August is here, and with it the familiar divide of the city.
Flyers leer from every available surface. Performers do whatever they can to catch your eye, desperate for that glimmer of hope when someone stops and listens, even just for a moment. And the ability to move down the Royal Mile dissolves entirely, leaving you working out alternative routes to your Edinburgh destination.
Yep, it’s Festival time.
In August the capital becomes all about the arts. In 2018 there were over 30,000 performers from across 50 different countries, all looking to stand out against a very busy back drop.
And in my experience, it splits the city in two. There are those who can’t stand when the calendar flicks over to the eighth month, in some cases doing their best to escape Edinburgh altogether for August. For those people, the fact that the city’s population reportedly doubles is too much. They hate how busy public transport becomes, and how long it takes to get served anywhere. And it takes away from the city they live in. The Fringe and the other festivals which take place at the same time are not for them.
But then there are those who love it. Who use it as a chance to get out and explore new shows, to meet new people, and to soak up a very different atmosphere to the rest of the year in Edinburgh.
I am firmly in the second category, as I’ve stated many times before. I’ve had some of my favourite days/evenings/weeks ever in the (near) 25 years I’ve lived here at the Edinburgh Fringe. It rarely fails to bring a new tale to the repertoire.
But that’s not what I want to focus on in this piece. My preference is well documented.
On The Fringe Of Too Much?
On the opening weekend, Zoe and I went for a walk to a few Fringe venues, partly to enjoy a sunny day, and partly to see what Jacob would make of it all. The sun was out, there were plenty of people about for us to bump into and chat to, and the energy of the first weekend of the Fringe was in full flush.
However, looking at the range of shows that were on this year, there didn’t seem to be as many which caught my eye as in previous years. I’m pretty limited as to what I can go to at the moment due to family commitments, but I didn’t feel the disappointment I thought I would at missing out.
It got me thinking about the creative aspect of the Fringe. With it being one of the biggest Arts festivals in the world, creativity is of course at the heart of it. But is it being stifled by the Fringe in its current form?
For those not keen on the Fringe, one of their main complaints is that it has grown too big, too quickly. It no longer holds the values that it once had, that prices are too expensive and that it’s no longer for those who live in the city.
But with that increase in size, does it also mean that creativity suffers? Very few of the posters that I passed offered anything new in terms of design from previous years. A lot of the shows seemed quite similar - a show based entirely on a pun of a movie or book, a poster for a stand-up which told me very little about what kind of comedy it was, an entertainment franchise performed at high speed. They all just seemed a bit… familiar. I’m not saying these kinds of shows don’t work - I’ve seen the latter done very well more than once (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies done in a mere hour each). But it felt like there was a bit of a template to what was put in front of me.
Now this could be because this is far from my first rodeo, as highlighted earlier in this piece. I may well have built up an apathy, preferring instead to bask in the atmosphere of the Fringe, rather than take part like I used to. But it also had me wondering if the creativity in approach has run out a bit. There are now just so many acts and it is so hard to stand out, that they almost don’t try as hard to be different. Instead they put their faith in being able to impress when in front of people, either in the streets when leafleting, or through word of mouth.
Many of these acts come to Edinburgh knowing that at best, they’ll break even financially. Perhaps they’ll harness some buzz about the show, or maybe even win an award. But very few are coming to actually make money from the Fringe. Does that limit how creative they want to be even before they start? Are they better to rehash what may have worked before, in essence, playing safe?
I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. There are too many shows on offer. I nearly didn’t pick up a Fringe catalogue this year, because I pretty much would have had to take a few days off to make my way through it. It’s nothing short of daunting, and in recent years I’ve had much more fun just picking on the day.
It becomes really hard to stand out against that, and there are some really creative acts which don’t always get the publicity they deserve. But there are definitely hidden gems out there. Last year I saw ‘A War of Two Halves’, based on the story of George McCrae’s Sporting Battalion in World War One, and the role that the Hearts players played in not only fighting, but helping with recruitment. Before you all go reaching for your ‘Yeah, but it has a Hearts connection’ card, the show had football in it, but it wasn’t about sport. It was about humanity and comradeship. Honour and sacrifice. As we wandered around Tynecastle (in itself offering a more creative setting than the usual small windowless room which is on offer), there was an inventiveness to how the tale of normal men doing incredible things was told.
There is creativity out there. You just have to look for it more in the current set up. And it’s also about what kind of creativeness appeals to you. Some of the acts whose posters didn’t appeal to me are almost certainly great and well worth buying a ticket for. My issue is more with the process of being able to find the right kind of shows for me. With my time now limited, and the cost of tickets rising each year, I can’t take the same level of risks that I used to, where I could end up going to see a day’s worth of shows I’d never heard of. My approach now needs to be a bit more focused, and I wish that those behind the Fringe would look at shaking things up a bit in terms of how they list and promote the Festival and its shows. But I guess if it ain’t broke…
Oh, and ‘A War of Two Halves’ is back at Tynecastle. Do yourself a favour and get along to see it. You won’t regret it.