Uninvited Fringe Performers at Center of Edinburgh Flap : Festival: Outgoing director Frank Dunlop questions the quality and motives of alternative artists. The mayor calls his charges 'outrageous.'


Bright clear skies have marked the first full week of this city's 45th international festival--but storm clouds of controversy have hung heavy over the proceedings.

The point of contention is the Fringe--the name given to the 500-odd companies and artists who come uninvited to Edinburgh at festival time each year and find small venues in which to perform. The Fringe constitutes a kind of alternative to the official festival.

Frank Dunlop, the outgoing director of the festival, started the controversy Wednesday at a lunch for arts journalists when he accused the Fringe of degenerating into "a third-rate circus." The standard of the Fringe had "gone down appallingly," he added, noting that it was now heavily composed of stand-up comedians and cabaret artists rather than of serious theater, dance and musical groups.

Dunlop said he feared this might lead Edinburgh to become "the Blackpool (an English equivalent to Coney Island) of the arts."

"People come here to promenade now, to walk along the street and see what sideshows there are," he added. "What has that to do with anything but passing the time away?" He was concerned that eminent companies might shy away from the Edinburgh Festival in future years and that worthwhile theater groups might be outbid for Fringe venues by entrepreneurs with one-man shows that are cheaper to present.

Dunlop also criticized the way some Fringe artists--especially stand-up comics--seemed to be using an appearance in Edinburgh to drum up publicity and further their careers. The performers, he said, "are obsessed about whether they get noticed in the press. They are titillated to expect this through the Fringe process. But . . . if there are 500 companies you know they can't all achieve it."

Fringe authorities emphasize that historically anyone has been allowed to perform on the Fringe, but Dunlop insisted: "Maybe there should be a bit of interference in terms of help, advice and sustenance for the good things that are now being crowded out."

Dunlop met his critics for a hastily arranged public debate in the Traverse Theatre courtyard Thursday. By then his comments had come to the attention of Edinburgh's ruling elite.

Eleanor McLaughlin, lord provost (mayor) of the city and chairman of the festival council, described Dunlop's attack on the Fringe as "outrageous." She termed his comments "critical and divisive" and she urged him to "stop throwing tantrums."

She noted that Dunlop has a severe problem owing to the sudden cancellation of a sellout concert on Tuesday by the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who has suffered a neck injury. She thought Dunlop should "put his energy into filling the large hole this has left in the festival program, and leave the running of the Fringe to those people who have made it the success it is today." McLaughlin said she felt Dunlop had no right to interfere with the Fringe.

All these issues were tackled in the impromptu public debate, where many participants pointed out that the stand-up comics and cabaret artists castigated by Dunlop at least drew crowds. Richard Demarco, a prominent veteran of Fringe activities, asked rhetorically whether he could in all conscience invite "a marvelous company of 27" to travel from Latvia to Edinburgh when there might only be six people in the audience.

A member of the Fringe committee, Simon Fanshawe (significantly, a stand-up comic) said it would be impossible to apply a quality threshold which must be passed by artists wishing to appear on the Fringe.

Over the years, a handful of spectacular successes have had their origins in Edinburgh's Fringe. Playwright Tom Stoppard first came to wide public attention when his "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" was performed here. And the very word "Fringe" took on a popular currency through the outstanding success of the revue "Beyond the Fringe," which launched the careers of four major talents--Dudley Moore, playwright Alan Bennett, humorist Peter Cook and arts renaissance man Jonathan Miller.

For all this, there is a festival taking place in Edinburgh this year, and the first week has brought at least one widely praise production. "Tango in Winter," by Japanese writer Kunio Shimizu and directed by Yukio Ninagawa, has received much critical acclaim and will transfer to London's West End in the fall.

The play is performed in English, and Ninagawa, an Edinburgh favorite for much of the last decade, has been directing his actors through a translator. Critics have singled out Alan Rickman, best known in America as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in the hit movie "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."

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