A Feminist’s Guide to Thriving at the Edinburgh Festivals

TO read the numerous “survival guides” that appear at this time of year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Edinburgh’s August festivals are up there with war or natural disaster – something that can be endured, with the right planning, but might be best avoided altogether.

A gruelling three-week run can certainly take it out of performers – physically, mentally, spiritually – but as an audience member you should be aiming to do so much more than “survive”. The festivals present an unrivalled opportunity to gorge yourself on theatre, comedy, music and art. To encounter thrilling new scripts, jokes, ideas and performance styles. To potentially transform the way you see the world.

Ask not how you can survive this manic month of almost infinite possibilities, but how you can make the most of the incredible opportunity it presents. Here are A Feminist’s Guide to the Festivals top tips.

  1. Plan wellWith thousands of shows on offer and the streets of Edinburgh transformed into one big performance space, many people visiting the city for a day or two make the mistake of playing it by ear, hoping they will stumble across something brilliant via a street performance, a flier or some vaguely defined notion of a “buzz”. This is misguided.

    The majority of shows at the Fringe require pre-purchased tickets (including, at high-demand times like evenings and at the weekend, those with a “pay what you can” option listed in the programme) and the chances of randomly finding one that floats your boat are not particularly high.

  2. Search the programmesThe Fringe programme is massive, and daunting, but time spent perusing it before the festivals begin is time well spent. The programmes for Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival are smaller, so it makes sense to start with these. Book festival events are one-offs and EIF runs are much shorter than most Fringe runs, so if you start by booking for these you can then slot in Fringe shows around them.

    Use the “advanced search” function on edfringe.com to narrow down your options by date, time and genre, or check out the smaller, more digestible programmes (ie Traverse for new plays, Summerhall for avante-garde performance, The Stand for comedy, the prestigious “big four” – Assembly/Underbelly/Pleasance/Gilded Balloon – for a bit of everything).

    There’s really no substitute for sitting and trawling through the programmes, but another shortcut is to use keyword searches or artists, writers or topics that interest you. It could be that a show relevant to your niche interests (so niche it wouldn’t occur to you to search for it) is being performed at a small venue by a company you’ve never heard of. Investing time before the Fringe begins always pays off!

  1. Don’t plan too muchWhile planning nothing is an error, planning too much is another trap to avoid. Regardless of how much research you do in advance, it’s never possible to predict which shows will become festival must-sees. Make sure to leave “TBC” slots in your schedule – ideally for days and times when there will be less competition for tickets. If a show quickly picks up a fistful of rave reviews, weekend shows will sell out first.
  2. Consider the source of ratings and reviewsMainstream media coverage of the Fringe ain’t what it used to be. Coverage by professional critics has been scaled back dramatically and the vast majority of reviews and ratings you see around Edinburgh will be from people reviewing for free. This doesn’t mean their opinions aren’t worth listening to, but it does mean you should think twice before assuming a five-star rating has the same value regardless of who is awarding it.

    Be particularly sceptical about five-star reviews plastered across posters for free Fringe shows that all come from the same source.

    If you see something you absolutely love, it’s worth looking for positive reviews afterwards to get a sense of which critics (professional or amateur) are on your wavelength, and what else they are recommending.

  3. Leave gaps for travel between venuesThe key with Fringe scheduling is to pack as much into each day without leaving yourself exhausted and overwhelmed. This means leaving enough time between shows for you to digest what you’ve seen, travel between venues (often through very crowded streets), and to grab food and drink when you need it.

    The best way to plan is to create a long list of shows, organised by performance time, and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, ifhh you’ve booked a post-lunch show running from 1pm-2pm and are trying to maximise your time, try to slot in something starting at 3pm or 3.30pm (or, if it’s at the same venue, 2.30pm).

    Bear in the mind that at the start of the Fringe shows may start or finish late, as technical teams get into the swing of executing very tight turnarounds, so leave a bit more time in between. Fringe shows are general admission, so those at the front of the queue get the best choice of seats.

  4. Take advantage of previews and two-for-one deals.Most shows begin with cheaper preview performances, and many are two-for-one on the first Monday and Tuesday of the Fringe (August 5-6 in 2019).

    Previews are cheaper for a reason, so bear in mind that some shows might evolve and improve over the course of their run. Theatre productions are likely to become slicker and tighter, while stand-ups will drop any jokes that miss the mark. If the show has already been performed elsewhere, preview tickets are a particularly safe bet.

    If you’re planning a visit to Edinburgh or are local and planning time off work (and have a chum to accompany you), make the most of the two-for-one days. Again, safe bets are shows that have already been performed and positively reviewed, but this is also a good time to try something new and exciting – if a show doesn’t meet your expectations, it hasn’t cost you very much.

    If you’ll be in Edinburgh for more than a few days, consider becoming a Friend of the Fringe, which gives you access to two-for-one tickets for a wide range of shows throughout the run of the Fringe, as well as access to a members-only box office and phone line.

  5. Dress for the weather, stay hydrated, and don’t expect air conditioningAll sorts of spaces are transformed into arts venues for the Fringe, ranging from conference venues with all mod cons to sweaty pub function suites. Packing a paper fan is a good idea (although flyers make a decent substitute) and wearing layers is advisable so you can strip off should you need to. Carry a bottle of water, and if you’re going near the Scottish Parliament you can refill it for free at Scottish Water’s top-up tap.
  6. Bring your own toilet paperBe aware that increasingly toilets at Fringe venues are designated as “gender-neutral”, or mixed-sex, and things can get messy. Like at any festival, it’s always a good idea to carry your own tissues.
  7. Support women performersThe Fringe may still be dominated by men – especially when it comes to stand-up comedy – but the sheer scale of the festival means you can watch women all day, every day should you choose to. What a treat!
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