Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Part 1: Birth of the Fringe

How It All StartedFringe Festival
When the Edinburgh International Festival began in August 1947, eight theatre groups - mostly local amateur productions - turned up uninvited to add their artistic efforts to the first Edinburgh Festival. They called themselves the Festival Adjuncts. It was with some relief that the following year the term 'the Fringe' was coined by playwright, Robert Kemp, in a preview article for the Edinburgh Evening News entitled "More that is Fresh in Drama" on 14 August, 1948. After describing the International Festival productions of plays by Bernard Shaw and Christopher Fry, he continued:

"Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before. The Makars present that amusing Bridie skit on the Brains Trust and marriage, " It Depends what you Mean" .. Glasgow Unity brings a new comedy by Robert MacLellan, suitably entitled, "The Floors o` Edinburgh". I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!."

How It Grew
The first Fringe, taking place around the city quite separately from the International Festival, was simply a spontaneous happening by a handful of local amateur theatre companies, desperate to take part. Fortunately audiences and press reviews were encouraging - otherwise, the Fringe may have fizzled out due to lack of support.

In the early days during the late 40s and early 50s, the various Fringe groups, now attracting an increasing number of student theatre companies, from Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham, put on their own shows independently, in small, intimate performance spaces, church halls, local community centres, the YMCA, and University buildings.. By 1954 an enterprising printer suggested Fringe groups advertise in the first fringe programme and work together rather than the survival of the fittest approach, competing with each other for audiences and virtually "cutting each other`s throats". The same year representatives of Fringe groups met together at a conference with the aim of setting up a proper committee so that they could work together. "What we require is a small organisation to act as a brain for the Fringe", a spokesman commented in the Scotsman.

Fringe Festival Office By the following year, 1954, a box office (the picture here is a later incarnation) had been set up at the University`s Old College, together with a restaurant which was open to 11.30pm, perfect for late night Fringe performers. The desire to promote the individual groups as part of a joint venture, to assist in the promotion, advertising, ticket sales, and assistance in finding venues and accommodation for visiting companies was growing quickly. By 1959 the Fringe Society had been established to assist visiting companies with venues, accommodation, publicity, ticket sales, and to compile a fully comprehensive programme of events.

Relationships between the Fringe and the International Festival were friendly rather than competitive. In 1951 the Director Ian Hunter welcomed the upsurge of enthusiasm and talent in the arts and culture which the official festival had brought about and that he did appreciate the excellence of quality of some of the performances.

Critics meanwhile tended to characterise the Fringe as the poor, but inspiring relation of the Festival - Fringe companies in other words offered a sideshow entertainment as a contrast to the superior, professional and international standard of the opera, music and drama productions who had been invited to take part in the Festival.

How It Grew Even More
Fringe Festival As the word spread about the opportunity to perform and equally the freedom of expression afforded to writers and performers, the range and professional quality of productions increased. Few new plays would have the chance to be performed on the London stage. Established actors such as Donald Wolfit and director Joan Littlewood [renowned for the play Oh. What a Lovely War] began to turn up at the Fringe realising that here was the ideal platform for experimental new work as well as European classics, staged in a contemporary way.

Both student groups and up and coming comedic entertainers also saw the Fringe as the place to try out their talents. The popularity of the late night revue emerged very quickly, offering Festival goers a light hearted performance of satire at the end of the evening. These revues were filled with fresh, new, witty material written by talented young writers such as Ned Sherrin, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Ken Loach. The multi-talented Moore returned to the Fringe in 1959 at the start of his professional musical career, playing the piano, in a concert of songs with baritone, Frederick Fuller.

Experimental performances on the Fringe soon paid off and illustrated very clearly the artistic value of the "sideshow". In 1960, a quartet of young performers, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller were invited to appear on the official festival, in their show, Beyond the Fringe. Thereafter their talents blossomed in a much broader fashion, in comedy, script-writing, music and opera. The rest as they say, is history.

Next page > Innovation and experiment > Page 1, 2.

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