Free to do the show I want | Robin Ince in praise of the PBH Free Fringe

Free to do the show I want

Robin Ince in praise of the PBH Free Fringe

Writing articles about the Edinburgh Fringe gets earlier and earlier every year. This one is even more premature as I won't be doing a show at this year's festival (well, I might be up for one day and I'll try to fit in 17 performances like usual).

The more urgent issue is the Free Fringe benefit in London this week. This benefit goes to funding the PBH's Free Fringe brochure, so that the performers and audience can still have an entirely free experience when it comes to August.

The rise of the free fringe has changed the landscape of the Edinburgh Fringe, and very much for the better.

The Fringe festival had become a financially exhausting ceremony, where the two most important participants, the audience and the performers, were fleeced. The legends of acts coming away from the fringe with debt of more than £20,000 are sadly true. The cost of performing their show was sometimes more than £800 per day. Meanwhile, the audience were paying more and more for a ticket. Fifty minute shows in clammy rooms with sweat dripping, paranoid eyed debtors, for £15.

This situation does not necessarily lead to the best environment for entertainment.

When I last did a show in what would have been considered 'a major venue', I don't think the worry about how much the audience had paid led to a better show. If anything, it curbed experimentation and curtailed risk that could have created a better evening. the fear of them getting their £15's worth possibly led to them not getting it.

After that year, my son was born (there is no link), so the following summer, I decided to only do a few days on the Fringe. I decided to play PBH's Free Fringe, filling in for acts having a night off. I loved it. Each room felt very different from the commercial theatre, 'you sit there and be the audience, I will do my contracted time, then please leave' sense that I had felt in my previous venue. There was a sense of event, a sense of us all being in cahoots, not dissimilar to the first Fringe shows I had gone to as a teen.

The fact they had come in for free did not in any way reduce my desire to put on the best show I could. Most acts don't look at an audience and place the weight of their takings against the effort they will put in (I hope).

A year before, I had been chatting to a couple at a gig in Middlesbrough who I had first met at one of my Edinburgh Fringe shows. I said I hadn't seen them there for a while and they replied that they had given up going because they couldn't afford to see so many shows.

Two years later, I was chatting to them at a Free Fringe show at the Canon's Gait. They had returned to the festival as the combination of free and ticketed shows meant they were able to immerse themselves in ten shows a day, an endurance test they clearly enjoyed.

The Free Fringe has helped incite a new spirit of experimentation in acts and audience. 
In 2011, I was able to put on four different shows a day, some free, some at The Stand. Quite a few people came to all four as, even including a reasonable contribution in the bucket, you could see the lot for £25.

To me there is a different relationship between audience and performer in these situations. They have taken a risk and, if we pull it off, hopefully they reward us with change, even a note in a bucket.

When I first started doing these shows, some acts warned me that it could damage me, after all, what would people think, it's almost busking in an underpass.

But now, it is quite acceptable for established performers to do free shows, even Phill Jupitus does it, and chart sensation John Otway, Red Dwarf star Norman Lovett, and on and on.

Rather than damage the ticketed fringe, it has enhanced the whole festival.

This Thursday, there is a benefit at The Bloomsbury Theatre in London, with a bill that includes John Otway, Terry Alderton and me. This one you have to pay for, but it is an investment for August and an investment in the arts, in helping to enhance and continue there being a vibrant comedy circuit of risk and energy and experiment.

At the end of my science shows on the free fringe, when I was throwing in a few lines to persuade some contributions into the bucket, I would explain that altruism was an evolved trait, that we were creating something together, and that people didn't have to put anything in the bucket, but if they didn't. I would presume they were an intelligent design proponent. That seemed to help.

(But I would also say, 'if you are a bit broke or a bit poor, don't feel any necessity to put anything in, I will not scowl or mumble curses'.)

There are a lot of tickets to sell for this week's show in the spirit of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, I hope all of us can work out ways of filling the theatre and selling tickets so this brilliant endeavour remains. Tweet, Facebook status update, shout in pubs, let's give Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill the night he deserves.

Tickets are available here.

• This article first appeared on Robin Ince's blog.

Published: 11 Jan 2015

What do you think?

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.