An unexpected guest at the festival

Taiwanese dancers
Taiwanese dancers

When I planned this trip, I wasn’t aware I’d be landing in the middle of the world’s largest arts festival. Imagine taking a trip to New Orleans and showing up, unexpectedly, during Mardi Gras.

Edinburgh’s festival completely takes over the city in August. Its immensity is difficult to convey.

First of all, there are six festivals all going at once: the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Edinburgh Mela.

The Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival were held earlier in June and July. Every art form is represented.

New Zealand Maori dancers
New Zealand Maori dancers

There are over three hundred and fifty venues. Some are in established theaters and concert halls, but most of the Fringe venues are scattered in every available nook throughout the city—parks, church basements, schools, pubs, beer gardens, tents, garages, back alleys, underpasses, and holes in the wall. I’m not kidding. There’s a venue every half of a block.

Each day for three weeks over three thousand performances run, mid-morning until after midnight. Add them together and over fifty thousand performances will run throughout the festival. The listing of events is as thick as a phone directory. Many performances are free. Unsold tickets are available daily for half-price.

Fringe sketch comedians
Fringe sketch comedians

As a result, over twenty thousand artists are in town. Many of them walk the streets in costume performing bits from their shows and handing out promotional flyers. They represent over fifty countries. While walking down the street to have lunch, I quickly collect thirty or forty flyers. Additionally, street performers are on every corner busking for change from the huge crowds in town for the shows. During the festivals, the population of Edinburgh increases from over five hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand. Some say a million.

The spirit of the festival is “expect the unexpected.” No topic is sacred. New works are introduced and new talent is discovered. John Cleese and Graham Chapman of Monty Python attracted attention at the festival in the early 1960s.

Cabaret dancer
Cabaret dancer

J.K. Rowling read an excerpt from her first Harry Potter book here. Mike Myers, Jack Black, Hugh Grant, Emily Blunt, Robin Williams, Jude Law, Emma Thompson. and Hugh Laurie all honed their craft at the festival. Part of the fun of attending is being in on the next discovery.

The International Festival, featuring known classical artists, started it all in 1947. Back then, uninvited companies invited themselves anyway and performed in available venues. This was the start of the Fringe that accepts any production, whether starring high-school kids or established actors.

I attended the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held nightly in a specially constructed grandstand on the castle esplanade. The performance features British, Commonwealth, and international military bands. The castle looked magnificent by torchlight on a foggy night. The opening ceremony involved the guest of honor and the lone piper toasting each other with drams of whisky from silver chalices. (I can’t quite imagine that before an Ohio State University football game!)

Edinburgh Castle during the Tattoo
Edinburgh Castle during the Tattoo

After the bagpipes and drums made a stirring entrance from the castle, bands and dancers from various nations in the Commonwealth performed. It was a bit more Broadway, a little less military than I was expecting. At the conclusion, the crowd of nine thousand sang and held hands during the Scottish national anthem and “Auld Lang Syne.” The most moving moment of the night was the lone piper performing a lament from the top of the castle ramparts.

So, what else to see? The London Philharmonic Orchestra or the Lady Boys of Bangkok? The Soweto Spiritual Singers or Boris & Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium? So far, in addition to the Tattoo, I’ve seen an Irish observational humorist, a Scottish traditional folk group, an English political satirist, a version of Who’s Line Is It Anyway? starring some of the original American cast, and a Scottish pantomime  show. I hope to see a few more before I leave town for the less festive Highlands.

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