The first time British impresario David Sefton attended the summer arts festivals in Edinburgh, he shared a cramped apartment with a feminist comedy group called Sensible Footwear and a stand-up duo called the Brown Paper Bag Brothers. As offbeat as their names might suggest, they fit into the Edinburgh scene perfectly. Known for showcasing obscure acts and up-and-comers, along with more classical fare, these festivals are fertile grounds for talent scouts. Now, 20 years later, Sefton is still mining the Edinburgh festival grounds each summer. "There are a lot of companies I discovered in Edinburgh that I went on to work with," says Sefton, director of UCLA Live, a performing-arts series in Los Angeles.
Discovery is at the heart of the 57-year-old festival tradition. Every August some 500,000 tourists descend upon this picturesque city, doubling its population. They come from around the world to soak up a month-long string of arts festivals that virtually inundates Edinburgh. Schools, churches, caves and doorways become makeshift stages, eager actors thrust handbills at passersby, and anything that doesn't move is plastered with promotional flyers. There's something for everyone. If you like new plays, try the Traverse Theater. Opera and symphony concerts are around the corner at Usher Hall, while up on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo features hundreds of bagpipers, drummers and military musicians, tanks and more.
"Where else could you go at lunchtime and see Andreas Schiff playing the 'Goldberg Variations,' go across the road and watch an Iranian movie, walk a couple blocks to hear Gore Vidal talk, then sit in a sweaty cellar at midnight listening to some stand-up comedy?" asks Shane Danielsen, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. "There are certainly worse ways than that to spend one's life."
Each of the six summer arts festivals here is run separately, funded by a varying mix of government monies, advertising, donors, company sponsorship and ticket sales. While auteurs head to Cannes for films, music lovers go to Salzburg for melodies, and opera fans flock to Glyndebourne, two hours outside London, for lyric drama, none of these fests offer the array that Edinburgh serves up each year. But before you book for Scotland, a word of warning: don't try to take in everything on your first jaunt. Some advance planning and a little willingness to experiment will make your Edinburgh adventure easier and more enjoyable.