The Edinburgh Festival Fringe can seem overwhelming. Daunting, even. Until you get there.
This year’s festival saw more than 3,000 shows—3,553 to be exact—most of which performed six days a week, if you can believe it. When you’re trying to decide what to see, finding that much to choose from can turn something that should be fun and exciting into a stressful experience. Frankly, that’s how I was feeling about it in the weeks leading up to traveling to Scotland. I was a soon-to-be first-time Fringer, going to Edinburgh for two weeks, and I was deeply overwhelmed.
There’s ways to curate that list down, many of them that involve reading Playbill. We try to go through and pick out some of the more exciting and starry offerings at the major venues, sometimes with assistance from the people programming the shows—meaning the people that know better than anyone what each show actually is. Playbill also co-sponsored a smartphone app this year that lets you search through the listings by subject matter, actor name, genre—all great ways to get a more manageable list of shows to choose from.
But once you actually get to Edinburgh and start seeing shows, you quickly learn how not to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content available at the festival. That volume is actually part of the magic of Fringe, a magic that’s really hard to wrap your head around until you’re there and in the midst of it.
When you’re in Edinburgh during Fringe, a large portion of the town becomes not unlike Times Square. There are posters everywhere—everywhere. And everywhere you walk, there’s likely to be someone ready to hand you a flyer and sell you on seeing one of those 3,553 shows. Sometimes the person handing you the flyer is actually the artist who will be performing the show they’re trying to get you to see. Before long, you have a list of posters that caught your eye, a handful of flyers that piqued your interest.
And then you actually go see a show. Operating a festival on the scale of Edinburgh Fringe requires the utmost in efficiency—there isn’t a second to spare. That means you’re often waiting in a queue to get into the venue for a show until as late as two or three minutes before showtime—and the shows still start promptly at showtime on the dot, lest scheduling for the other 3,552 shows be thrown off.
When you’re in those queues, suddenly you’re in a community of fellow Fringegoers, fellow theatre fanatics. If you’re feeling friendly, you might strike up a conversation and quickly end up with a long list of recommendations from what they’ve seen. If you want to be a little more solitary, keep your ears open and you can overhear the same information. Very quickly you figure out what the buzzy shows are. And the more you see, the better you get at judging how your own taste may or may not align with that kind of buzz—all art is subjective, after all.
Suddenly you’re not just seeing a show because it stars an actor you like or is based on a movie you’ve seen a million times—but because there’s excitement in the air. That is what a festival of 3,553 shows available at tickets never more than £20 is uniquely able to create, and it’s what keeps people coming back to Edinburgh Fringe year after year. What I learned as a first-time Fringer is not to be stressed out by the planning aspect of things—a lack of planning and an openness to discovery is what makes for the most special festival experience.
Some of my favorite things I saw this year were things I never would have known to get tickets for in advance. Having been a fan of him already from his TikTok and Instagram videos, I had already planned to see comedian Christopher Hall. Like many Fringe shows, he gave up the stage for a small portion of his show to let another Fringe artist preview their show, a different artist every night. At my performance, it was Amy Webber previewing her first-ever Fringe show—her first-ever solo show, in fact. I was so charmed that I immediately booked a ticket—and I ended up making her show a Playbill Pick. It felt like watching the birth of a true star, which can be endlessly more exciting than seeing someone you already know is wonderful being wonderful.
And there’s another reason being open to discovery is vital to a successful Fringe experience. Particularly as someone who spends most normal days writing about Broadway and therefore seeing lots of Broadway shows, reading about what goes on at Fringe can be a little wild. Here I am thankful that Here Lies Love still offers regular seating in regular theatre seats, while at Fringe you can see a show staged in a public toilet or a shipping container. As I have spiritually been an octogenarian since birth, some of it makes me want to roll my eyes and run in the opposite direction.
But as is often the case for me personally, that was a cynicism I needed to shed. Everything about the festival—the price of tickets, the amount of shows, the fact that almost none of those shows have a running time of over an hour—is geared to encourage fresh, bold, audacious art. And it’s specifically designed to promote and be a home for art that is made for art’s sake. Fringe is where artists go to take big swings for audiences that are there to go along with it, even when it’s uncharted territory. No tea no shade, but that is an experience you can’t really get when the base ticket price is $170 and there’s a two-and-a-half hour time commitment.
No one would pretend you don’t have the risk of seeing something that doesn’t resonate with you at Fringe—that’s almost guaranteed to happen. But the most you’ll be out is an hour and £20. And frankly when the swings are as audaciously big as they can be at Edinburgh Fringe, sometimes even the misses can make a great anecdote to dine out on for a season or two.
What I learned my first time at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is that if you love theatre, if you love art, you will love the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I know now the spirit one should go into the experience with, but I didn’t when I started. I was my usual cynical self—and the magic of Edinburgh Fringe worked it out of me.
And now I’m ready for it to be the first of many memorable Fringe experiences.