A long time ago (the days before cheap flights), in a city far, far away (by road, at least), a young, earnest Irishman found a job paying £2.50 an hour, for a ten-to-twelve hour day, in a theatre. Actually, it wasn’t a theatre, but was an old, rambling building, that was pretending to be a theatre “complex”.

Anyway, he was happy. He swept the floors, and tore tickets, and helped clean up the bar when the last punters had gone home at four am. Sometimes, he got to slip into the theatres and see shows for free! He was very happy. Even though most of them were awful.Then one day, a theatre company from his hometown arrived. He tore tickets for their show, and slipped inside and sat at the edge of a row. Their play was very beautiful, but it did not make a lot of sense. The first 40 minutes were a little vague. Somebody got up to leave, and the earnest Irishman glided over to the door to make sure it opened and closed as quietly as possible, so as not to disturb the performers. The performance, after all, was very intense. The next 20 minutes were still a little vague. Somebody else got up to leave, and he tiptoed over to the door again to smooth their exit. Ninety minutes came and went. There were fewer and fewer people left in the audience, but at least the stream of departures was less disturbing to the performers, thanks to the young man’s efforts.

Eventually, the show ended. The three people left in the theatre were very appreciative. Afterwards, one of the actors approached her countryman, who had been attentively helping people leave quietly.

“What the hell were you doing?” she roared at him. “Jumping up and down like that! Every time someone left, it looked like two people were leaving! What kind of idiot are you?”

(Perhaps that was when the earnest young man decided to forsake a career in the theatre, and become a critic for the Sunday Tribune. The theatre company, meanwhile, went on to greater things.)

The Edinburgh Fringe is a rite of passage for anybody passionate about theatre. Like most rites of passage, it is sordid, smelly, uncomfortable and accompanied by self-abusive amounts of drinking. And it is fundamentally ridiculous: why would anyone design a festival consisting of over 2,000 shows, in 250 venues, with almost 20,000 performers?

The answer is: they didn’t. The Edinburgh Fringe is the artistic triumph of the laissez faire principle. Unlike our Dublin Fringe Festival, which is curated, the founding principle of the Edinburgh Fringe is freedom: the only criteria for entry is finding a venue and letting the Fringe HQ know in time to be included in the programme.

Think of it as turn-of-the-19th-century New York, and the performers as refugees from the old world. For those who are successful, it offers great riches: a “Fringe First” award by the Scotsman newspaper, or other high-profile award, guarantees full houses and the attention of agents and producers. West End bookings and international tours beckon (as with Enda Walsh’s ‘Disco Pigs’, ten years ago). But for those who fail: ignominy and squalor.

The vast majority of those 2,000 shows will plays to audiences consisting solely of the theatre staff and any family who’ve travelled; with the company members likely all sharing a damp bedsit and surviving on beer and cornflakes, it can get pretty gruelling.

The Fringe is the free market of theatre, but not only do you have to fight to get your audience into the theatre, you also have to fight to keep them there. The Edinburgh audience is notoriously restless – for every show a punter chooses to see, there are half a dozen others on at the same time she could have seen. And she won’t be shy about rushing out to try and catch one of them if your show doesn’t grab her.

The Fringe press office counts 57 Irish shows at Edinburgh this year, including comedy and dance. One of the hottest will be Enda Walsh’s ‘New Electric Ballroom’ (featured here recently), which the London Times has already declared one of the 20 “must-see acts” this year.

‘Ballroom’ is one of 13 shows being supported by the government funding agency, Culture Ireland, which is spending €300,000 and hosting a networking event during the festival to promote Irish work.

That will focus on international promoters, says the agency’s head, Eugene Downes, helping the Irish companies to make personal connections that, combined with the impact of their work, may get them valuable invitations abroad.

But Downes has some more prosaic insights into making a success of the Fringe. “The timing of shows is crucial”, he says. “Ninety minutes tops – 60 to 70 minutes is a bonus.

“The title of the show needs to make an impact.” (He references Joanne Mitchell’s ‘Living with Johnny Depp’.)

And a good review isn’t enough. If a show gets it, they need to “photocopy it, and flyer it like hell”.

“Edinburgh is absolutely rough”, he says, clearly relishing the thought. “It’s the toughest, most competitive, most Darwinian arts festival in the world.”

The corollary is that, for those who make it, “it can be the great breakthrough”.

A last word of advice to the intrepid performers: no matter how squalid and ruthless it gets, be nice to the fella tearing the tickets. You may be neurotic about getting a good review this year, but you’ll be looking for them again in the future. And you never know, he could have something to do with it.

Published in the Sunday Tribune, August 3, 2008