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Edinburgh Festival 99 Friday, 6 August, 1999, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Fringe benefits
The Fringe is just one of several festivals which take place in Edinburgh over the summer but for many visitors it stands apart from the rest. BBC Scotland's arts correspondent Pauline McLean explains why.

It's no accident that among the melee of Edinburgh's festivals, you'll find at least one circus. The owners of that big top may think they're The Greatest Show on Earth but actually, they're just a small part of it.

Just one of the 500 companies turning in a mere handful of the 14,108 performances taking place on the Edinburgh Fringe - truly the greatest show on earth.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
This sprawling festival of everything from Shakespeare to stand-up is a far cry from the small alternative programme set up in 1947 to complement the Edinburgh International Festival.

Since then it has exploded, becoming far bigger (at least in terms of size and scale) than what was originally the main event. What's more, to, many people, the Fringe is the Edinburgh Festival.

Too big for its boots

There have been concerns in recent years that the Fringe has just got too big. With almost 2,000 shows playing in every conceivable venue from churches to masonic lodges, it seems to have reached saturation point.

A traditional performance of, say Shakespeare, in an offbeat venue at an obscure time, is likely to have more people on stage than in the audience.

But that's half the fun of it. It's unpredictable. And in keeping with the world's oddest festival, fringe audiences are oddly unpredictable too.

The Edinburgh company engaged in market research for Edinburgh City Council this year admit they're expecting some very strange findings.

There are audiences that see no anomaly in following up a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with a session of late night comedy.

Others will rave about live cookery alongside opera; urban jazz as well as Albanian folk music.

Aside from the cultural spread represented at the Fringe, it is also rare in being one of the few international festivals where the performers pick up the bill.

Bitten by the bug

There are a handful of promoters prepared to back some of the more commercial shows but for most of the acts, these performances are for love, not money.

A medium-sized theatre company performing one play for several nights will be lucky to have change from 5,000 by the time they've hired a venue and paid for food, accommodation and travel.

The busy Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival
Some cut back on the expense. During the Fringe you'll find a proliferation of tents, campervans, not to mention whole dance companies crammed into one room and kitchen.

But such selfless pursuit of art also results in a genuine enthusiasm. Most people perform on the fringe because they want to. They'll march the streets, delivering endless flyers in the hope of persuading punters to come to their show instead of 500 others.

They'll woo reviewers with quirky gifts - press releases in chocolate boxes, wrapped round glittery candles and sealed in toy trucks. They'll tramp Edinburgh's Royal Mile in outrageous costumes, perform excerpts in the rain and make a stream of calls to local newspaper reporters who might be persuaded to come and review their show.

And for what? True, the Fringe has become something of a picking ground for TV executives and even the odd film company but the number of shows which are snapped up for a run in London's West End and the number of actors who get their big break in Edinburgh are less than the number in the audience at a late night performance of Brecht ... in Serbo Croat.

Fringe virgins do it for the love of it. And once they've "done" it, they're drawn back to Edinburgh on an annual basis.

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