How Edinburgh Festival Fringe Inspired Off-Broadway’s 59E59 | Playbill

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Playbill Goes Fringe How Edinburgh Festival Fringe Inspired Off-Broadway’s 59E59

The theatre’s leaders Brian Beirne and Val Day discuss how every year, they bring a little bit of Scotland to New York City.

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The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with over 3,000 shows. This year, Playbill will be going to Edinburgh in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along with us this spring and summer as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!

Though 59E59’s Managing Director Brian Beirne has yet to attend Edinburgh Fringe, the festival’s approach certainly excites him. Offering over 3,000 productions, the annual Scottish festival has no curator. Thousands of artists flock to the city every August to put on shows they might not be able to put on elsewhere, or to try out shows that will one day hit the stages of New York City and London. And hundreds of thousands of audience members pack into Edinburgh for the thrill of seeing as much as they possibly can (and then some).

“The foundation of Edinburgh is there's no gatekeeper. There is no artistic director. No one is saying whether you can be in the festival or not,” says Beirne. It’s something unlike almost all other festivals. And that's something that Beirne and 59E59's Artistic Director Val Day wanted to replicated in New York City with their annual East to Edinburgh Festival.

For the much-smaller NYC festival, the duo wanted to honor what makes Edinburgh Fringe so unique. “We don't curate it,” says Beirne. “It's the only thing of the year that Val doesn't look at and decide, ‘Yeah, that's the right thing to have here.’” East to Edinburgh gives productions headed to Fringe a chance to do a short preview run and raise money (the artists receive 100 percent of box office sales). 

The only requirement? Shows have to provide proof that they are going to Edinburgh and have secured a venue to perform in Fringe. Every summer, 59E59 allows 12-15 shows to practice for the festival with up to six performances—and Day and Beirne mean practice. At Edinburgh Fringe, as multiple shows share a performance space across a day, there’s only about 15 minutes to set up and another 15 minutes to break down for every performance.

That fast pace of Edinburgh Fringe is something Day didn’t full grasp when she first attended as a talent agent at William Morris. “I had no idea how easy I had. I was there for like four days, and I think on one day I went to two things. I was like, ‘Oh my god, that's so exhausting.’” So, when Day arrived at 59E59 as artistic director, she had some inkling of what to expect given that the job included an annual trip to Edinburgh Fringe. “I was sort of like, ‘Oh, all right, well, I've been there. That's easy.’” 

But when her predecessor, Founding Artistic Director Elysabeth Kleinhans, pulled out a sample of her show-going schedule, Day realized she had underestimated what was ahead of her: “It was unbelievable—at least five shows every day.”

59E59 was actually inspired by Kleinhans’ love for the Edinburgh Fringe. “Her vision was that people could walk up and say, ‘Oh, I was in the neighborhood. What's on tonight?” explains Beirne. It’s fitting then, that the theatre presents two festivals every year in a small ecosystem of cross-continental theatre. East to Edinburgh is one; the other is Brits Off Broadway. As Beirne explains, the festivals were the brainchild of Kleinhans and former Executive Director Peter Tear (who was originally from Scotland). The two had decided early on that 59E59 would feature shows brought over from the U.K. as part of its programming. Kleinhans then began to ask: What can we do to help American artists to perform in the U.K.? Thus the two festivals at the Off-Broadway theatre were born.

Edinburgh Scotland, UK Byjeng / Shutterstock

Since East to Edinburgh isn’t curated, how does the festival work? “The bulk of it is word-of-mouth,” tells Beirne. Every January for the past decade, 59E59 hosts an information session for Edinburgh Fringe which is attended by Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, and other representatives of the festival. They explain to American artists what the Fringe is and how to be a part of it, which also gives the artists exposure to 59E59 and East to Edinburgh. All the slots for East to Edinburgh are often filled before the end of February.

There are a few things that Beirne thinks attracts American artists to the Fringe. One is how much easier it is to put on a show at Fringe than in New York, due to its lack of gatekeeping. Another is the financial commitment can be lower. But according to Beirne, taking a show to Fringe requires a certain kind of personality. “When you go to the Fringe, you're on your own,” he says. “The entrepreneurial spirit of British artists is very high. I think that the Americans that we have coming to East to Edinburgh approach it with that same spirit of determining their own destiny. They're going to do the show that they want to do.”

Given Edinburgh Fringe’s status as the world’s largest arts festival, it’s somewhat surprising that it flies under the radar for many Americans. Says Day, “I think a lot of U.K. people come to New York and see shows. But it's not reciprocal.” 

Beirne chimes in, “We in New York are very New York-centric.” In fact, Beirne has yet to attend Fringe himself, a fault of scheduling as Day usually attends Fringe and so Beirne must stay on-the-ground in New York City. But he’s excited for the day that he can. “That phenomenon of seeing a lot of theatre in a day, talking to other audience members about what they've seen, what is good, being on the inside of discovering something that no one else has seen before—there's an excitement to it. I do want to go to Edinburgh. I love the idea of it,” he enthuses.

For the Americans enticed to cross the ocean, how to take in the festival is different for everyone. And for Day, she has her rules: “No 10 AM shows anymore and I don't do more than three shows a day.” She may have her limits, but that doesn’t take away from how incredible of an experience Edinburgh Fringe proves to be every year: “It's exhilarating. It's theatre camp.”

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