Have you always wanted to visit Edinburgh Fringe but never been sure how to do it or what to expect? As the world’s largest arts festival, it can be a bit of daunting experience – and an expensive one too. Luckily for you, I popped up to the Scottish capital this month to experience the festival for myself, so here’s my guide to experiencing the best of queer Edinburgh Fringe.
📷: above flyer for Crystal Rasmussen’s 2019 show ‘The Bible 2 (Plus a Cure for Shame, Violence, Betrayal and Athlete’s Foot) Live!’
What is the Edinburgh Fringe?
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a city-wide arts festival that takes over Edinburgh for around 25 days every August. It dominates the city, transforming Edinburgh into one massive alternative performance hub that attracts the millions of locals and tourists to its abundance of shows. In 2018, 55,000 performances of 3,548 different shows took place in 317 venues.
The first-ever Edinburgh Fringe took place in 1947 when eight theatre companies turned up to the Edinburgh International Festival without invitation and staged performances outside of the official programme. More theatre companies joined in the following year, using unconventional venues to stage their shows. This use of non-traditional performance spaces and the lack of invitation, meaning anyone could perform anything they liked, set the tone for what became known as the ‘Fringe’ of the Edinburgh International Festival.
During the first two decades of the Edinburgh Fringe, each theatre company had its own venue, but by the end of the 1960s, sharing performances spaces, allowing multiple different shows in each venue every day, became common practice. Hence why, these days, you’ll find that most performances spaces hold up to six or seven different shows per day.
Many famous plays and careers have been launched at Edinburgh Fringe over the past 70-plus years. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was first performed in full at the Fringe in 1966, while the cult BBC comedy Fleabag started out as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play at the 2013 Fringe. It’s not just about theatre either – both The Jim Rose Circus and the Tokyo Shock Boys rose to fame with after making their European debut at the Fringe in the 90s, while comedians like Jo Brand, Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin all established their careers here.
Edinburgh Fringe dates
The festival takes place every August, usually over the course of 25 days. Unfortunately, Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is only running a very limited number of live events due to Coronavirus but will hopefully be back next year for its 75th anniversary.
When and how long should you go for?
Most shows take place every day, staging 20+ performances over the course of the festival. Some shows alternate with another production from the same company, so only performing every second day, while other shows only perform a limited run, often over the first or last two weeks of the festival.
This means there isn’t one particular time during the festival that is particularly good to go. There’s lots of buzz around the start of the festival, with everyone showcasing their new shows and the press falling over themselves to name the ‘best of the fest’ and so on, which can mean it is a particularly busy time to go.
I went to Edinburgh Fringe mid-month and a couple of the solo shows were cancelled for the days I’d booked. Obviously, performing the same show day after day (after day) is very taxing on the performers, especially their voices, so this is a risk if you opt for the middle of the festival. Thankfully, I was able to rebook for the next day so I only ended up missing one show that I wanted to see.
I also recommend going mid-week rather than on a weekend if you can. The audiences aren’t so packed, so it gives you wiggle room to grab tickets to a show you may not have heard about it advance.
I opted to visit the Edinburgh Fringe for two days, which was the perfect amount of time for me. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to see though, so 48 hours was ample time to see a bunch of shows. If you’re going without a pre-planned itinerary, then maybe allow three days, so you have some flexibility to fit different shows is, as often you’ll find that similar shows have similar showtimes.
Where to stay
Before you even begin to think about attending the festival, start looking for accommodation. Edinburgh is not a large city, so it doesn’t have limitless hotel or Airbnb options. This means everything is very expensive and sells out months in advance.
Most of the Edinburgh Fringe venues are around the Old Town and Southside, especially along Cowgate and Pleasance. While it might be tempting to stay somewhere in the heart of all of this, I was actually glad that I didn’t. You become so immersed in the festival, that being able to step away from the chaos of it all was really refreshing. However, you should definitely stay somewhere within an easy walking distance of the Old Town as you’ll spend a lot of your time here.
As I was travelling solo, I opted to stay at a hostel to keep costs low (it was still about £50 a night, to give you an idea of how inflated Edinburgh Fringe accommodation prices are). I really loved my stay at The Baxter Hostel (which is conveniently located right across the road from Edinburgh Waverley train station) – click the link to read my full review!
If you’re visiting Edinburgh Fringe with a group of friends, I recommend checking out Staycity Aparthotels in the West End. I stayed here on my last trip to Edinburgh and the self-catering facilities meant that it was much easier to stick to a budget and hang out in the shared kitchen/lounge together.
Even though Edinburgh Fringe takes place in August, it is still Scotland. Summer here is not always sunny and warm. In fact, you could end up experiencing some pretty chilly weather on certain days, so don’t rock up with only t-shirts. You’ll definitely need a lightweight jacket of some description, especially in the evenings.
You’ll also spend a lot of time power-walking between shows in different parts of the city centre, and may hit the occasional hill. Comfortable walking shoes are very necessary for the Edinburgh Fringe.
With literally thousands of shows appearing at Edinburgh Fringe each year, it can be hard to work out what to see. So if, like me, you’re keen to see as many productions showcasing queer voices as possible, then here are my tips on how to find these kinds of shows.
The first thing to note is that Edinburgh Fringe is incredibly white and posh, which I found pretty surprising. It’s a world-renowned performing arts festival with an alternative edge, so I thought it would be a lot more diverse. Instead, the city was covered in posters promoting an endless array of shows that featured entirely white casts, with words like ‘improv’ and ‘Shakespeare’ in the title. However, it’s important to note that staging a production at Edinburgh Fringe is notoriously expensive though, which is possibly why it’s not as inclusive as I expected.
In terms of queerness, there were around 100 LGBT Edinburgh Fringe shows in 2019, according to the category tag on their website. If you want to trawl through the long list of options, this is probably your best bet for discovering any and everything with queer themes.
However, if you’re after some recommendations to point you in the right direction, I definitely recommend having a look through the shows being staged in the first half of the year at the following venues. They are huge supporters of LGBT+ performers and are a good indication of which shows are a must-see.
London‘s Soho Theatre often stages Edinburgh Fringe previews for some of the best solo shows, so it’s always worth looking up what’s on here a couple of months in advance. The much-adored Crystal Rasmussen’s 2019 show had a preview here and queer comedian and Edinburgh Fringe regular Joe Sutherland often does shows here as well.
The Southbank Centre also stages previews, with the amazing Ginger Johnson and Scottee having performed their Edinburgh Fringe shows here in advance of 2019’s festival. The Vaults in London also is a big supporter of queer performers, with drag king Len Blanco having performed their show in the Vault Festival earlier in the year.
Some smaller venues, such as The Glory and The Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London plus The Marlborough Pub and Theatre in Brighton often play hosts to previews of some of the best drag shows at Edinburgh Fringe. It’s worth taking a look through their upcoming shows in the months leading up to the Edinburgh Fringe to see which performers are bringing their shows to the festival.
Some queer performers I’m friends with reportedly faced abuse when trying to flyer for their shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, so LGBT+ performers often use other methods for promoting their shows. The hashtag #TransFringe is a great way to discover shows by trans and non-binary artists at the festival, and hilariously many queer performers find Grindr to be a very effective tool for promoting their shows too apparently.
Either way, no matter how you discover the shows you want to see, get out there and support the amazing array of queer performers at Edinburgh Fringe.
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