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The Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Courtesy Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, usually just called The Fringe, is what most people picture when they think of Edinburgh at Festival time. Brash and unruly, organized yet uncontrolled, the Fringe is as old as the International Festival itself; it began in 1947 when eight acts turned up uninvited to the first ever Festival, and has grown unstoppably ever since.

While the International Festival still hogs the prestige, there's no doubt that the Fringe hogs the limelight. Spanning more than 250 separate performance venues across the whole of Edinburgh, and with well over 2,500 shows to choose from each year, the sheer scale of the Fringe puts it front and centre of the arts scene of Edinburgh - and, arguably, the whole world. The size of the undertaking presents unique challenges to visitors, who can be seen throughout August scurrying across the city, the telephone-book-like Fringe programme clutched under their arm.

Many visitors are surprised to learn that there's no formal connection between the International Festival and the Festival Fringe. In fact, the Fringe itself is a pretty formless idea: while the central Fringe Society does publish a combined programme, there's no single person in charge of the Fringe as a whole. Anyone with a show can join the party, provided only that they can find somewhere to stage it - an arrangement which puts the Fringe's independent venues in the box seat when it comes to deciding the annual artistic direction.

Some of the venues are multi-outlet chains, effectively running their own small festivals, with carefully-designed and coordinated programmes. Others are little more than church halls or school assembly rooms, offering temporary house-room to anyone with a show to put on. The artistic direction is as diverse as these performance spaces - with theatre, comedy, music, dance and visual arts all finding shelter under the Fringe umbrella.

The joy of the Fringe lies in this diversity, which is served with a healthy dash of egalitarian spirit. Household-name comedians jostle for attention with high-school theatrical societies and one-man stand-ups; and, despite inevitable claims that it's not quite like it used to be, the small-time amateur can still strike it big by picking up a few favourable reviews. It's an exhilarating, unmatchable experience to be part of: but inevitably amidst all this anarchy, there's little room for quality control. Yes, there's a lot of treasure to be found on the Fringe - but it's guarded by a flock of turkeys.

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