Post-it notes towards a culture: This was 'zero week' in Edinburgh. Sabine Durrant saw the festival organisers get ready for impact

The man was so hot he was overheating. Bang, went the box as he plonked it on the counter. Up went the heads. 'This,' he spat into the face of the woman in front of him. 'This, is a bribe.' This was actually an insipid-looking sponge cake in a white carton and the Assembly Rooms box office looked singularly unimpressed. But the man with the steam in his ears was in full flow. 'No I will not keep my voice down,' he ranted. 'It's three days until I open and the press office is Dragging. Their. Arses . . . Now, sell, sell, sell.'

Dana Gould, the 'hit' of the Montreal Comedy Festival, had been reeled into the Assembly line-up at the last minute and was understandably uptight ('bloody terrified' one onlooker suggested). He was recruited too late to make it into the printed programme, and posters advertising his show (Insomnia - 'it's brilliant. I wrote it. I'm in it. I bought the cake. I'd have made the cake if I'd had the time'), had yet to be run off. But intimidation was not the answer. The festival develops its own momentum. And besides: 'The performers think we'll be impressed when we meet them,' said one vendor, 'but as we've had to write Dana Gould's name out by hand on all the tickets, we're sick of the sight of it.' 'We'll eat his cake and we'll sell his tickets,' said another, 'but that's because it's our job.' And when Gould's promoter tried telling her 'But this guy's funny,' she answered simply, 'Everybody's funny.'

For this is week-0, the run up to the opening of all the Edinburgh festivals - the International Festival, the Fringe, the Film, the Jazz - and there is tension in the foyers. The traffic in Edinburgh is terrible (certain technicians have started dodging coach-jams by driving on the wrong side of the road); tourists in packamacks teeter dangerously on the edge of pavements; there are queues outside normally empty restaurants; the throb and squeal of organised ceilidhs emanate from hotel hospitality suites; and it's raining.

Some of the festival organisers have been working in empty rooms with only a fax to gossip with for months, so could do with some company, but the transition from paper to performers can still be traumatic. There is a heap to do ('all the basics have to work like clockwork so you can concentrate on crises when they come up later,' says Tricia Emblem at the Fringe office). House staff are being trained and venues equipped, phones are being answered and yellow Post-its are running out, when suddenly the performers begin to arrive, complete with their neuroses or their preciousness, their fear and their financial deficits. Four or five companies were 'checking in' daily at the Fringe Office at the beginning of last week, between 50 and 60 by the end. 'They arrive wet and smelly from some long journey around the world,' said Tricia Emblem, smiling across the room at three khaki-trousered members of the Princeton Mime Company (still apparently under the impression that they were the Fringe), 'and they won't leave - you have to sort of shuffle them around the office.' At the Assembly Rooms on Wednesday, two backstage boys from Variete Chamaleon of Berlin spent the day recovering from their drive across Europe, flaked out on a sofa upstairs, their legs constantly getting entangled with the limbs and belongings of other visitors.

At the International Festival, it's quieter. A ghostly emptiness echoes round the box office - the ticket vendors behind their silent screens watch arrivals with the beadiness of a board of examiners. Upstairs, Brian McMaster, the festival director, is sitting, waiting. 'It's funny how your perspective changes,' he says, 'You spend all this time negotiating for performers to arrive as late as possible to keep costs down. Now, I'm pacing up and down, saying 'why are all these people arriving so late?' '

The evidence of this suspense is clearly visible: a suspiciously tidy room lurks beneath a thick-laced web of smoke, papers rest in neatly shuffled piles, four bottles of whisky glare out from an otherwise empty cabinet. When the phone rings, McMaster picks it up a little too quickly, though the conversations seem to be of a time-wasting nature ('Och I know, I know . . . absolutely, absolutely, yeah . . . yeah, yuh, absolutely, yep, yeah sure, och yes . . .'). It is McMaster's first festival - he came from Welsh National Opera last September - and he's anxious to find out what effect his programme ('97 things I really want to see', including large doses of Tchaikovsky, Harley Granville Barker and CP Taylor) will have on the public and the critics. 'But the main undercurrent this week is waiting for the disaster to happen. I wish it would hurry up so I can stop imagining the worst.'

The pressure lends this short-cropped, energetic man an air of indecision. And it has led to the invention of certain games. Number one game is Box-Office Poring: McMaster sits, a 'daily analysis chart' on the table in front of him, celebrating ('Christina Hoyos is moving fast') and bemoaning ('but Pina Bausch, I don't understand it. I'm a total addict. We've only sold 26 per cent. She hasn't been here for 10 years'). All in all, takings by the middle of last week were not good: 'We've amounted pounds 877,544.05 - where does the 5p come from? - so we've got to find half a million in four weeks, och.' Reasons were being grabbed at. 'Everyone says the pattern is to book late. I was talking to John Drummond the other day and he said at first they were really worried about the Proms, but now they're taking pounds 600,000 a night] And while rain keeps people out of the box office, it's my thinking it keeps them in the theatres.'

The second game, related to the first, is Number Plate Counting: 'Oh look, there's a coach from the Cotswolds. Car from Naples. Turin.' This takes place, in the company of Christopher Barron, the festival's associate director, on walkabout, or rather driveabout, in the sponsor-provided Hertz rental car (number three game: are the seats real leather?). It's like accompanying two suited chief execs as they go on site - hard hats in place for entry into 'a busy wee place', the specially arranged Festival press room (in the Oslo and Helsinki suites) at the Scandic Crown Hotel. There's time for some gather-round-everybody introductions ('Glenda, Morag, Bernadette. . .'), but McMaster snaps when director of marketing and public affairs Joanna Baker mutters about phone-sockets and, with a 'I think we'll leave that to you', sweeps out.

It's on then, through the lunchtime traffic, to the Royal Lyceum - 'we'll just stick our noses in' - where The Voysey Inheritance is being fitted. Backstage, a complicated lighting rig is under adjustment and a mountain of glass and silver is waiting to be buffed and polished. The director William Gaskill is sitting, lonely, in the stalls, but brightens when he sees McMaster, keen to discuss the pulling-out of Frederick Treves ('personal reasons'). The resulting alleviation of tension is a great improvement, he says.

At the stage door, we bump into one of the other actors - Christopher Good - who seems tense enough to be going on with. 'Hi, hi, hi,' he says. 'What's happening? I'm so depressed to see all these Hayfever posters everywhere. It looks so odd, I mean you think, 'hang about, am I in the right theatre?' ' Barron and McMaster make the right noises.

On the way back to headquarters, we crawl past the Fringe box office. 'Even the Fringe office is empty,' breathes McMaster, a high note of relief sounding through the sympathetic tone. In fact, the Fringe office, preparing for the flotsam and jetsam of 10,650 performances, is pretty busy.

The phones, for one thing, are ringing constantly. Most callers are after Fringe programmes, but there are other queries too: 'Is there anything happening on the Fringe next Tuesday?' asked one person; 'Do you have any groups from England?' questioned another. The press office is dealing with the odd cancellation (three appendices and an ulcerated bowel) and finding themes for a freelance: 'Are there lots of plays about madness, war and disabled special needs this year, or is it just me?' The police ring to complain about a group who've put up their posters on Princes Street railings. Occasionally, someone comes in off the wet pavement to see if they can buy an umbrella.

One room is particularly noisy. Christie Anthoney, beneath reminder notices like 'Fold alu. bins', 'Stickers on bibs', 'Diesel for generators', is trying to fix up Fringe Sunday, the carnival that takes place in Holyroyd Park on 23 August. She's got an eye on her budget, another on the mime troupe from Princeton, who are puzzling over which slot to choose in the carnival, and whether to take the 'Lorry Stage' or the 'InterCity Platform': 'I don't know guys, what do you think?'/'We don't want to be tired when we do it . . .'/'It would better if people can concentrate more'/'But it'd be fun to perform in front of a lot of people . . .' 'Why don't you just busk?' Christie suggests politely.

While this is going on, the technician David Wright, is searching for some coloured tape to mark out spaces in the park - everybody's seen it somewhere - and in the corner, Jo Mathieson is organising entertainment for the Fringe Club. Occasionally she reads out from a press release: 'a disco fairytale . . . studying the positive nature of women's obsessive desire', and people laugh. A tall, thin man in a frayed suit wanders in - 'a friend of Rod's' he says - who turns out to be a magician and is auditioned on the spot. He's still strutting his stuff - some complicated arrangement with rubber bands - when the door is blocked again, this time by a middle-aged woman in a perm clutching a wad of notes. She pays for her candyfloss'n'popcorn stall at Fringe Sunday and, apparently unimpressed by the wonders of dexterity and misdirection before her, turns on her heels.

Back at the Assembly Rooms things are just as frantic, only there they've got cake. The phones are louder, though - an insistent peal like an electric drill on plastic - and work is repeatedly interrupted by fire practices. William Burdett-Coutts, the Assembly Rooms artistic director, is stuck in traffic in Manchester, but other people are arriving by the minute (there are 64 shows in all at the Assembly Rooms, 25 opening on the first Friday). Mary Shields, the programme co- ordinator, keeps having to nip off to the airport ('I can't bear those cardboard signs - I just pray I'll recognise them'); others have arrived under their own steam. The cabaret group The Posse is in Julia Holt the administrator's office, negotiating the Berlin technicians' legs and sorting out some accomodation problems. A 'very physical performer' called Emily Woof is trying to track down a gym, while her assistant phones around for some helium balloons. There is a large stash of vitamins on Julia Holt's desk: 'They're sort of communal, we all dip into them when we feel the need,' says Shields, 'Which at the moment is most of the time.'

In the press office, the phones are drilling frantically. A journalist from The Daily Telegraph, in a raincoat and smoking roll-ups, is on the hunt for politically incorrect stand-ups. Everybody else is busy sending out trannies and press material on a hot new arrival, a brilliant comic performer from America. Apparently he's going to cause quite a stir. Watch out for him: he's called Dana Gould.

(Photograph omitted)

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