Thursday August 1st 2013

Ever been to the Edinburgh Festival? Well, why not?


First published here for Bea Magazine in July 2013.

You know, when my thoughts turn to writing my monthly post for Bea, I usually have some feminist issue on my mind that I want to have a vaguely controlled rant about. But I must confess that there’s only one thing dominating my mind at the moment, and I can hardly think about anything else. My Julys are never the relaxed and sunny thing they ought to be (the sunny element, I concede, is beyond my control) because I spend most of that month inside, staring manically at festival programmes and my computer screen, feverishly formulating critical picks and promising PRs that I really will get back to them as soon as I possibly can, honest.

My company, UnLimited Media, produces, amongst many other things, the definitive guide to the Edinburgh Festival, which may seem like a cocky claim, but it’s true, really; I’m not usually very good at blowing my own trumpet, but ThreeWeeks (that’s the name of the publication) is something that I am very proud of. It’s a very necessary tool for the people who work at and attend the Edinburgh Festival, and I’m pleased to be one of its two editors, even though it does mean that my Julys are stressful and sleepless, and my Augusts doubly so.

But this post isn’t intended to be about boasting about my publication, actually; it’s no use to you unless you’re going to the Edinburgh Festival, so there’s no real point in pushing it to readers who aren’t going. But what I do want to tell you about is the Edinburgh Festival itself, not least because I feel as though there are so many people out there who really don’t know what they are missing.

It saddens me, actually; there are so, so, so many people in the UK who have no idea that the biggest, the greatest arts festival on the entire planet takes place here, on our little island. No festival, anywhere in the world, compares to it in terms of size, quality and influence. Yet so many people seem to have misconceived ideas about what it is. When you say “Edinburgh Festival” what do people think? At least some, I know, call to mind the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and think that that, in itself, is the festival. Others think the festival is all about the high arts – opera and classical music. Others think it’s just that weird experimental arty stuff. Others think it’s all comedy. None of those things is true (though there is, admittedly, a lot of comedy).

So, here are some facts about the biggest and best arts festival in THE WORLD, which takes place in the Scottish capital from late July to late August. Firstly, it’s not one stand alone festival. It’s made up of about seven. Yes, that’s right, seven. Plus, lots of mini-festivals and ones that come and go a bit. The first festival to be founded was the Edinburgh International Festival. That’s the one that tends to specialise in opera, dance, ballet… yes, the more highbrow stuff.

In the same year that the International Festival was set up – 1947 – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe also began, and it’s the Fringe that makes the combined festivals into such a gargantuan cultural event. When the 2013 Fringe programme was published earlier this year, 2871 shows and events had been registered, hailing from all genres, really – comedy, cabaret, theatre, physical theatre, music, children’s shows, spoken word, exhibitions, musicals, dance, talks, workshops… some of those are one offs, but a great many of these shows do a full three week run of performances, and it can be a long and difficult slog.

As well as the Festival and the Fringe, there’s also the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Festival Of Politics, the aforementioned Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh Mela.

So, all of these festivals, all happening at once, in one compact capital city… what can this be like? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s intense. If you like walking to places quickly, you’ll get frustrated, because the streets get so full; you can’t move for shows, for people publicising shows, for people performing street theatre and for locals, cursing and desperately trying to cut through the crowds to their homes and places of work. It’s an astonishing, tiring, hilarious, happy, stressful, vibrant place to be. And I think that everyone really ought to experience this at least once. You will never see a city so transformed by an onslaught of culture, you will never have so much culture in one concentrated place that you could see eight or nine shows in one day with ease.

This brilliant, colourful melting pot is where so many arts practitioners hone their craft. This is where young comedians compete with their peers and take their first steps towards successful careers; it’s where established comedians come to premiere their newest material. It’s a festival packed with new works by fledgling playwrights, actors learning their craft, musicians road-testing their new songs. It’s also a place for the tried and tested, though; as well as the new and experimental you’ll find the classic stuff. There are always at least a few Shakespeare productions, and usually something by Beckett… and a capella groups peddling covers of pop and soft rock ballads.

There is so much of this stuff, so much diversity, that I’m struggling to find the words to express just how all-encompassing it is. All its elements adds up to an amazing cultural smorgasbord. I’m just not quite conveying it well enough, just what a brilliant experience this can be.

So, you will just have to come and see for yourself, and that right soon.

Photo: Kat Gollock