The value of 'free'

Free Festival organiser Alex Petty hits back at criticsm

There is enough ill thought-out material in new act Denis Krasnov’s article Why Free Means Worthless At The Edinburgh Fringe that it could be stretched out to form his Fringe show – which the audience will then be charged £9 to watch.

It would be impossible for me to pick through and respond to each of the incorrect statements, poor research and false assumptions of yesterday's original Correspondence article, which seem to be present in just about every sentence, and still enable me to get time to do anything constructive for the rest of the day, so instead here are some relevant facts about free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe:

The Fringe is an open access arts festival, which welcomes all performers, and should always remain so. It exists so that anybody can perform a show, with this ethos stretching back to the very first Fringe – it is exactly this ethos that the Free Festival follows.

There are great, good, bad and awful shows at both free venues and paid venues, the only difference is the ticket price. That is exactly why that, with all Fringe shows, paid or free, that the cream will rises to the top and the shite will sink – that is the beauty of the Fringe, and audiences have plenty of information on hand to make a decision on what they wish to see.

Over the last six years the number of free shows at the Fringe have risen dramatically, and this year accounts for 25% of all  Fringe comedy shows. In this time, audience numbers have also increased each year.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a festival financed by the losses of the performers who take part in it, and both of the main free show producers exist to alleviate these losses for performers. Doing a show at a paid venue is often quoted as costing a comedian £6,000, but to do this same show for free, it will cost a performer substantially less, usually in the region of hundreds of pounds. Many free performers break even or even make money – while performers still get all of the other benefits associated with the Fringe: reviews, attention, experience, and being able to ‘do the Fringe’.

Seventy-five per cent of all Free Festival shows were rated three-stars or above in 2008.

The Free Festival has never made money, and it’s aim each year is to break even, and I believe the same can be said of the Free Fringe.

With both the Free Festival and Free Fringe existing, there are two alterative ways of doing the Fringe for performers, along with other venues that now offer free shows. This increases performer’s options on how they wish to do the Fringe and how much they wish to spend to do it. It increases creativity and prevents performers from being excluded from the Fringe as they can’t afford it. It also increases choice, and reduces costs for audiences – everybody wins.

And Free Fringe performer Danny Worthington also takes issue with the original article…

Perhaps Denis Krasnov should take another look at the comedy circuit. If he did he would see that the sort of back rooms of pubs that he seems to deride the Free Fringe for using are exactly where the lower price end of the comedy circuit, where new comedy acts, sketch troupes, and established acts wanting to try out their new material perform throughout the year. Not in elaborately set-up venues but in rooms with a strung-up back drop, a portable PA, and (if you're lucky) a single spotlight. The Free Fringe offers this in Edinburgh and makes no excuses for what it is.  

Mr Krasnov's assertion that the venues are unsupervised is odd. OK so there are no techs, but unless your show is reliant on lighting tricks and sound cues rather than raw talent and a good script then what do you need them for? The Free Fringe is a co-operative and asks each outgoing show to manage the audience for the following show. It's all in their terms and conditions. 

Also he attacks the shows as being poorly produced and not ready for the Fringe, I wonder if he's read the programme and looked at the shows. They do the comedy circuit. They preview and rewrite. The majority of Free Fringe shows are in their second or third year at Edinburgh, or even further on. As for his claim the shows are poorly produced, well no one brings a show wanting it to fail. 

Some performers are new this year but even Peter Buckley Hill, the man behind the Free Finge, has a hierarchy of shows which he wants, with first time one-man shows right at the bottom of the list. Free Fringe doesn't want ‘Joe Bloggs’ straight from his first open spot thinking he can do an hour’s show just because he isn't paying for the venue.

It's all part of the artistic control that Mr Krasnov complains of when he criticises the Free Fringe for selective programming of their venues as being against the ethos of the Fringe. Does he think that every show that applies to the Underbelly or The Pleasance gets the room or time slot they want? And they're paying for them.

And I think Mr Krasnov's reading of newer acts wanting to “practice” for three weeks is doing them a disservice. I would expect that even his show will receive some further polish in three straight weeks of performance. Don't forget the Fringe may well be the only time these newer acts get to disencumber themselves from their mundane day jobs and give themselves over solely to the performance for asignificant period of time.

People don't do the Free Fringe just because they think they're saving money. There's still accommodation, transport, Fringe programme entry, flyers, etc.  Free Fringers want to offer the best deal they can for their audience, so that the show is available to the greater number of people. They want punters to enjoy the Fringe and see multiple shows. Punters have the choice to leave a contribution if they enjoy the show or leave nothing if they don't.  And of course the standard has to be good enough to persuade the audience from getting up and leaving whereas people may stay at a bad show they paid for, hoping that it will somehow realise the potential of the money they have wasted on it.

Names may or may not be made at the Free Fringe but I can name off the top off my head acts/shows that made their debut as Free Fringe shows and then moved to paid venues on the back of their reviews - Alexis Dubus :A Ruddy Brief History of Swearing, Pappy's Fun Club, Men With Bananas, and Kiosk of Champions.

Well-known London multiple promoters such as the 99 Club and Soho Comedy Club have their shows with the Free Fringe again this year. OK we may not be able to offer you Jimmy Carr, or Ricky Gervais (unless they drop in and ask to do a quick spot) but the Free Fringe considers that the standard of their shows is no less than the general standard of shows at this years Fringe.

People have different tastes, but the only guarantee that can be given at The Free Fringe is that you won’t be left out of pocket for seeing a show that you haven't enjoyed. 

Published: 16 Jun 2009

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