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Anything goes to keep Edinburgh Fringe on top

05 August 11 00:16
By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland arts correspondent

It is the little things which mark the transformation of Edinburgh into the festival capital.

A huge purple cow, a faun on stilts striding down the Royal Mile and poster after poster for the "must see shows of 2011".

It takes just a few days to prepare, but it has taken years to reach the mighty status of the world's largest arts festival.

The statistics alone are bewildering: 41,689 performances; 2,542 shows; 1,319 world premieres; 607 free shows; 258 venues.

Some venues, such as The Stand, are here all year round.

Others are more temporary affairs - in churches, tents, shops, pubs and empty buildings around the city.

Thanks to the refurbishment of the Assembly Rooms, the big four venues (the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon, Underbelly and Assembly) all dominate one corner of the old town this year.

Venues on the other side of Princes Street - including a sizeable proportion in the waterfront area of Leith - will have to work hard to encourage audiences to circulate but in an "un-curated" festival, where performers arrive unannounced and uninvited, that is not a new problem.

That is what makes the Edinburgh Fringe so different - along with the sheer scale of it. Anything goes.

If you want to stage a tribute to Pinter, the stage is yours. Sing a medley of Queen hits a capella? Indulge in stand-up comedy? Explore your relationship with alcohol by getting progressively more drunk on camera? They are all shows at this year's fringe.

The great leveller is that whether you are an Oscar nominee like John Malkovich (directing A Celebration of Pinter) or a complete newcomer, you are effectively on the same bill.

Everyone has to work hard to sell their tickets - with so many shows, even the big names are not guaranteed full houses.

While the recession may not have prevented performers from coming, it has affected their work ethic, with many performers doing more than one show to break even.

Australian burlesque group Briefs need to get to bed after their late night cabaret; they have to be up next morning for an 11am children's show (fully clothed of course!).

Of course Edinburgh is not just about the Fringe.

The world's biggest arts festival can sometimes overshadow the fact that there are many other festivals happening around it.

The Edinburgh Art Festival is already off to a flying start with several major exhibitions including shows by two of Scotland's best known artists David Mach and Elizabeth Blackadder.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is kicking off at the same time as the Fringe.

It is already one of the most popular shows in the city and now it is sitting its audiences a little more comfortably in a new £16m grandstand.

The Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival begin next week.

There is the People's Festival, the Festival of Politics, the multicultural Mela and the TV festival yet to come.

And that is another reason Edinburgh is different from any other city.

It may seem like cultural chaos but the fact all these festivals merge together in one relatively small city makes it unique.

A recent survey of 15,000 people who live here all year round found that 89% viewed their festivals with pride, 93% thought it made the city special and most thought the fact the festivals tumble back to back was a good thing.

Of course there are thousands more who will not agree.

Who will find the flyposting, the leafletting, the crowds on the Royal Mile and the endless procession of performers just a tad annoying.

But hey, it is only for a few weeks of the year.

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