The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Eddy Cassar, the Festival Director of the popular Jive Cape Town Funny Festivals has just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here he traces the history and impact that the world’s largest event, has had on the art form.


Over a million and a half people flock to Edinburgh in August every year, doubling the city’s population for the annual phenomenon which is conveniently entitled the Edinburgh Festival.


Established in 1947 in the wake of the Second World War, the Festival was aimed at perking up the war-weary Brits and bringing together artists in a world class cultural event. Many of the theatres in London were bombed during the war and the only city untouched by the enemy fire was Edinburgh, too far north for German aircrafts to reach.

Sixty nine years later, the greatest theatre show on earth consists of over 50 266 performances of about 3 269 shows per day in 294 venues over 25 days. This year about 2.475 million tickets were sold.

The Festival now consists of two major festivals; including the original Edinburgh International Festival, which showcases the traditional arts, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which has grown into the world’s largest comedy festival.

The Fringe Festival has grown dramatically since inception in 1959 and has become the world’s largest comedy festival, presenting many great comics of the day, some of whom return to their roots as megastars.

Started by Dudley Moore, regarded as the father of the comedy club industry in London, the Fringe Festival is now the largest comedy project on the globe.

On any one day of the Festival, there are 3 269 performances to choose from, performed by some 19 000 artists from about sixty different countries. An average of 88 000 tickets are sold daily!

The Fringe now presents all art forms including comedy, music, dance and physical theatre, musicals and opera, children’s shows and an assortment of events and exhibitions. Comedy however, is by far the largest.

Some of the famous comics return on an annual basis, either by invitation or just to keep in touch with the grass roots of the industry. Comedians from all over the world perform in the hope of being spotted by television producers and theatre and festival promoters, or many, just for the publicity.

The Fringe is an “unjuried event”, in other words no show has been vetted. No performer is invited to participate on the Fringe. Each applies and if there’s a venue available, the show is accepted. Venues differ from proper theatres to university lecture theatres, historic castles, tents, conference centres, school and church halls, the back of a car and even in a public toilet!

The Fringe is at the forefront of the art form. At present there is a move towards variety and cabaret and the festival mirrors this trend. For a while it may have been true that stand-up comedy ruled the roost, but now sophisticated cabaret, circus and variety are giving comics a run for their money.

The audience are seeing a range of art forms that make up the reality television shows and expect to see them on the comedy stages of the festival. Here, the Britain’s Got Talent phenomenon has had an influence.

Alternative comedians, as they were once called, are on the increase. Magicians, burlesque artists, singing acts, sword swallowers, jugglers, and hula-hoop artists have been taken off the street and out of the circus and put into theatre shows.

The huge crowds on the street have attracted street performers from around the world. The good crowds ensure a great payday or a “strong hat” as it is called in the business and the street performing circuit has become a feature of the month of August.

“Free” theatre shows are common. The huge selection of shows on offer means that some lesser-known artists will not attract an audience. Marketing the show as a non-ticketed affair ensures some type of audience. Once the media has been in and the word of mouth takes over, the show either shines or dies. Many top comics followed the non-ticketed route to success.

The annual migration to Edinburgh has become a huge source of revenue for its tourist and hospitality industries. Every nook and cranny is used, from dormitories, barracks, hotels and camp sites, to private homes; whilst Edinburgh’s eateries run queues throughout the day and night.