A funny way to run a Fringe venue

Bob Slayer has some issues with the new girls on the block...

I’m very fond of poking a stick at the insane and irrelevant elements of the Edinburgh Fringe industry and making a stand against the widespread pay-to-play practices. I set up Heroes of Fringe (previously Alternative Fringe) to find a more creative and less expensive festival experience for both performers and punters alike...

And so I have come to tell tales - to snitch. Well, actually, I have come to point and laugh at a pay-to-play deal which is so hilariously ridiculous I had to share it with you. This document landed in my inbox earlier today: Funny Women Pop Up Fringe - How To Take Part.

Funny Women do not have a great track record of PR evidenced by the storm of protest they received over their pay-to-play comedy competition, which also has a first prize of some make-up and a management deal, which acts don't seem to have much choice about being tied into...

I wrote a response to this last year, pointing out that as undesirable as a pay-to-play competition was, it was completely overshadowed by the widespread pay-to-play practices that go on at mainstream and independent venues at the Edinburgh Fringe...

Well it seems I may have inadvertently pointed Funny Women in the direction of another possible money-spinner...

The opening paragraph of the Funny Women At The Fringe proposal informs us that their pop up fringe runs from ‘15th to 25th of August’. But hang on but doesn't the fringe start on the August 2? If you are going to turn up for half of the festival then you turn up for the all-important first half of the fringe, where all the buzz and the press is generated.. They go on to explain that: ‘Perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival without wearing yourself out and going into debt!’ (I am sure that Funny Women are not saying that a full run would be too much for the fairer sex are they? Are they? what are they saying? Let's read on...)

‘Funny Women offers a supportive and friendly environment with flexibility that’s unique to us.’ I should think it is unique to them. As well as their decision to ignore the first week of the Fringe it also seems that unless your show is before 2:30pm Funny Women are also saying –  well, dictating – that you will take two days off during the ten-day run. They have even helpfully chosen the days for you and these days are, wait for it, both on Saturdays! 

So what has happened here is Funny Women have found a venue that has offered them some space but has already programmed events on the key dates and times. Of course Funny Women are also charging for the opportunity to perform on these haphazard time slots. They are taking 30 per cent of the box office receipts with £50 room fee for each hour-long performance. Plus the venue is sponsored by Benefit cosmetics. Is this really a supportive environment or just a cash generating exercise for Funny Women?

As much as I don't like the standard pay-to-play deals that venues like the Underbelly offer performers, I understand why acts enter into them. The pay-to-play venues do work, not all the time of course, but some of those acts, maybe 10 per cent, will get real value for money.

Acts like my friend Dr Brown, rose out of the Free Fringe, via Just The Tonic and was then produced by Soho Theatre at the Underbelly for the last two years. It was at the Underbelly that Dr Brown really found a wide and appreciative audience and he rightly became recognised as our reigning world champion of comedy.

John Robertson has performed in Heroes @ The Hive for the last two years, building his audience. His show last year, The Dark Room, was a real slow-burner success that by the end of the run was packed with people coming back again and again. It has continued to have success since the Fringe and The Underbelly have made him an offer he cannot refuse to bring it back with them this year. The deal they have offered him is not asking him to pay for his space, in fact he should make money, and with the proper backing of the Underbelly he could and should be a real hit of the Fringe. I am very sad that he has moved on from the Hive but very proud that he is being offered the real opportunities he deserves.

Of course The Underbelly will also be offering acts they don't care so much about deals that involve the handing over large guarantees and putting those acts into certain debt, because that is how their venues are financed, but hey one step at a time and at least there is a potential upside. Where is that with Funny Women? All they have done is recognise that the Fringe is increasingly oversubscribed every year and that there are more and more shows failing to secure a venue who then get increasingly desperate. So Funny Women have come up with a scheme to mop up these venue-less acts and then charge them to rent spaces that they will struggle to fill for a near pointless half-run of the fringe. That really is a unique supportive environment!

When I was setting up Heroes I had to think how could we compete against the established venues at Edinburgh Fringe. I had the starting point of knowing that there was no way I would take any guarantee or charge performers rent but I also knew that alone wasn't enough. If I was going to have a chance of attracting the level of shows that I wanted (Phil Kay, Sanderson Jones, Chris Dangerfield, Miss Behave etc) then I would have to come up with a unique deal, an ethos and marketing plan that could stand out and get attention. I assume Funny Women sat down and went through the same process and they came up with a deal that starts halfway through the fringe for a ten-day run which misses out Saturdays in a venue on the wrong side of town that performers have to pay for...

Come on Funny Women, step up and get creative! The role of independent promoters is to provide a proper alternative to the pay-to-play venues. The Free Fringe and the Free Festival are doing this. Voodoo Rooms are doing it. The Stand do it. Heroes are doing it... But you are part of the problem.

It is for this reason that I have decided to nominate Funny Women for the inaugural "Bob Slayer How Not To Run A Fringe Venue Award" and if they win I look forward to presenting it in person.

  • Bob Slayer How Not To Run A Fringe Venue will take place every day at 6pm during the Edinburgh Fringe in his own bar Heroes @ Bob's Bookshop, 9 South College Street. www.bobslayer.com | www.heroesof.com.

Published: 21 Mar 2013

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