How Edinburgh Fringe Became the Biggest Arts Festival in the World

Street Performer At Edinburgh Fringe
Street Performer At Edinburgh Fringe | Courtesy Of Edinburgh Fringe Society
Photo of Tori Chalmers
1 August 2017

A larger than life pick-and-mix of artistic freedom and ingenuity, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is proof that a small group of inspired people with a story to tell can make a difference. To quote Margaret Mead, ‘it’s the only thing that ever has’. With 2017 comes the 70th anniversary of the globally renowned Fringe and the first World Fringe Day. But how did this cultural elixir of creativity become the largest arts festival in the world?

When a group of misfit performers in the form of six Scottish companies and two English companies ventured to Edinburgh uninvited in 1947, little did they know that what they were about to do would change the art world forever. Despite not receiving an invitation to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival, these spirited artists showed up anyway. After all, they had a story to tell. Unfazed by the stuffy status quo, these emboldened souls told their tale against all odds — on the fringes of the festival. And so, something beautiful was born.

Courtesy Of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

This ‘alliance of defiance’ planted the seed for what is now the world’s greatest accumulation of creatives and platform for artists and performers of all kinds. Word of mouth spread about these out-the-box shows existing amidst the shadows of structured society and people wanted more. Time progressed and with the ebb and flow of life, this fringe movement snowballed into an annual affair of unrivalled proportions, a safe space where theatre met comedy and cabaret complimented spoken word and all voices are heard loud and clear.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

In 1958, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society formed to ease logistics by providing information, a central box office and a published Fringe programme detailing every show. Jump to 2017 and the Fringe, in its 70th year, is more alive than ever:

‘This is a very special year for the Fringe as we celebrate 70 years of defying the norm, of championing artistic freedom and providing a platform for artists around the world to come and present their work in a truly unique environment that is inclusive, inspiring and often life-affirming’. Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

Courtesy Of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society | © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

As an open access arts festival, those same founding principles still apply — there are no limitations, no bureaucratic voices leaning over the shoulders, no regulations to adhere to. Just pure, untainted art and the freedom to express it. What makes the Fringe the Fringe is its unjuried stance and eclectic hodge-podge of people from all corners of the world. Anything and everything goes, as long as there’s a venue to host it, which can range from a swimming pool to a theatre to a bar or the street! From there, an inexplicable scope of performance variety, revolutionary ideas and cathartic showcases arise.

‘More than ever before, we need to hear the world’s artists and storytellers loudly and clearly and, more importantly, we need to preserve and promote the spaces in which they can be heard…While each country and every fringe has its own unique fingerprint, voice and story, we are united in our spirit of independent, free expression. What binds us is a shared determination to create spaces in which ideas are contested, and where respect, empathy and understanding are forged’. Tony Lankester, CEO of National Arts Festival, South Africa.

Courtesy Of Festival Fringe Society | © Festival Fringe Society

The fun doesn’t stop there though. Edinburgh’s beloved Fringe set the scene for a global constellation of over 200 fringes spanning from South Africa to Australia, France, Canada, Prague, China, Brighton and Brazil. The first World Fringe Day, 11th July 2017, served as a testament to the power of the arts:

‘World Fringe Day is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the global connections that Scotland has made through the arts. Edinburgh’s festivals are world renowned and it is remarkable to think that the fringe movement, that began here in 1947 with the founding of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, has developed into a worldwide network with fringes now taking place on every continent except Antartica.’ Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs for the Scottish Government.

Courtesy Of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

Famed for its colossal comedy programme and celebration of theatre, it’s no surprise that the Edinburgh Fringe quickly evolved into a spawning site for comedians and actors, both emerging and ultra-famous, with the likes of Ricky Gervais, Susan Sarandon, Graham Norton, Emma Thompson, Mike Myers, Rachel Weisz and Hugh Laurie catching their big break in Scotland’s capital.

And so, as the 2017 Fringe welcomes 53,232 performances and 3398 shows (1683 of which are premiers and 686 of which are free) across 300 venues and representing 62 countries, let us thank the uninvited dreamers, thinkers and creatives who, in 1947 formed this unofficial ‘alliance of defiance’ that gifted Edinburgh and the world the Fringe.

Courtesy Of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society

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