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Dan Willis on the benefits of free Fringe shows

Dust finally settling on another Edinburgh Fringe and it’s time to do something I’ve been meaning to for a while – pen an answer to the earlier Should It Be A Free For All? article by Corry Shaw about the free shows at the festival.

Much to my own surprise, I think I’ve got a decent viewpoint to share on the subject. This was my eighth Edinburgh festival, I’ve been there as a punter, as a member of the Perrier Panel (not that I ever mention it), as a performer in the paid festival (Underbelly and Edinburgh Comedy Room), and as a performer at both the Free Fringe and the Free Festival. Thus I’ve seen the festival from as many angles as I’d care to mention.

The Fringe started out and remains an open arts festival, welcoming anyone who wants to perform. If you’ve written a play, some music, a book or indeed an hour of comedy, all you’ve got to do is find a venue, register and come. Want to read Harry Potter in the nude, dance to the tune of spaghetti exploding or paint using next door’s cat? You’re welcome at the Fringe festival.

Quality control is not an issue - if someone is crap, their audience sizes will reflect it, and everyone has the right to perform. If you’ve got a crap show word soon gets out and people will avoid it, or indeed seek it out.

If Edinburgh became a curated festival it would begin to lose its very ethos. In the words of one former administrator, the Fringe Society ‘did not come together so that groups could be vetted, or invited, or in some way artistically vetted’.

I bumped into if.comedy awards producer Nica Burns last year and she waxed lyrical about the Free Fringe, loving the fact that anyone could put bring a show to the festival without having to throw thousands of pounds down the drain, making it clear that she genuinly felt it’s getting better for the acts.

Saying that there simply isnt any quality control at the Free Festival is shooting a bit low. When I was on the panel, I saw 89 shows and at least half were of questionable quality. Twice the shows I was to judge were pulled due to being crowdless – in the same way Corry’s free shows were axed – and I had the unmistakable pleasure of being the only audience member three times.

All of these shows were in paid venues, two of which are now in the Edinburgh Comedy Festival gang of four. But saying that, it was actually watching the newer acts battling away that inspired me to give stand-up a pop; seeing genuine hard work and determination, mixed with inexperience and hope is awe-inspiring, and in many ways more entertaining than watching a TV celeb bang out an hour of nailed-in material.

My first solo show was at the Tron (Edinburgh Comedy Room) and produced by none other than Corry Shaw, easily one of the best producers I’ve had the pleasure to work with. I enjoyed the room and the show went well, though I was probably about a year early in my ability. In the evening, more for a laugh than anything else, I did a two-hander with Marcus Ryan for the Free Fringe at the Meadows bar. In hindsight this is one of the best comedy decisions I’ve ever made.

One of the crucial things in comedy is to have a crowd, there’s no point having the best show in the world if no one gets to see it, and after all, entertaining the audience is what its all about. My daytime paid show had very slow ticket sales with plenty of days showing a big, fat zero. Yet with only an hour’s flyering a day myself and Marcus dragged about 40 to 50 people into our free show. By cross-marketing the paid show at the free show, I basically saved myself from being bankrupted.

Had I not done this, I know exactly what would’ve happened, in part through someone else’s bad luck.

Directly after me in The Tron was an act of international repute, a fantastic comedian with a considerably better reputation and ability than my own. He spent way more on advertising, had a superior time slot and exactly the same producer. The one thing he couldn’t do was get a crowd. In fact one time he pulled his show when there was only one member of the audience - a TV producer who’d come especially to see his stuff.

‘Should it be a free-for-all?’ sounds a bit like ‘Let’s start excluding some people’, and as I’ve already pointed out, Im against that.

I have a question that’s slightly closer to my heart, as in; my wallet: ‘Who’s making all the money?’ Rooms that don’t get used all year are full of paying punters, buying drinks, extortionately priced hot-dogs and more to the point, tickets.

Yet, even though they’re doing all the work to fill these rooms, the performers are making massive losses. A recent awards nominee told me that although he’d completely sold out (70 seats per day at £12) he still lost £9,000, this is a familiar story and only goes to show how much the people who aren’t selling out must be losing.

With the explosion in free shows, I genuinly think some of the PR gurus and advertising execs are starting to worry about their cash cows drowning. Personally this year I was seen by an average of 150 people a day, and just from shaking a tin at the end I paid all costs and turned a good sized profit, my only expenses were registration, flyers and accommodation.

There are definitely ways in which the Free Festival/Free Fringe can be improved, the most obvious being if the two rival organisations could bury a few hatchets and combine the two, though that may need mediation from Kofi Annan and the UN. I'm not holding my breath. The absolute beauty of the free shows is that they hand quality control to the audience: they choose which shows to see and how much they’re prepared to pay to see them.

If someone has spent £10 on a show and isn’t enjoying it, they genuinly feel aggrieved - look how the vitriolic comments on edfringe.com – but if they hate it and it’s free, they’ll either just walk out or sit and wait for it to end. I saw a bloke walking out of Espionage with his family exclaiming ‘Oh come on, it was free!’, had he taken the same family to a show next door at the Underbelly, the experience would’ve set him back £60.

Another act was exclaiming that he’d had great success, getting 18 people a day into his paid room. It’s not a bad number, but a show on at the same time in Espionage averaged 45 to 60, I know which crowd I’d prefer to have. On a Saturday evening the 2-4-1 boards were full of paid shows slashing their prices to get a crowd in, and the half price hut had three times more shows this year than last. It’s taken a few years but I genuinly think the Edinburgh crowd are beginning to take notice of the benefits of the free shows.

There’s a lot of snobbery and oneupmanship in Edinburgh. In the artists’ bars people are constantly looking over each others’ shoulders for more important conversations, it’s all very soul destroying. The free movement is a great antidote to all this, I had a top time this year just doing three gigs a day, enjoying the crowds and having a few beers in a friendly environment, I avoided Brook’s and the Loft Bar and even gave my party tickets away to acts that seemed to want them more than me.

The Edinburgh Fringe was never meant to be a corporate method of making money for those at the top, it was a festival for performers to perform and develop, for crowds to experience as many different forms of entertainment as possible. The Free Festival and Free Fringe represented a step in the right direction towards taking the Fringe back to what it was always meant to be.

Should it be a free for all? Yes, it should, for crowds and performers alike.

Posted: 2 Sep 2008

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