o anyone except the actor, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is annual paradise. For five frantic weeks the elegant seaside city of Edinburgh resigns itself to theatrical hijack. From all corners of the globe dramatic and musical troupes descend on Scotland's capital to tempt, cajole, and dazzle the spectator into parting with their pounds: in exchange for laughter, tears, derision, and amusement. At each street corner drama lurks, enticing passersby with Danish dancing, Asian acrobatics, and Shakespeare in Swahili or Swedish. Films (long and short), postures (multiethnic), masks (fantastic), and the ubiquitous dose of deadly serious student drama (toilet humour) combine to make the Fringe one super-quick route to artistic inebriation.
There are three sure ways to survive and thrive. Armed with a Fringe programme and the daily papers' rave/rant reviews, the cheerful culture-vulture rushes from venue to venue, morning to midnight, eight shows per day, imbibing Brecht and bombast, virgin works and rehashed classics, the funny, the stupid, the silly and the sad. The richer, more discerning, and less daring Festival goer spends each evening at mainstream events (those established names and sought-after seats), and uses the Fringe as daytime distraction. The happy holidaymaker is content just to sit back and soak up the sunshine (August being Scotland's sunny month), relaxing in the comfort of a cafe terrace, and watching the wild and wacky world of up-and-coming drama - from a safe distance. The beach is a brief Leith Walk away; the hills a stone's throw from the city centre. Galleries, street theatre, and Royal Mile films are free. Edinburgh, in short, is bliss. For the spectator.
Quiz a bedraggled performer or two, and you will find the tale is somewhat sadder. As the population of the city swells with new arrivals, and house rents soar, under-nourished actors cram their skinny drama-battered bodies into grimly furnished hovels and prepare to sit out a month of cut price baked beans and white sliced bread. If morale is low, the kitchen quickly disintegrates into a vortex of tears, depression, and mounds of dirty plates. If reviews are good, the cast lie in the pub, dreaming of the West End, and no-one does the washing-up. Hygiene is not a byword with Fringe aficionados.
Worse than the havoc Fringe life wreaks on personal odour, is the damage it does to self-esteem. Every performer has experienced the horror of a first-night audience comprising one lone figure (the technician's gran), or suffered the humiliation of walk-out (by that meanfaced critic from The Scotsman). All actors know the daily torment of advertising the evening's show (nudity? bloodshed? anything goes as long as we get noticed). Whole companies, it is said, have risen at dawn to scan the papers for new reviews - only to skulk back to bed in a stupor of dissatisfaction, disappointment and denial. 'Critics have no conception of true talent' directors whisper to their downcast team. 'Her uncle is a brother of the reviewer's best friend's auntie's second cousin's mum' jealous actors console themselves as they cry into their tenth pick-me-up beer of the day.
Like it or not, X marks the spot. The next big thing is made in Edinburgh, and performers come here to be Discovered. The sad fact which 99% of Fringe actors must face by the end of August, is that fame is fickle. And thus that skinny boy you glimpsed being slightly funny in an attic theatre off the Royal Mile will have bagged an agent, BBC commission and fat advance, while you are still waltzing desperately along Prince's Street, begging punters to come and see ('Cut price tickets for much praised show!')...your fast wilting comic melodrama.
In a nutshell, Fringe actors are the most envious, complex-ridden, self-obsessed and hysterical bunch of people you could hope to meet. They are also inclined, by cruel experience, to look kindly on dramatic suffering, and share a peculiar, intimate, love-hate bonhomie with their fellows. But above all, they adore a sympathetic spectator. So while you wander down the Royal Mile, smile kindly on those poor wee actors. You may come face to face with tomorrow's star. Darling.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival runs during August September (dates vary year to year). The Fringe Box Office is 0131 226 0000 and the Fringe Society office number is 0131 226 0026; firstname.lastname@example.org (for info only, The Fringe Society does not manage any accommodation in Edinburgh)
Alice spent two summers working as a Fringe actor. She has since renounced the stage...