Defender of the free world

Ashley Frieze on the rift between Edinburgh promoters

Do you remember the war? You know the massive schism that caused the Free Fringe to split in half and then everyone had to take sides? No?

Well then, what do you feel about the fact that the charismatic idealist Peter Buckley Hill – the man known as PBH originally behind the Free Fringe – does so much for fringe performers? How do you feel about the alleged profiteering of Laughing Horse's Alex Petty, who charges £40 for inclusion in the ‘rival’ Free Festival? In short, is there a right or wrong side in this debate?

Performing at the Fringe should not be a question of politics. Those people who perform with the Free Fringe or Free Festival often seem to get dragged into the discussion of whether one of these promoters is better than the other, and whether there's a right or wrong way of declaring a venue as free.

I was there before the war. We performed as part of the compilation show The Great Big Comedy Picnic at The Canons Gait when Alex Petty and PBH worked together. Those shows were great. Pappy's Fun Club were in the venue at lunchtimes, as they were just starting out, the Free Fringe was new, and everything worked. Full houses, full collection buckets... those were the days.

PBH and Laughing Horse had a different outlook to each other and so they eventually went their separate ways. Of the two groups, it appears only one side actively campaigns against the other. The Great Big Comedy Picnic had its booking at the Canons Gait revoked by PBH just after the split, as one of us was doing a second show with Laughing Horse. It is a clearly stated condition of applying to PBH Free Fringe that you cannot also apply to Laughing Horse Free Festival. It almost seems that ‘you're either with us, or you're against us’.

This is a real pity, and I hope the rift doesn't widen. Ultimately performers go to Edinburgh for pretty similar reasons, and all we're looking for is fair treatment and a suitable environment in which to perform. So whether you're a happy PBH Free Fringer, or a cheery Free Festivaler, you're probably in the same boat.

What about the charging of fees? Are we in some sort of pay-to-play scheme here?

I think it's a wise thing to register your show in the Fringe programme. Laughing Horse requires this, and PBH recommends it. Without a presence in the programme, your show is off the radar.

In the PBH world, performers are asked to do quite a few things to contribute to the running of the venue, including offering the loan of any PA equipment they may have, and there is an optional donation they can make to help fund the event. The quality and specification of the Free Fringe booklet is pretty high and is paid for from the donations, along with a large contribution from PBH's pocket.

In the Free Festival world, the venues are fully equipped by Laughing Horse and the foldout Free Festival guide is paid for with advertising and from the modest registration fees.

From my observations, it seems that paying the Laughing Horse Free Festival means you have to do less towards the running of the venue than if you opted for the Free Fringe. For those who aren't there for the full run, making a small contribution towards the costs is a practical way to help out. In both cases, the venues work best when performers are professional, respectful and help each other out.

In short, there are only minor differences, and I can't find any victims of either approach. Producers of any shows should expect to invest something in them to make them happen. Each environment provides you the opportunity to recover costs in your collection bucket and come out of Edinburgh having had a good and fun experience.

In an attempt to reach out across the gulf between the two schemes, let me say this: I am grateful to PBH for the excellent advice he gave me personally when I was starting out as a comedian and doing my first Fringe shows. I would also like to thank Alex Petty for the hard work I've seen him put into making his Fringe venues operate smoothly and for providing an environment to perform in that improves year on year. The free venues are increasingly a large force in the Fringe and I think they work best when the performers are collaborative, rather than competitive or political.

Given that nearly everyone has already chosen their venue and paid their Fringe registration for this year, none of the above will change people's choice of Free Fringe vs Free Festival, or People's Front of Judea vs Judean People's Front.

However, I hope we can acknowledge and celebrate our differences and similarities and all have a successful August as part of a united free show community.

All I'm saying is: Don't mention the war.

Published: 25 Mar 2012

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