Edinburgh braces itself for record Fringe

August means it's festival time for Scotland's capital city, which this year is expecting an unprecedented 2,542 shows at 258 venues.

The High Street at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival *** Local Caption ***  Festival High Street02.jpg
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Brace yourself, Edinburgh. A few days ago, the cobbled alleyways and gothic battlements of Scotland's scenic capital were a picture of midsummer calm, basking in some unusually warm and very un-Scottish sunshine. But from Friday, the city's routine summer surge of international tourists will be swelled to bursting point by a tidal wave of actors, comedians, visual artists, authors, future superstars, talent scouts and media freeloaders all jostling for each other's attention. Because this is August, when normal rules are suspended as Edinburgh surrenders its streets to the world's biggest arts festival.

Or, more accurately, festivals - several events run in parallel in this ruggedly handsome city in August, but by far the largest is the Fringe festival. And this year's Fringe is the biggest yet, attracting a vast travelling carnival of performers from as far afield as Australia and Azerbaijan, India and Iran. Over the next three weeks, 2,542 shows will squeeze into 258 venues across the city - from grand theatres and castle courtyards to cramped basements, art galleries, temporary spaces and street corners. By the end of the month, Fringe organisers are hoping to top last year's record of 1.83 million tickets sold.

Among the bewildering array of entertainment at the 65th Fringe are new shows by the cult comedians Stewart Lee, Kristen Schaal and Omid Djalili. Besides the obligatory throng of experimental Shakespeare adaptations, the actor Simon Callow will dress up in drag for the French farce Tuesdays at Tescos while the singer Marc Almond stars in Ten Plagues, a musical pageant about the Black Death. There are even walk-around performances for headphones and an interactive fairy tale for the iPad. Something to suit even the most jaded cultural tourist.

Founded in 1947 as an unofficial sidebar to Edinburgh's more formal and highbrow International Festival, the Fringe began as primarily a showcase for serious theatre. But it has gradually come to be associated more with comedy and cabaret, helping to launch successive waves of fêted comics, including the Monty Python team, Billy Connolly, Rowan Atkinson, Eddie Izzard, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais and Tim Minchin. It has also inspired similar festivals around the world, including Australia's long-running Adelaide Fringe and last year's inaugural Dubai Fringe.

The festival's main comedy prize, originally called the Perrier Award, was launched in 1981. Since then it has become an increasingly common complaint that comedians dominate the Fringe to an unhealthy degree. In truth, the number of comedy shows only overtook theatre as the largest category in 2008, when the ratio was 668 to 593.

"People have been saying the Fringe is dominated by comedy for years and years, but I think the statistics don't really bear that out," argues Andrew Eaton-Lewis, group arts editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, the Edinburgh-based national newspaper group, which covers the festival in detail and awards the coveted The Scotsman Fringe First awards to about 20 pieces of new theatre writing.

"As well as theatre, there are the dance and physical theatre categories, musicals and opera, and obviously the cabaret section, which is new this year," he says. "Plus there is the International Festival, which has no comedy in it at all. If you add all that up, comedy would certainly be in a minority. Maybe comedy gets more publicity, but there is a huge wealth and variety of stuff on offer."

One reason for this wealth and variety is because the Fringe is an "open access" festival, welcoming any performer who can pay the necessary registration and venue rental fees. The key advantage of this arrangement is that their work is not dictated or diluted by some official gatekeeper committee. But this also means artists take an expensive gamble on attending, fighting to be noticed in a highly crowded marketplace, typically losing hundreds or even thousands of pounds in the process.

"It's not about the money really," says the comedian Jeff Mirza, an Edinburgh veteran returning to the Fringe this month. "The good thing about Edinburgh is one doesn't go there to financially enrich oneself. It's a shop window, you get to do what you want to do, and you get to have some fun. It's a beautiful city and a beautiful country in its own right, even when the festival is not on."

An award-winning comedian and actor, Mirza has been an Edinburgh regular since winning a BBC Open Mic award at the 1996 Fringe. A British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, he frequently draws on his cultural background in his comedy. Besides hosting a light-hearted interfaith game show called Faith Off on the Islam Channel, Mirza recently became one of very few British stand-ups to play Saudi Arabia.

Mirza is just one of dozens of comedians at the Fringe addressing material with a Middle Eastern twist. Making their Edinburgh debut this year are the Australian duo Fear of a Brown Planet, aka Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain, sharp-eyed satirists known for tackling tough subjects such as Palestine, racism and terrorism.

Touching on similar themes in a lighter, more personal mode will be dozens of British Asian comics, including Imran Yusuf, Shazia Mirza and Sameena Zehra - as well as the Iranian-born stars of television and radio, Omid Djalili and Shappi Khorsandi.

The choice of more serious dramatic works at the Fringe includes Hywel John's stage play Rose, starring the veteran screen star Art Malik as a Middle Eastern immigrant struggling to raise his English-born daughter, played by Malik's real daughter Keira. Live music is also a crucial element to the festival - one of this year's highlights is the Dunya Ensemble, a multicultural collective based in Edinburgh who play a blend of Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish and Azeri music.

The Fringe is supported by a relatively modest annual funding from Edinburgh City Council, which awards roughly £3 million (Dh18m) in grants to festival bodies, a mere £100,000 of which goes directly to the Festival Fringe Society. According to some estimates, the financial returns this generates for the city in tourist income may exceed £100m.

In more than six decades, the Fringe has suffered a few minor financial wobbles. But, according to Eaton-Lewis, the world's biggest arts festival has so far proved "recession proof", despite the global economic crisis.

"Everybody has been talking about budget cuts for the last couple of years and how disastrous it is for many people in the arts," he says. "But meanwhile the Fringe gets bigger. Box office sales continue to go up, and the Fringe continues to grow. It's an extraordinary thing."