Should it be a free-for-all?

Corry Shaw on the pros and cons of free Fringe comedy

It is always tricky to schedule a timetable of shows that you want - or have - to see during the Fringe. Wether you are a punter, a reviewer or an act who has promised to see everyone else, your bank account can become a black hole and your diary a jigsaw, forcing pieces together to ensure you use your days efficiently to see as much as you can. You end up convincing yourself that you will be able to get from the Stand to the Counting House in five minutes if you just focus all your energy on willing the distance to be slightly shorter so you can cram another show into your calender.

Having produced several shows in different venues over the last few years and working as a reviewer for Chortle this year, I am used to the frantic dash between distant venues and the sinking fear and panic when you realise the show you are in will overrun by three minutes thus making it impossible to get to the next venue on time, so tight are the gaps we leave ourselves to move around the tourist- and rickshaw-infested city.

So, when you’ve sprinted up Edinburgh’s several hills after a heavy night of ‘networking’ the evening before, when your heart is pounding so hard with the exertion of enforced exercise that it starts knocking against your already upset liver, only to discover that the act hasn’t bothered to appear or you are the only member of the audience so the show has been pulled, you start to get a little annoyed.

I have fallen victim to the ‘pulled show’ several times this Fringe and although it is a problem spanning every venue, the instances have been higher when it comes to the free shows.

Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire the concept behind the Free Festival and Free Fringe. I think they are worthy and important schemes and I have been to several brilliant (and sold out) compilation shows under their banners this year. But when solo shows are struggling to pull in enough people to even open then questions have to be asked.

The shows that never happened were pulled for one of the following two reasons;

Lack of audience. This is a long-standing Fringe hazard and it is understandable that comedians don’t want to perform to a couple of people and a reviewer.

Non-appearance of acts: This is a rarer yet worryingly increasing situation. Even when an audience shows up the performer themselves is either late or completely absent. In every situation where this has happened (four and counting) the venue staff have been deserted by the act, and so left at a loss to explain what has happened.

Now, there may have been an emergency, some kind of drama. Things go wrong all the time and no blame should be placed squarely on the act without knowing the circumstance. But there must be a way of letting bar and venue staff know what's happening so that customers are not left uninformed and disappointed.

It looks wholly unprofessional and may damage other shows in that venue. It has also led to several of the Free Fringe camp asking why Chortle are ‘ignoring’ the free shows in their reviews. You cannot review a show that doesn’t happen, and frequent cancellations do not inspire much confidence that return trips the venue won’t be a waste of precious time.

One such act emailed to say sorry when she discovered a reviewer had turned up, and said she would have been there in person to apologise for the late cancellation if she had known we’d be there but what about the audience that had turned up? Did they get personal emailed apologies?

The other shows I didn’t see were pulled for the more common reason, the act was there, the audience was not – leaving me to question what is happening to this bustling festival.

In recent press coverage several stories are emerging. Charlie Wood from the Underbelly states that the credit crunch is to blame with audiences taking less of a risk on lesser-known names. Tommy Shepherd from The Stand reckons the Fringe audiences are repelled by the over-inflated ticket prices. Alex Petty from the Laughing Horse who runs the Free Festival proudly states that all his rooms are full due to the ticket prices and the problems with the Fringe box office.

I know that several of the less established acts (and even some of the bigger names) are uncomfortable with the £10+ ticket prices and feel that they are directly attributing to smaller numbers coming to see them. One of the leading Pleasance acts stated he would like to see all Edinburgh shows at £5 each, stating that if a Free Fringe is viable then surely a £5 Fringe is viable.

Petty’s assertion that the Free Fringe is booming seems flawed to me as the majority of pulled shows that I have turned up to see have been within his venues. On every occasion, Petty wasn’t there to witness it – which is understandable given the number of venues and shows in his charge. But with the lack of paperwork, box office or even cashing up sheets there is no evidence to back his claim that they are doing as well as he says. There are definite successes in his camp, though, which is testament to the acts’ determination and commitment to making their shows busy and well-received.

There are several million shows to see every day and are a finite number of people see them. The free shows that do well for audiences tend to be the compilation shows or sketch shows, partly because punters feel it is less of a risk to sit through an hour split between several people rather than investing their hope and their time into just one. But also because these shows have an instant street team, several people flyering makes more impact than one.

Aa lot of people doing the free shows are making their Edinburgh debut, and probably very little experience of standing in the rain for eight hours a day handing out soggy bits of paper to thousands of people in the hope they will get at least eight of them in to their show.

Perhaps we have reached saturation point with the shows-to-audience ratio. The Free Festival boasts 158 shows spread over 13 rooms in eight venues, The Free Fringe has 120 shows in its programme in venues all over the city then there are several other free comedy nights run in venues like the Three Tuns – and this is just one arm of a rapidly expanding festival.

It takes a huge amount of work to get bums on all of these seats and although the groups are supported to an extent by Alex and Peter Buckley-Hill,who runs the Free Fringe, they are essentially on their own, competing against big names, TV stars, ruthless PR and massive production agencies. It is not surprising that some of them become despondent and perhaps don’t put the effort into selling their show with as much gusto as they possibly should.

Some people in both Freebie camps are just hobbyists. They are not here to hone their art or progress their career, they are here partly to find a release for their creativity. And it pains me to say, but I suspect a minority are here on a jolly. There are too many acts involved in the free frivolities that are simply not ready to do an hour of stand-up and while professional acts are struggling to advance their career, improve their skills and bankrupting themselves in the process, should they really have to compete with the rising, albeit small, percentage of acts that are here to hang out with their friends?

It has been suggested that the Free camps vet their acts more, it has been counter-argued that this goes against their very ethos, but I fail to see how the expansion and the resulting lack of consumers can continue at this rate without having some devastating effects, not just on individual acts but on the Fringe as a whole.

Newer acts who cannot sustain an hour should be encouraged to team up with other performers and produce compilation or taster shows. This will give them the experience of Edinburgh without subjecting them or their prospective audiences to a pulled show or, even worse, a weak show that goes ahead. It will aid them in their stagecraft without pressuring them into filling an hour. It will provide extra support to the act, knowing that they are not in it alone, knowing that they are not the only one with soggy bits of paper for their show on the Royal Mile that day. It will also give audiences a much better experience and will make it more likely that it will be a folded note in the collection bucket rather than some lose coppers.

The bigger venues must look at the way they are pricing their tickets if the up and coming acts are going to be guaranteed the audience figures that they need and deserve. I couldn’t agree more with Tommy Shepherd when he says that it is ridiculous to expect people to pay more than £10 to watch an hour of someone they have never heard of. People will just not take that risk, even the less savvy of the comedy punters will recognise that you can go to a well-established comedy club in any city for around the same price, where they will be guaranteed three or more acts of a decent standard. Why would they take the risk with their cash on an unknown?

A lot of thought and care needs to go into the planning of Fringe 2009 and make a move back to encouraging audiences rather than pushing them away with high ticket prices, low quality shows and poor communication with acts, audiences and venues.

There is a whole raft of amazingly talented performers in all Fringe camps, lets stop overshadowing them with mediocrity and start enabling the future stars of comedy to built up their audiences and their prospects.

Published: 14 Aug 2008

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