The insiders' guide to the Edinburgh Fringe

Girl in front of Edinburgh Fringe posters

With 2,871 shows by 24,107 performers in 273 venues, the Edinburgh Fringe boasts of being the world's biggest arts festival.

As artists and audiences begin to take over the Scottish capital, Edinburgh regulars talk about the highs and lows of the Fringe.

Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair made her Fringe debut in the early 1980s before becoming the first female winner of the Perrier Award in 1995.

Jenny Eclair Jenny Eclair: "We've got too much talent and not enough punters"

What was your first act at the Fringe?

I was a punk poet. I performed in a nightclub next to the station. It was a combination of paying punters who actually wanted to see some punk poetry and drunk businessmen who stumbled off the train and just wanted a drink.

It was quite a difficult audience. I just had to shout. In those days I was often blind and deaf with terror and just used to scream and shout everything I did.

Have things changed for female comedians since you won the Perrier?

I think they've changed enormously. There are a lot more female comics, and a lot more comics all round. We have kind of created this huge monster of comedy, which is fabulous because so many people are allowed to do what they want to do. There's space for any kind of comedy.

What we're all fighting for is bums on seats. I think we've got too much talent and not enough punters.

Who is your audience now?

I am the soft easy ticket for any middle-aged people that are knocking around thinking, I just want to see one thing before dinner. Or the parents that are coming up to see their teenagers do experimental dance pieces and just want to see something they understand. I will take the mums and dads who are wandering around looking a bit dazed.

Jenny Eclair: Eclairious is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot from 2-17 August.

Greg Proops

Greg Proops Greg Proops: "I couldn't believe how fun and wild it was"

US comedian Greg Proops was well-known from the improvisation TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? when he first performed at Edinburgh.

When did you first come to Edinburgh?

The first time I went was 1989. My first show was in 1993. I couldn't believe how fun and wild it was. It was druggy and drinky and we stayed up all night and I couldn't understand anyone. I was drunk and people were speaking with a heavy burr and I just nodded a lot. I thought it was fantastic.

I did a midnight show and I think I sold out every night. I got up every day at 4pm and would get home at 4am because the show ended at 1am. I was 20 years younger so I had the stamina. When I came back to the States, I was a different comedian. My perspective had changed entirely. I was more confident, bolder.

How much has Edinburgh changed?

Oh golly. Now they have cold beer and artisan hamburger stands.

There's way more corporate sponsorship. They were already writing about the death of the Fringe the first year I did it. There's always been room for people to sneak in and have a hit show. There's always been room for surprises. It's just a little bit more structured. It's a little more civilised. Perhaps a little bit more bourgeois.

I think there's just as much excitement. I've been to many festivals and I think Edinburgh is the one where I still find myself at the end of the night with a bunch of comics talking and having fun.

Greg Proops is performing stand-up and recording his podcast at the Gilded Balloon Teviot from 31 July to 15 August.

Nicholas Parsons

Nicholas Parsons Nicholas Parsons: "People seem to be more relaxed and more friendly"

At the age of 23, Nicholas Parsons attended the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947. Now 89, he is performing Nicholas Parsons' Happy Hour for a 13th year.

What was the first festival like?

It was the first arts festival since the war and they had one or two visiting companies from abroad and one or two British companies. And they had one or two small organisations that had come up and were doing little shows on the fringe of the festival.

Then more and more people started finding venues and putting on little shows. Slowly over the years what started as a very peripheral thing to the Edinburgh Festival has now overtaken it and is like the tail that wags the dog.

What do you enjoy most?

There's a frisson in the air. People seem to be more relaxed and more friendly. You walk about and people say hello. Bars and restaurants are open late and everybody's meeting and talking and discussing which shows to go and see. It's a joyous time.

Why do performers come to Edinburgh?

It is the one place where youngsters can chance their arm and they have a shop window. Maybe if they've got talent it will take off and lead to bigger and better things. I don't think people come to the Edinburgh festival to make money. They come to be seen.

Nicholas Parsons' Happy Hour is at the Pleasance Courtyard from 1-18 August.

Mark Ravenhill

Playwright and provocateur Mark Ravenhill first experienced Edinburgh as a drama student in 1985. Now a Fringe regular, he is delivering the event's inaugural opening lecture.

Mark Ravenhill Mark Ravenhill: "It's almost as if the Fringe has developed its own fringe"

How were your student plays received?

In the mornings we would do a kids' show, based on the Grimm Fairytales called Fe Fi Fo Fum, and in the afternoons we would do a show based on the life of the Earl of Rochester.

They were appallingly attended. We were out on the streets from about 8:30am handing out leaflets and singing songs from the show. We'd always persuade a group of people. Not often in double figures.

Why do you keep going back?

Within the fringe you've got everything from students to very accomplished, very exciting companies from all over the world. You're all in the same brochure and so you all feel some sort of connection with each other. It costs a bit - you need to raise some money - but anybody can be part of the same festival.

What would you change about the Fringe?

It's an ecosystem that's developed over so many decades that I wouldn't want to change it. It does gradually evolve. Things like the Free Fringe are really good to keep opening up different possibilities of what the Fringe could be. It's almost as if the Fringe has developed its own fringes. All that's really healthy.

Mark Ravenhill's Welcome Lecture is on 2 August. Auden, Britten, Mitchell and Ravenhill: Tell Me the Truth About Love is at the Underbelly, Bristo Square, from 31 July to 26 August.

Kate Copstick

Kate Copstick first took part in Edinburgh as a performer in 1984. She has been The Scotsman's influential comedy critic for the past 15 years.

Kate Copstick Kate Copstick: "Don't go to the Fringe if you want everything to be brilliant"

How many shows do you see per day?

I average five or six, certainly for the first two-and-a-half weeks, and then it might start to tail off slightly.

What do you look for?

I regard it as something of a mission to see as many shows on the Free Fringe and in small venues as I possibly can. Let's face it, none of the big names need me.

I have a self-made rule - I will not go and see any performer who is in a venue of more than 300 seats. That's not a fringe venue. I love going to little rooms in the backs of pubs and tiny venues which have never been venues before and find people that nobody knows about.

Are there enough gems to make it worthwhile?

Yes. Some stuff is a bit rubbish. But it's free and it's trying out, and that's what the Fringe is for. Don't go to the Fringe if you want everything to be brilliant because it's supposed to be a bit rough around the edges.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I saw a guy called Rob Auton last year. His show was called The Yellow Show. That's what the show was about - the colour yellow. It was very strange. It wasn't a laugh a minute. It probably wasn't even a laugh every two minutes.

But it was wonderful - funny and sweet and weird and I am still thinking about it now. If that's not great, what is? He's coming back with a show called The Sky Show, all about the sky, and I can't wait to go.

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes made his Edinburgh debut in 1988 before winning the Perrier Award two years later.

Sean Hughes Sean Hughes: "The day after I won the award was probably the worst show"

Do you look forward to Edinburgh?

I do. Being a performer's quite an isolated thing so it's nice to be in a city where you're continually going to bump into people who you know. There is still that camaraderie.

Did you ever play to empty rooms?

Edinburgh's always been very good to me. Even the year I won the Perrier, I was playing to about 70 people a night. The second I won the award, the rest of the run sold out. But all of a sudden, people weren't going for the absolute joy of seeing a show.

The day after I won the award, when by all accounts I should have been on top of the world and it should have been the best show ever, that was probably the worst show in the whole run because people were just staring at me going, 'what, this is the best?'

What is your advice to someone starting out?

You will get blokes who start a website, pretend they're reviewers and then slag off your show. Now there are thousands of people reviewing shows. For anyone starting off, if you believe your show's any good, don't take much heed of what strangers say because it's all relative. Also, drink in moderation.

Sean Hughes - Penguins is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot from 31 July to 25 August.

Hannah Eidinow

Director Hannah Eidinow has won five Fringe First awards in the past nine years, and will be hoping for a sixth this year with her new play Sex Lives of Others.

Hannah Eidinow Hannah Eidinow: "There are no walls at the Fringe"

What stories work best on the Fringe?

You've got to have a good narrative and something that's engaging and makes people think. It can be about our current political situation or the nation we're living in or the habits that we embrace or new moves that are happening in our culture.

Part of the thing about the Fringe is that you have very close contact. There isn't a huge distinction between performer and audience. It's probably the only theatrical environment I can think of where you're not embarrassed to go up to someone and talk to them about their play.

There's a free flow of exchange that doesn't really happen anywhere else. It certainly doesn't happen in the West End. There are no walls at the Fringe.

Which show are you most looking forward to watching?

William Gaminara's play The Three Lions, which is a comedy and it touches on the political. It is about the night before the 2018 World Cup bid with David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William. It should be a strong piece of work, and very funny.

Sex Lives of Others is at the Pleasance Courtyard from 31 July to 26 August.

Philip Pope

Rory McGrath & Philip Pope Philip Pope (right): "Compared to these days, it seemed to be much smaller"

Actor and musician Philip Pope made his Edinburgh debut in the late 1970s alongside Angus Deayton, Richard Curtis and Tim McInnerny as part of the Oxford Revue. This year he is performing with comedian Rory McGrath.

What was the Fringe like when you first performed?

It was before the professionals moved in, if you know what I mean, which I think happened with the boom in stand-up comedy. Then people started using the Edinburgh Fringe as a way of garnering publicity before going on tours, so you'd get big professional outfits putting on loads of stand-ups.

In 1978 and '79, it was before the Comic Strip and so-called alternative comedy, so it was much more old-style. If you wanted to see a funny show then you'd go and see the Cambridge Footlights or the Oxford Revue. As far as I remember there weren't that many others. Compared to these days, it seemed to be a much smaller affair.

Rory McGrath and Philip Pope in Bridge Over Troubled Lager is at the Assembly George Square from 31 July to 26 August.

Interviews by BBC News arts and entertainment reporter Ian Youngs.

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