Why the biggest joke at the Edinburgh Fringe is trying to make a profit
The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, and for many comedians, it's the focus of our year. It’s our Ofsted (the irony being most of us have had to get a PGCE to fall back on). It’s a great way for you to get inspired, get better at comedy, and maybe even be seen by someone who can give you some work that isn’t paid in petrol money and a hot buffet served in the interval.
Most of comedy’s agents, producers, TV and radio industry live and work in London, but for a month swathes of them relocate - like swallows, ex-pats and rich couples on Escape to the Country - to Edinburgh for the month. If you’re an act based outside of London that needs an agent, or wants to do work on telly or radio, the Fringe can be the easiest way to get in front of all the right people. In that respect the Festival is a perfect restoration for the lack of meritocracy in our industry, right? Sorry pal, not that straight forward.
Most Fringe shows lose money. Even on the Free Fringe there are costs. There’s the Fringe registration fee, flyers, posters, press shots, poster design, not to mention accommodation which has surged in price due to a change in Edinburgh tenancy agreements.
My friends and I decided to experiment with a sketch show this year. We’re at the Pleasance Courtyard (great venue and location), with excellent producers in a fifty-capacity venue. We haven’t hired PR (average cost of this is about £2.5k); we're teching our own shows (saves about £20 a performance); accommodation isn’t included in the budget (around £1k each); and our break-even point for ticket sales is 108%. Yup, the same amount of pork that goes into a Peperami.
— Tarot (@Tarotcomedy) July 4, 2019
We’re absolutely cutting costs where we can and we still can't make a profit. The only saving grace is that the loss is split five ways - this is how Steps must have felt on their last tour. No doubt there'll be some people who'll scoff and say you can do it cheaper, and you can. But I’m 32 now and I don’t want to top-and-tail with a street performer on a futon before I go and perform in a sex dungeon to four baffled French-Canadians.
Our loss-making sketch group - we should've called it that and not Tarot - is lucky in that we can take the hit because we don’t have dependents and can finance this run through other work. But what if you have kids? Or a job that’s only just covering your bills? Then you don’t get to go. And that means that most the people who could give you life-changing work still won’t know you exist.
The apocryphal figure thrown around is six grand. That's to say, the average show LOSES six grand. That’s a manageable hit for some people that they (or their family) are willing and able to take. For other people - most people in comedy - that amount of money is life-changing. The kind of financial buffer that would mean a broken-down car or an unexpected bill wouldn’t fuck them over for months.
Circumstances have conspired to mean that this sort of pay-to-play model is the norm, and so the Festival is considered an investment you make in your future. Inevitably, that means it’s another industry skewed towards a demographic that is financially dependent. And that’s just what the arts need, more rich people. It also means that the 'original spirit of the Fringe' we hear so much about has disappeared. Maybe it's just another thing baby boomers have ruined as well as Facebook, politics, and the planet.
We’re all told of the 'good old days' when people could write their show on the train up, play around on stage, experiment, and then come away a better performer with a show ready for the world to see. Ah the good old days! (...mind you, it's nice to see it used in a context that isn’t 'when sexual assault was fine').
The fun has diminished for many at the Fringe because there is so much riding on a successful run - and that imagined and real pressure isn’t conducive to creative thought. It’s like New Year's Eve: it’s always a let-down because we build it up so much. The system won’t change because it has no incentive to...although Monkey Barrel’s Fair Fringe may well prove me wrong.
So what can audiences visiting the Fringe do? Basically, spread the word. Make sure the shows worth seeing (Tarot, as in Tarot card) are packed out. Tweet, Facebook about them, help create a buzz. It means loads to stressed-out, hollowed-eyed performers, and might even convince someone who was previously on the fence to pop along.
If you go to a pay-what-you-want show and have some spare cash, put it in the bucket - even if it was crap. You’ve sat down for an hour at the busiest arts festival in the world - I’d happily pay a fiver for the privilege, so look at it paying for a little rest. A bit like when you buy a coffee you don’t want, so you can charge your phone.
And the main thing? Come and see our show (it's called Tarot) because we couldn’t afford PR and are now worried we’ll have to sell some kidneys (not ours) to pay off the debt.