If the Fringe needs to change, we can change it

Alan Sharp says comics can create the festival they want

Five years ago I wrote a Correspondents piece for Chortle on my experiences of being a first timer at the Edinburgh Fringe. As I approach the end of my fifth run, I guess I could now begin to class myself as one of the veterans, albeit a very low status one.

The further I move through the comedy world, the clearer it becomes to me that my initial five year plan for world comedy domination was a tad overambitious. I may have to revise it to six years. Having said that, by a reading of the reviews from this year's shows, something else becomes equally clear. And that is, that despite having a low status, and not being one of the talked-about or sought-after acts, with five days to go I'm having a pretty good Fringe.

The common theme of this year's Fringe has been the cry of ‘numbers are down’. All across the board I'm hearing this complaint, and for me the same is true. I am performing with the PBH Free Fringe, as I have every year, and this year my show is in the same venue and time-slot as last year. And numbers are definitely down. That may partyl be because my show this year doesn't have quite as striking a title or flyer artwork as previous years, even though the show itself is actually far more tightly themed and carefully constructed. But partly it's just something happening across the board.

The venue holds around 40 people seated comfortably, and I'm filling most of the seats most nights, but unlike last year I've only had a few of the nights where I've had them sitting in the aisles and crowding in the doorway. This seems to be reflected in many of the reviews I have read. The frequency with which I am reading the words ‘sparsely attended,’ ‘handful of audience’, ‘modest numbers’ is noticeable. Several times I've seen attendance referred to in single figures.

Single figures. My smallest audience so far has been 15, and that was the smallest by a long way. The next smallest was in the mid twenties, and I'm still occasionally getting those nights where 50 or 60 are squeezing themselves into a space not big enough to hold them.

Three things to note about this.

Number one, nearly all of these mentions of tiny numbers have been in two star reviews. I read all the two star reviews. Since being given this dreaded number of stars by Chortle myself last year, I have become obsessed with comparing them to my own.

Number two, nearly all of these have been in reviews of comics with a higher profile than myself. I have no illusions about my position in the comedy world, I scrape by on middle fifteens and the occasional opening twenty for fifty or a hundred notes a time. Most of these reviews are of acts who are beyond that stage, but not too far beyond.

Number three, they have all been reviews of acts in paying venues.

And I can't help but ask if these three things are interrelated. That these acts, who are all clearly very good and accomplished acts (or at least better and more accomplished than me), are garnering these two star reviews, because they are in a paying venue and do not have the profile yet to sell the large number of tickets required to fill that venue, and hence are peddling their wares to audiences who are unresponsive due to feeling self-conscious about their lack of numbers, and thus their performance suffers as a consequence.

The rallying cry of this year seems to have been: ‘The Fringe needs to change. It needs to be run more for the benefit of the acts and audiences.’ The big four have been painted as the big bad, the evil faceless ones screwing every penny they can out of the poor put-upon artists forced to pay huge fees and commissions and upfront guarantees. But conversely you have to ask yourself, was anyone forcing these acts into making that financial commitment? Or should they maybe not have taken a hard look at themselves beforehand and asked, am I really for this?

It seems to me that the real villain of the piece is the high expectation being put on acts today. The idea that once you reach a certain level of competence that you should be in the Gilded Balloon or the Underbelly, and not the back room of a pub somewhere rattling a bucket at the end of the show.

Maybe it's the agents that are pushing them that way, or maybe it is the acts themselves and the nagging feeling that they will never be fully taken seriously until they have made that perceived step up in status. And so they end up taking on a room that they are not yet ready for, and playing to a subdued handful and in the process doing neither themselves or the audience any favours at all.

So maybe if the Fringe does need to change, it's the artists themselves that need to change it. The big four are only able to command those high fees and percentages for their venues because there are people willing to pay. It is market forces, and it isn't going to change until the market changes. Maybe the best way to change things if for acts themselves to stop listening to the nagging voices in their heads that say: ‘You need to go bigger, higher, bolder’ and just take a realistic view and say: This is where I am, so let's just put on the best show I can, and let that be what defines me.’

  • Alan Sharp: Careful What You Wish For is at the Banshee Labyrinth at 21:45.

Published: 22 Aug 2012

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