August 10, 2009 / 7:04 AM / 10 years ago

Busking is a lottery at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Before the jugglers, acrobats and comedians hit the streets of the Scottish capital to busk at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe there’s morning coffee, a chat among colleagues and the lottery.

A man in fancy dress gestures to spectators during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival parade in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, Scotland, August 9, 2009. REUTERS/David Moir

The three-week long Fringe welcomes street performers of every type and stripe to provide the raucous carnival atmosphere, from young men dressed as poppies to high-flying acrobats who have honed their skills for years. But providing space for the top street acts is a carefully managed process.

Hundreds of buskers and street troupes coming to perform at Edinburgh must apply to the Fringe based on their abilities to hold the attention of an audience by size and time to sort out which spaces are suitable.

Then they must enter their names in a lottery for the chance to have the best spots for drawing crowds and earning money.

“It’s one of the few jobs where a lottery defines your daily work rate,” street comedian Herbie Treehead said.

Treehead, who has been performing at the Fringe for 21 years, told Reuters the lottery system was devised by the performers and run by the Fringe to parcel out the best spaces at the world’s biggest open access arts festival.

Just off the city’s Royal Mile in a quiet square down a cobblestoned lane top performers turn up for the lottery each day at 10 a.m., exchanging hugs, laughs and the convivial.

To be eligible for a shot at one of the 4-5 top spaces available for 45 minutes at a time between 11 a.m. and eight p.m. on or near the Royal Mile where the biggest Fringe crowds congregate, the acts must demonstrate they can hold the attention of a large audience.


Fringe officials place the badges of performers in a bag and then pull them out one at a time, calling out the names that will set the order in which performers can claim slots on a chart, marking out the designated time and spot they want most.

But the lottery is not the only hurdle for the jugglers, acrobats, comedians and slapstick artists of the street who, since last year, must arrange for their own insurance and pay a 50 pound ($83.81) administration fee for the right to perform.

There is also the rain that keeps the crowds away, the hecklers, the fear of drunks and unaccompanied children.

Elena Kirschbaum, a 23-year-old juggling and escape artist from Melbourne, Australia who is one of the few women performing a solo act said that parents who leave their children at shows unaccompanied can occasionally put performers at risk.

Once, while performing her finale trussed up in a straight-jacket and chains suspended on a ladder a child on his own rushed to grab the ladder. She talked him out of it, but not before a moment of high anxiety.

“That was definitely the scariest moment,” she said. “I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I might die,’” Kirschbaum said.

But the lucrative lure of the Fringe keeps acts coming back year after year.

Acrobats David Graham and Tobin Renwick ( from the United States, whose feats of juggling, acrobatics and jokes held an audience of at least 1,000 captivated on Saturday, said they have been coming back to the Fringe for four years for the higher exchange rate on the dollar, the fun and new ideas for shows.

“This is the biggest performing festival in the world,” Graham told Reuters. “The shows are fantastic and it’s nice working in pounds especially when you change it into dollars.”

The 63rd Edinburgh Festival Fringe offers more than 2,000 dance, theater, exhibitions and other artistic inventions alongside the wacky and wonderful comedy that has made the world’s largest open-access arts festival a massive launch pad for performers, writers and directors.

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