About the Edinburgh Festival


ThreeWeeks has been covering the Edinburgh Festival yearly since 1996, making it the longest established specialist magazine at the world’s biggest cultural event.

The Edinburgh Festival is simply the most exciting cultural festival on the planet. It is the biggest and the best. In no other city will you find such a wide variety of theatre, comedy, dance, music, musicals, literature and debate, all at the same time, as you will find in Edinburgh during August.

Because of it’s vast size and hugely eclectic nature, the Edinburgh Festival can seem overwhelming at first sight. Where the hell do you start? How do you pick shows and events from the 5000+ on offer, many of which have performances every day of the festival month?

To help you navigate it all, here is a quick(ish) guide to how the Edinburgh Festival ‘works’. The whole thing may look a little off-putting at first, but don’t be put off – it’s worth it – because everyone should experience the Edinburgh Festival at least once in their lives.

One of the reasons the Edinburgh Festival is so confusing is because it doesn’t really exist! No, really. The ‘Edinburgh Festival’ is actually a number of different festivals that all take place at some point during a three week period in August.

Each of these festivals has its own organisation, director, website and printed programme – which is why you won’t find any one programme with ‘Edinburgh Festival’ written on the cover.

These festivals include the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

To make things even more confusing, while the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has its own organisation (the Fringe Society), website (edfringe.com) and printed programme (the ‘Fringe Programme’), actually that organisation doesn’t produce any shows itself – it merely represents over 100+ independent venue operators, and 1000+ promoters, producers and theatre companies, who together present and produce the 3000+ shows that make up the Fringe.

Like I say, a bit confusing. But stick with us. Here’s some info on each of those festivals…

The Edinburgh International Festival was launched in 1947. It aimed to bring the very best performing arts companies and orchestras from across the world to the Scottish capital in a gesture of post-war artistic collaboration.

Seventy years on, the International Festival has the same core aim, to bring together some of the best theatre, dance and opera companies, musicians, orchestras and speakers from all over the world to take part in an innovative and exciting three week programme of arts and culture.

The International Festival is led and programmed by one director – Fergus Linehan – who picks themes and sets the tone for each festival and cherry picks the companies that take part. The International Festival programme consists of theatre, dance, opera, music and visual art, plus talks with people involved in the Festival.

The EIF website is at eif.co.uk.

In that first year, back in 1947, eight smaller theatre companies recognised that a large audience of culture fans would be pulled to Edinburgh by the International Festival. They seized on the opportunity to ‘borrow’ that audience and took over smaller venues not being used by the main festival. And so the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was born (though it was a few years before people started calling it that).

The Fringe grew each year until it was considerably larger than the main festival itself, but as it grew it kept the informal and slightly erratic approach that had been behind its creation in 1947, something that developed into what some people call the ‘spirit of the Fringe’.

That spirit is the belief that “any performer or theatre company who can raise the money and find a performance space is welcome”. To this day, the Edinburgh Fringe remains unprogrammed – there is no director, board or company who says what can or can’t be performed – anything goes (within the limits of the law… usually!).

Because of its open access artistic policy, pretty much any kind of show can appear in the Fringe, which means pretty much every genre is represented in one way or another. The main genres, though, are cabaret, children’s shows, comedy, dance and physical theatre, music, musicals, spoken word, theatre and visual art.

A Fringe Society was established in 1958 to oversee the administration of the Fringe, and it continues to do so today, as well as publishing a central programme, running a central box office and press office, coordinating street theatre on Edinburgh High Street, and providing resources and advice to companies and performers performing at the Fringe.

It is easy to confuse the Fringe Society with the Festival Fringe itself – but they are in reality two separate things. The Festival Fringe is an erratic, informal and intangible beast, the Fringe Society is the organisation appointed (and in part funded) by performers and promoters at the Festival Fringe to coordinate centralised activities on their behalf. The Fringe Society does not produce or promote any events (with the exception of a programme of workshops for performers at Fringe Central and the open-mic-type stages on the Royal Mile).

The Fringe Society website is at edfringe.com.

The Festival Fringe takes place in 100+ venues, each independently run, and each with their own artistic aims and ambitions. Most venues will operate a number of performance spaces, and some are based in a number of different buildings around Edinburgh.

Some venues invite specific companies to perform in their spaces, while others allow anyone with a show to perform to rent space (most do a bit of both). Each venue will publish their own programme and run their own box office (some venues work together on these), in addition to the central programme and box office published and run by the Fringe Society.

Venues at the Fringe vary hugely from year round theatres to grand looking churches to major concert halls to expertly converted bespoke Festival venues to back rooms in pubs. Some are very posh and plush, others less so. Others a lot less so!

Some of the bigger and longer established venues enjoy a higher profile. Some because they tend to get the bigger name artists and companies, like the so called ‘big four’: Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly. Others because their programmes are so prolific, and they regularly host many ‘Fringe favourite’ companies, like the C and Space venues.

Then there are the big year-round venues in Edinburgh which stage special Fringe programmes and which often stand out within their respective genres, including new writing theatre the Traverse, year-round dance venue Dance Base, creative hub Summerhall, and Edinburgh’s seminal comedy club The Stand.

Other eminent Fringe venues include those operated by the Sweet, Zoo, Greenside, Just The Tonic and Paradise Green teams, and for music the Acoustic Music Centre and The Jazz Bar, while Venue 13, Bedlam Theatre, Quaker Meeting House and Scottish Storytelling Centre are all also established Fringe names.

To confuse matters even more, some Fringe producers or venues present their programmes as if they are standalone festivals, even though they are within the Fringe, and are often listed in the Fringe programme. The most prominent ‘festivals within the Fringe’ are those that bring together venues that host mainly free shows, which currently include the Free Fringe and the Free Festival.

Since 1947 a number of other festivals have been launched, all taking place in or around August alongside the International Festival and the Fringe, and each one specialising in a different genre. These include:

Edinburgh International Book Festival
Possibly the best literary festival on the planet, combining book readings and author-based events with debates and discussions on literary, social and political issues, involving world renowned authors, journalists and commentators. edbookfest.co.uk

Edinburgh Art Festival
Bringing together art galleries from across Edinburgh, this is basically an umbrella grouping for selected exhibitions being staged by those galleries, providing an easy guide to the best visual art on offer in the Scottish capital during the Festival season. edinburghartfestival.com

Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The British army’s contribution to the Festival – no, really – a massive show featuring piping, marching and lots of tartan. The Tattoo takes over Edinburgh Castle every August, and attracts a large audience of both locals and innerational tourists, as well as other festival-goers. edintattoo.co.uk

Edinburgh International Television Festival
A trade event and the UK TV industry’s flagship annual festival. thetvfestival.com

Edinburgh also plays host to a number of other festivals that fall outside of August, details of which can be found on the Festivals Edinburgh website. Three – the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival and the Festival Of Politics – used to be part of the main festival month but no longer are (though the jazz fest is still pretty close!)

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in Edinburgh during August not officially affiliated to any of these festivals. Many pubs, clubs, bars and cafes stage special events during the Festival, and all the tourist attractions that are open in the city all year round will have extra opening hours. As far as we’re concerned, these are part of the intangible ‘Edinburgh Festival’ too.

Basically, you take all the above festivals, all the other stuff, put it altogether in one box, and that is the Edinburgh Festival. Needless to say, it is huge and, while a bit confusing, it offers simply the most exciting, diverse and eclectic mix of arts, culture and entertainment from all over the world, all in one place at one time.

The Edinburgh Festival is simply the biggest and bestest festival on the planet.

Last Updated: July 2019