Being part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

William Burdett-Coutts, Director of Assembly

Fresh out of university, I was working with a group of South Africans putting together a play, Paradise is Closing Down, which was booked into the Young Vic Studio in September. Someone mentioned the fact that the Edinburgh Fringe dates were directly prior to this and suggested we take the show there as well. Never having heard of the event, I was despatched to the city to check this out and see if we could find a venue. And so it began.

The very wonderful team at the Fringe Office at the time, Alistair Moffat and Jenny Brown, couldn’t have been more supportive and before we knew it we were booked into the Old Chaplaincy Centre, now Bedlam. What followed was a great experience that inevitably started me down a very long Fringe road.

Assembly press launch 2016. Credit David Monteith-Hodge Photographise.
Assembly press launch 2016. Credit David Monteith-Hodge Photographise.

If there is one word that defines the fringe most, it must be ‘opportunity’. The fact that the Fringe is open access means that anyone can, in effect, create their own opportunity. They can bring a show and if it’s any good, it will get recognised, and equally the talent performing gain the potential of recognition and future work. This kernel of a thought is what has seen the Fringe grow incredibly in scale over the years. It’s what has seen it be copied around the world and has seeded such events as the Adelaide Fringe, now the biggest fringe in Australia, to the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.

1981 saw me trying to find a venue for a play I was directing and I went to look at the Assembly Rooms. The smallest of the rooms, the Wildman Room, seemed apt for the purpose and I approached the Council about renting it. Their response was to offer me the whole building to programme. That year’s operation was fairly rudimentary with something like twelve of us running everything, however, this created the first fringe multi-space venue and it was wonderful. The faded grandeur of the Assembly Rooms came to life with the energy of all that was taking place in it. It was like being on some mad ship, the engine throbbing with talk, performance and intrigue. We took our name, Assembly, from the building and its inherent meaning of gathering people seemed aptly appropriate. So began, the Assembly family, and whilst I have remained the figurehead that has led this group, it’s those around me that have given it heart.

Assembly press launch 2016. Credit David Monteith-Hodge Photographise.
Assembly press launch 2016. Credit David Monteith-Hodge Photographise.

Part of the pleasure of that first event was people coming from so many places around the world, forming friendships through the festival. A decade long friendship with Alex Reedijk has seen an exchange between Assembly and both Wellington and Auckland Festivals.  Working with Keti Dolidze, founder of the Georgian International Festival of Theatre, we brought stunning work from Georgia to enchant Edinburgh. My friendship with the late John Pinder, began a long relationship with Australia. John started the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which again, has led to volumes of talent being exchanged in both directions for decades. Assembly continues to work with Melbourne Comedy Festival and keeps John’s name alive through an award that gives an opportunity for a new talent to come from Australia to Edinburgh.

In the Assembly’s thirty-year history, it has proved to be a central pillar of the Fringe and been home to an immense array of talent. Many great shows and people had their first recognition with us, whether that was Stomp going from late night in the Ballroom to play around the world, or countless comedians that have gone on to great heights: Lee Evans, Jack Dee, Michael McIntyre, French & Saunders or Graham Norton, to name only a few. There were enough highlights to set your hair on fire, whether it was the wonderful Seven Fingers: Traces or Jerry Springer: the Opera.

Next year will see my fortieth year in Edinburgh, and throughout that time it has been the axis of my life. It has brought me immense friendships, joyous memories of productions and provided the foundation of my career. What has kept me at it all these years is the thought of working with people I like on ideas that fire me up. There is nowhere else in the world quite like this where you can have an idea and make it happen.

As today is World Fringe Day I can only throw in my view that the concept of the fringe is a world phenomenon. Edinburgh now plays host to hundreds and hundreds of productions from around the world. It is the largest gathering of arts and entertainment talent ever. An Olympic scale event that happens on the volition of those who take part in it. The desire to do it oneself is laudable and the very reason this ‘thing’ has grown to the scale it has. Assembly now is probably as big as the entire Fringe was back in 1981 when we started. I carry on working here because it is the greatest live event in the world.

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