The journey begins at the fringe

Richard Jordan

I have been coming to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 1986 and when I walk around the city at Fringe time, a lot of memories come flooding back. There’s that building where I once watched a show inside one of its flats, the street where when taking part in a show in a mini-bus with a pumping soundtrack it suddenly stopped and we (the audience) had to all get out and (wearing multi-coloured wigs) dance around it, at this exact same moment it seemed that everyone I knew also happened to be walking past! Then there are the venues where the memory of watching and discovering a little fringe gem, which you stumbled upon one idle Tuesday afternoon in August, brings back a thrilling feeling of excitement that the Fringe can richly afford its audience.

But one of my favourite Fringe memories happened a few years ago. I had been walking through the Potterrow underpass (just near the Bristo Square) at about midnight only to be confronted by around 100 people of all ages. They were partying below a cardboard sign with the marker-penned words: “You don’t need a pass for the underpass” which was their response to the ‘artist and members only’ bars located at a number of the major Fringe venues.

This moment seemed significant because I felt it recaptured a spirit of the fringe that can sometimes be accused of being lost today. It could even be seen as epitomising the legacy of the Fringe’s origins where, seventy-one years ago, eight companies – uninvited to perform at the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival – arrived with their own powerful and alternative forms of theatre and the Fringe was born.

The feeling of spontaneously stumbling upon something can both seem rare or even lost amid the fringe of today with its polished, one-hour stand-up comedy sets and corporate branding. There is a place on today’s fringe for both, but the energy and atmosphere of the “underpass party” should also be seen as good news in assuring the fringe’s future and reminds us that the spirit of the fringe is everywhere – you simply just have to look for it.

Fringes create their own form of nostalgia. This can be seen in the artists coming back who were once playing a 50-seat venue, and today are major stars filling large theatres; similarly, with the audiences who helped discover them, and proud to feel that they helped contribute towards the subsequent journey that artist or company has taken.

Fringes are also places of artistic renewal and I believe a visit to one should be given out on prescription! But their role throughout today’s global arts industries has never been more important. As funding gets cut and drama training is prohibitively expense for many, I believe the power of an open-access fringe festival has never been more needed. Today, many individuals who are working across our global art industries owe their careers to having started out at the fringe – I know that I do.

Every year and at every fringe festival taking place around the world, discovery, knowledge and ownership get passed on. A new generation of fringe visitors and performers attending for the first time will also be making, and subsequently owning and sharing in their discoveries. For the performer, they are also following a well-trodden path. That path may well start at a party in an underpass, but it could lead one day to a big headline venue. It is therefore why stumbling upon such a fringe night in Edinburgh happening in an underpass is what makes both its fringe (and others around the world) continue to be a vital, organic, accessible, artistic and visceral experience reminding us all that to have a future, every great journey must begin somewhere.

Photo credit David Monteith-Hodge Photographise

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