Fringes” of the International Festival. This act of artistic defiance led directly to the official name of event (which is “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe”, and not, as commonly thought, the “Edinburgh Fringe Festival”), and to an event, 72 years later, that now dwarfs in both notoriety and scale, the original Edinburgh International Festival that started it all. The number of Fringe shows has grown from just 8 in 1947 to over 4,000 in 2019 – most of them appearing daily, in venues ranging from proper legitimate theaters, to University of Edinburgh lecture halls and classrooms, to bars and restaurant back rooms, to garages and walkway underpasses….to the Edinburgh Zoo. The “Fringe movement” has also exploded all over the world with (currently) 11 distinct “Fringe” Festivals in the USA alone, and scores more around the globe.

My first trip to the Fringe in the early 2000s was a revelation. The Festival had recently crossed the 1,000 performances/day mark, and industry professionals were cautioning about an inevitable diminishment of the level of talent on display and that the chaotic, runaway expansion would surely lead to a behemoth, unmanageable entity that could no longer be properly experienced by any single attendee visiting Edinburgh for a few days of dramatic thrill-seeking. Thinking back onto my first walk up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, through the throngs of “punters” (the Fringe performers’ word for potential audience members) gathered in small groups to watch performers frantically hawking themselves and their shows through street performance and flyer distribution, I recall also the stirrings of panic: How would I ever be able to figure out which shows to spend my precious time and money on? Tickets at that time averaged £3-£5 each, but a full day of 5 or 6 shows, plus several £4 pints of Guinness, full Scottish breakfast…and whatever else I could find on the run to eat during a day of dashing between venues located up to a mile apart (don’t get me started on the wonder that is Edinburgh’s own battered and deep-fried Mars Bar) – and given the exchange rate at the time of close to $2 to  £1….decisions had to made very carefully.

What I discovered then, and which has guided me through at least 10 subsequent visits to this performing arts nirvana, including in 2012, when I produced my own show at the Fringe – something every theater producer should do once (and only once) is that…it really doesn’t matter. It was true then, and it is more true now as the Festival has expanded to 2,000 daily performances, then 3,000, and in 2019, 4,000 each and every day of the Festival, is that it really just doesn’t matter. Certainly you can do your research, study all the Fringe guides, talk to your colleagues and friends about what they have seen, and read the reviews…the moment of truth comes after you’ve paid your (now) £9- £12, “queued” up at the door of the theater/classroom/bar/courtyard/cadaver dissection room (not kidding), rushed in to take your (often wobbly) seat, and watched the lights go off. Within a minute or two you know whether or not you’re in for something amateurish/bad (~50% of the time), OK-to-good (40%), excellent (8%), or truly transformational (2%) – with the most memorable experiences being the extremes on either end.

Over the years, my passion and my profession have a happy convergence when it is my “job” to attend the Fringe to identify productions and artists to book into venues and tour circuits for which I have been responsible for the programming content. The shows I have successfully taken from the Festival to stages around the world are totally dissimilar from each other, ranging from a comic string trio re-living the voyage of the RMS Titanic from the viewpoint of the band that famously played “Nearer My God To Thee” as the ship sank, to a brilliant international juggling ensemble that performed an intensely dramatic and serious exploration of the changing role of Women in the post war Europe (while juggling!), to an ingenious physical comedy troupe made of ex-German gymnasts who performed a hilarious, wordless, deconstruction of modern office workplace  culture. The only through-line for all of these was originality and masterful artistry. Each of these groups had taken an existing performance genre (classical music, juggling, gymnastics/physical theatre) and applied it in an ingenious and totally original manner to explore a given subject matter in a way that illuminated and revealed there topic in a totally new light – and far more interesting and impactful than a straight dramatic rendition could ever be.

Each year, in August, the entire performing arts world focuses its eyes and attention on the charmingly dilapidated and indispensable City of Edinburgh. The growth of the Festival past 4,000 daily performances has not led to the feared dilution of the overall experience, but has instead challenged the artists of the world to continually work to outdo and surpass the work that has preceded them. At this year’s Fringe, I and my PACE colleagues took in several dozen internationally-themed performances over our 5-day visit, and identified at least 3 that we are currently pursuing for eventual performances here in Bellevue and in venues throughout the Eastside. Watch this space for more details as we begin to demonstrate to our community PACE’s mission to engage and enrich our community by presenting artistic, cultural, educational and entertainment experiences of the highest quality to all within our reach!