On the cobblestone streets of the Royal Mile during the annual Edinburgh International Arts Festival, actors in pancake makeup, jugglers in clown suits, troubadors with punk haircuts and every variety of hawker shout the names of the day's entertainments. They press leaflet after leaflet into the hands of passers-by who stroll High Street, where kings once walked, and the alleys where 17th-century tenement dwellers once lived.
Down the road in front of Parliament Square, Marcel Steiner is readying the lunch time crowd for his 30-minute version of "A Tale of Two Cities." His stage is a rickety-looking platform mounted on the sidecar of a motorcycle, dubbed "the smallest theatre in the world." Here, the English Channel is represented by water thrown at the audience. First, though, he tells the crowd he wants to do something special -- and hammers a real three-inch nail up his nose.
Welcome to the "fringe" -- separate from but simultaneous with Edinburgh's formal festival. A mix of opera, ballet, mime, jazz and drama that ends Saturday , the fringe is seen by some as an antidote to the (sometimes) more traditional fare here. For others, who come to Edinburgh in August expressly for the fringe, it is street theater, satire and dramatic productions from college revues and small professional groups, all rolled into one, and anything else someone can dream up early enough in the year to secure one of the 150 stalls or venues available throughout the city.
The venues are part of the charms of the fringe. Through back entrances of churches converted into makeshift theater space, like St. Columba's near Edinburgh Castle, unexpected views of the city's gray turrets, chimneyed rooftops and former tenement dwellings greet visitors. Inside the church, actor and poet Leo Aylen is putting on his one-man show, "Rhymocerous."
He retells in his own verse the tale of the death of the Norse god Balder, trades puns with the audience, and recites the made-up stories of Tracy Morgan and her friends at the Foskett Road Junior School. Aylen delights the children and adults by changing his body and rubbery face from a monster to a little schoolboy on the bare, back-lit stage, and offering such tales as:
"Tracy says that what she's tied her pigtails with is a shoelace she took from her little brother. And Tracy says 'e's disgusting. 'Cause if it still looks like bacon rind, that proves he didn't polish his shoes this morning. So poowee to you!"
Straight up George IV Bridge, another revue is playing in an aptly named theater, The Bedlam. Trevor Williams and Simon Hickson, two former University of Manchester students, do strange things with raw eggs and devastate the audience with a silent imitation of CIA agents in a show they call the "Devil Fish Horn Club."
Williams pulls out a huge plastic fish to pose as a Chicago gangster. "I'm the Codfather," he snarls at the audience in his best American accent.
In between skits, James Lupton tells his story of revisiting the school bathroom where he cut his head open years ago. "The blood was still there. Do you think they forgot to wash, or did they make the place into a pilgrimage?"
And across Edinburgh's Princes Street, in the "New Town" (built in the 1700s), a comedy group called the Joeys bridges the gap between male sensitivity and macho-ness in a boxing match skit. The contestants trade psychological blows to score points, and the winner is the one who has volunteered to teach a quiche-making class on a Sunday.
The chandeliered ballroom where the Joeys and a 1950s-bluesy music group called Harvey and the Wallbangers play is in a Georgian building dating from 1782. The Scottish poet Robert Burns and the English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson once frequented the building, which now houses more than 50 theatrical shows during the fringe each year.
One of the more interesting companies this year has been the Clean Break Women's Theatre, a group of female ex-convicts who put on plays about life behind bars. Their venue, the Gateway, was created by Jimmy Boyle, one of Scotland's best-known ex-convicts, and his wife Sarah, a psychologist.
Not all the shows are hits -- in fact, there are plenty of misses. Picking the best choices out of the 840 shows is part of the fun. What counts is quantity, not quality.
"Everyone comes," said Michael Dale, 32, administrator of the fringe since 1981.
"I try to discourage groups from coming -- I warn them that they won't make any money," Dale said. "Last year a group from Texas raised $86,000 to come here, and they took away only $3,000." But, he added, "They loved it."