Is returning to a free venue a backwards step?

Paul Ricketts has a Fringe dilemma

When I started doing stand-up I asked some well- known black comics why they didn’t take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. One said that black British comics would never get discovered there. Another said something far more telling; she could spend her money on an Edinburgh show or a new kitchen – and she realised she couldn’t use three star reviews to cook a three course meal.

Plus, she added, no one is ‘discovered’ in Edinburgh. It’s just a place where the comedy industry’s current opinions are confirmed –there has to be a ‘buzz’ about you before you get to Edinburgh.

But I wanted to perform in the Edinburgh because I had previously worked as a technician at Fringe and Festival venues. It was fun and the only times I’ve made money in August north of the border - surely being a performer would be even better.

As a comic, I was told there are four reasons for doing the Edinburgh Fringe – all career related. Firstly, the invaluable learning experience of doing at least one performance everyday for three weeks. Secondly, an unrivalled opportunity to network and make industry contacts. Thirdly, recognition, like an end of year grade, through reviews and ultimately prizes/awards. Fourthly, making money by having a sell-out run – difficult but not impossible, just ask Ricky Gervais or John Bishop.

However, as we all know, unless you’ve got lots of money, or you’re literally indebted to an agency/management/production organisations, then you won’t get a room in one of the ‘big four’ fringe venues. Slightly cheaper rooms in other venues are available for hire, but the likelihood is that in any ‘paid’ room a majority of comic performers will lose money. Hence the growth of the Free Fringe and Free Festival, venues, especially over the last five years.

Forget the moral arguments over venues, from a practical viewpoint, initially, I did shows for free to minimise my costs. These were successful in meeting three of the four criteria outlined above – I learnt, I made contacts, I didn’t lose much money but I didn’t get reviews. In 2009 I did a show on the PBH Free Fringe which received good audience ‘word of mouth’ and played to full rooms for two-thirds of the run. But I didn’t get a single fringe review (no stars to count or boast about), so I talked to critics from The Scotsman, The Stage etc and they readily admitted a strong bias to seeing shows in ‘paid’ venues.

Therefore last year I happily paid thousands to be in the smaller room next to the room I’d had for free in 2010. As a result I got the great reviews I craved (I’d passed with distinction), yet despite the best efforts of the promoter Just The Tonic and myself I still lost a fair amount of money. Once again I hit three out of the four criteria, but in effect each review cost me £800.

This year I can’t afford to borrow off my Mum or use the money I’ve saved to move into a new flat. I could return to Edinburgh, doing a full run of a new show on the ‘free fringe’. But after chats with comedy promoters/bookers they said moving from ‘paid venue’ to ‘free’ would look like a ‘backwards’ step at this stage of my career.

‘What about Imran Yusuf’s success in a free venue last year?’ I asked.

‘Where’s he performing his new show this year?’ they asked.

So what to do? I want to do an Edinburgh Fringe show but I can’t afford to get a room in a ‘paid’ venue but if I get a ‘free’ room it’s bad for my career – it’s Catch 22. How about ignoring the four criteria and think about fun instead of career progression. Yeah, fun, something noticeably so many of my contemporaries and I, weren’t having much of last year.

I’ve also noticed that we’re now so career orientated that some comics start Edinburgh previews for new shows in the following October! These previews don’t feel like the initial flowering of the creative process but more like the anxious early start of studious revision for life defining exams.

So I’m not doing the full Edinburgh Fringe this year. I’ll be working on my 2012 show (‘West End Story’) instead… but performing a 2012 Edinburgh preview show during the 2011 Fringe. I’m hoping it will be the earliest preview show on record, plus I won't have to worry about reviews, prizes, industry recognition or making money. It will be on the PBH Free Fringe, Canons’ Gait, Aug 18th, 2.25pm. School’s out and I intend to have fun.

Published: 12 Jul 2011

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