The Edinburgh Fringe Festival began in 1947 with only seven shows as a counterculture movement against the Edinburgh International Festival, which was an invitation only theatre festival. In the 69 years of its life, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has become the largest theatre festival in the world. In 2016 alone, there were 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows in 294 venues. We were one of those 3,269.
Our director and producer, Stephen Santa, had been in conversation with people who had been to the Fringe before and it suddenly became his new dream. Santa picked Dani Girl by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a show about a young girl battling leukemia who with her undaunted imagination goes on a hilarious and heartbreaking quest to get back her hair. He had been in a production of the show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the musical was conceived and set, and felt it was a show that needed to be shared with a larger audience. With half of the original cast members from the original Pittsburgh production (two of four), and a total cast and crew of nine, The Grandview Theater Group was ready to take on the Fringe.
Though the Fringe takes place all of August, the journey begins much sooner: fundraising. Putting on a show is no small fee. Putting on a show and taking it across an ocean is a much bigger fee. We took up many fundraising efforts from crowdfunding to cabarets. Rehearsals took place two weeks before take off, and when August 2 arrived, it was 3,494 miles from Pittsburgh to Edinburgh.
It’s impossible not to describe Edinburgh as a giant Hogwarts. There is sense of age and history that looms everywhere you walk. Streets are thin and cobblestones. “Closes” or small alleys between buildings create a hidden network of shortcuts. The Edinburgh Castle rests proudly at the top of the Royal Mile, the main stretch of road in Old Town. During the Fringe, The Royal Mile becomes the Time Square of Edinburgh.
Our housing was in New Town in university apartments, which was about a 20 minute walk to the Royal Mile. We spent our first day getting to understand the layout of the city and explore the possibilities that lie within it. On every street corner, every bus, massive posters for shows were placed. People at every possible stretch of sidewalk would be flyer-ing, trying to sell their show- something we would become much too good at. The Fringe consists of the “Big Four”: the largest venues of the program and then under that are smaller venues that companies like ourselves would house their shows. Our venue was called Greenside: Royal Terrace, a church in New Town that becomes a venue during the festival. Here we are seeing our poster for the first time at the Greenside Headquarters in New Town.
Putting on a show at the Fringe is great, but not unless you can get an audience. Everyday we would wake up, walk to our venue – not before grabbing a doughnut and a coffee at our company favorite coffee shop, Twelve Triangles – build our set in 20 minutes before the show, perform, tear down the set in less than 20 minutes, and then be out on the streets flyering and putting posters on every street corner.
The key to flyering is having a smart, catchy phrase to have a stranger just simply read your show’s synopsis. I haven’t been told no so many times in my life than flyering at the fringe. The Royal Mile became our main stomping ground. On the Mile, there are various stages placed so shows can take the stage for a view minutes and give preview to draw an audience. There are street performers blowing fire and statue men, and large pillars that by the end of the festival would be feet thick of layers and layers of posters.
Marketing a musical about a young girl with cancer presented a challenge. Our show was also in the morning – a contrast to the heavily night life festival. We had to try even harder to present the show in an engaging and thoughtful manner. The obvious way to do that is clearly to buy a huge bear head and parade it down the street. Mr. Fritz, Dani’s stuffed bear, became our mascot at the Fringe.
With six shows a week, we relished our days off where we could go beyond the city and explore more of Scotland. Everyone in a group agrees that the first day off was one of the most magical. Only about 15 minutes out of the city is Craigmillar Castle, the wonderfully preserved ruins of an ancient castle. We all took a nap outside of the castle on soft Scottish grass and a warm Highland breeze.
The Fringe is hard, but there’s so much joy and creativity happening that makes everything worthwhile. Sometimes you run into famous clowns on the street like Puddles of Post Modern Jukebox Fame.
Other times you see a musical, like Glasgow Girls, that instantly becomes your favorite.
The three weeks of the Fringe are a test of endurance. Reviews begin coming out and dictate where audiences are tending to go. We were very lucky to receive two five star ratings: “Trust me, fringe magic still happens.” (Broadwaybaby); “A good kind of heartbreak.” (The Sunday Times); and one four star, “There’s nothing cool about cancer, but this musical might be the closest thing.”
One of our favorite flyering catch phrases was “Five star musical to start your morning?”
Halfway through our run our Pittsburgh Musical Director had to go back to the states, and we had a wonderful Scottish replacement: Fraser.
Edinburgh is full of pure beauty in place like Arthur’s Seat, the largest mountain that over looks the entire city.
And Calton Hill which was just a five minute walk from our venue that gave a distinct vantage point over the city. Here is Cynthia who played Dani’s Mom with her husband, who came to visit, enjoying the view.
We even took place in a game show called, Get Your Own Back, the UK equivalent of Double Dare from late 1990’s Nickelodeon. We had to compete in mini challenges to win and try not to get “gunged” (slimed as we would say it in the states).
The Edinburgh Fringe is a life changing whirlwind. You’re always doing something. The culture bursts through the city brimming with life and theatre. There are so many people to thank for letting us have this experience from all who supported us before we left and a huge thanks to our Greenside Family at the venue, who were some of the sweetest, hardest-working people we’d ever met.
Leaving Edinburgh was hard, but Mr. Fritz was elated to be back home in Pittsburgh.