A Guide to Surviving the Edinburgh Fringe
Disclaimer: Hairdressers should not read on. This is not the blog you are looking for.
I am a survivor.
One of many members of a not-so-exclusive club, who have been through an emotional trauma that we cannot help but be reminded of every year. Officially that time is August, but Survivors Guilt begins much earlier, in July.
Last year, I met with other survivors in London and we shared smiles, drinks and a general feeling of relief that, this year at least, it was not us. But beyond the smiles, lay another tale, as we secretly worried for the ones who were left behind.
The backstage story behind the continued success of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival remains a combination of the never-ending line of raw recruits; willing to throw themselves against the odds into the front line, often for little more than enough money to put back into the tills of their producer’s bar at the end of a 16 hour day; and the battle-hardened veterans; the die-hards who return year after year, despite vowing each one is ‘probably’ going to be their last.
In my first (and ‘probably’ last) full Fringe, I worked all but two days in a fifty-day period. I averaged 4-6 hours sleep a day and my first day off was over four weeks after I first arrived.
I stayed in three different places. The first house didn’t work out so well after just three nights, when a housemate held a party the night before the get-in and my room got invaded by a random drunk stranger around 4am, who couldn’t even say his name. After showing him out for the third time, I gave up, got up and went into work. Thanks to the lovely lady in charge of accommodation, I moved that same morning, lucking out with a quieter flat shared with just one other, until my final couple of days.
I left Scotland in September, bruised, broken and still on autopilot. I was so used to a frantic pace, with hours that could stretch from 8am ‘til 3am, and up to 23 shows on repeat for 4 weeks, that having nothing to do all of a sudden meant the first few days back home seemed to last forever.
I was sure I would never go back.
Within a week I knew I would miss it if I didn’t. I was a Fringe Addict and in a small way, I knew I now always would be.
So, what do you need to survive the Fringe?
There’s far too much for one blog, so I’ll give you the four F’s - Friends, Food, Fun and Freedom.
You need friends in Edinburgh – first, your venue team – you’ll spend more time with these people than anyone else, so make sure you have their back from the start and (hopefully!) they’ll always have yours. You’re probably going to be the most tired you have ever been in your life at some point in the weeks ahead. They will be too. Learn who you can always have fun with and who you sometimes need to give some space.
Friends at home can be helpful too. When you’re about to lose it and just need to vent, without the rest of Edinburgh finding out too, a friend in the outside world can be the most valuable thing ever. I was lucky – a good friend kept me vaguely sane on the days (and nights) when I was past caring or ready to quit.
I’m a meat-eater, so apologies to the vegans and vegetarians of the world; I can’t help you. But you’re going to need a variety of places to eat that aren’t just one fast food joint after another. In fact, fast food in the Edinburgh Festival season doesn’t really exist because everywhere is so busy. Plus, you need to decide which you can afford – food or drinks? Depending on who you’re working for, your budget may not stretch to both.
If you have time to make your own food, then supermarkets are the best option. Some days we had pizza, curry, or Chinese delivered and everyone chipped in. Of course, you’ll be eating around whatever shows you’re covering and Edinburgh Front of House teams can’t wait for you to finish making your crispy shredded duck pancake, before they start loading 800 people into the house in under seven minutes.
If you like a Hog Roast, then you have to give Oink a try. A choice of size of rolls, with different flavour stuffing and sauce, and rammed full of freshly cooked pulled-pork. There’s one on Hanover Street and another on Canongate.
Another huge favourite is the Italian on the Mound (15 Bank Street) – with their legendary freshly-made sandwich Specials and friendly staff. Always ask if their chef has made Arancini – crispy, deep fried Sicilian balls of rice, meat sauce and mozzarella encased in breadcrumbs. These are truly to die for and a big favourite to take back for a hungry team-member too.
Depending on who you work for, many food outlets will offer discounts for venue staff, so keep your pass handy and don't be afraid to ask.
Despite the long hours, you have to make time to have fun while you’re there. Go to the social events if your venue run them. Head to the bar after work, even if it’s just for one (although we all know it probably won’t be).
The hard facts are, you’re not in Edinburgh to make money. But, and especially important if you’re new to the industry, you can make an awful lot of contacts and a great bunch of new friends for life. You’ll always share a bond with other survivors – even the ones you maybe fell out with. And you’re in arguably the largest annual gathering of your kind of people, all of whom are there for similar reasons. Where else could you hope to find so many people you can relate to?
The downside of too much fun will be when you don’t show for work the next morning. There’s a high chance it will happen to you once. When it happens, take it on the chin, apologise and don’t forget to buy your team the Apology Bacon Sandwiches.
Despite being in the land of William Wallace, it seems they CAN still take your freedom. Hold out for that special moment though, sometime after the first week of previews, when you’re finally told you can take a day off.
Like an addict who needs another hit to get by, so days off can take the hardiest Fringe worker by surprise. You wander past your venue. Your friends are all working. Will they remember that one crucial part of the set-up that you usually do? The streets, which you rarely venture onto during the day are just so full of…tourists…audiences…all rushing around to get to their next show.
You stupidly miss a shortcut and decide to walk down the Royal Mile, just to see what it’s like during the daytime. Twenty minutes later, you’ve gone one hundred yards, collected thirty-seven fliers, fifteen for shows that are in your own venue every day, and said ‘I’m not sure I can make it’ to fifty-nine new-best-friends, watching the light in their eyes extinguish as you turn them down, before they look straight through you for their next victim.
Don’t let that be your first taste of freedom.
The best thing I did on my day off, by far, was to head to Waverley Station and board a train. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure I was coming back either. Someone would send my luggage on if I chose not to return and you don’t currently need a passport to head back to England.
But I took a train to North Berwick. I have no idea why I chose that as my destination other than it was by the sea and, most importantly, not in Edinburgh.
The journey took just over half an hour and it was the most peaceful half hour I’d had in weeks. Once I arrived, I walked to the beach, around the coast, hiked up a big mound with a great view, saw a pirate ship at sea and took a speedboat trip around some islands. And it was awesome. Because I wasn’t in Edinburgh.
Others I know went surfing. Some to a football match. Most, at some point, will follow the path up to Arthur’s Seat, which overlooks the whole of Edinburgh. You should do that once even though it’s a bit of a hike (and you won’t be alone).
But value your freedom and do something to take a real break, even just for that day. It’s incredible to see how much difference a day off can make when you see someone returning fresh-faced the next morning.
I hope you make it through the Fringe.
Whether you arrive at September as a broken shadow of your former self or a super-speedy, fully-fledged convert who can’t wait for next year, you will have joined the exclusive members club that you can look back on for years to come.
You will be an Edinburgh Fringe Survivor.