Monday 14 November 2011

Should I do a free show at the Edinburgh Fringe?

A while ago, I posted about the benefits of putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe (here). I was thinking about this over the weekend after I'd suggested doing Edinburgh to some fledgling funny folks on Friday. The Free Fringe, I said, since it really is what it says on the tin. Free for performers to put on shows. It was pointed out, however, that producers were reluctant to scout at these shows and venues.

This got me thinking. It is undoubtedly true that the Pleasances and Udderbellys get a lot of attention from press, wider media and talent scouts. The reasons for this are obvious. There is greater screening and filtering for these venues, and so the overall quality is higher. That is not to say that every show at these big venues is superb, crafted and hilarious. Far from it. But producers are lazy, just like writers - and don't work all that hard to unearth new talent. Unlike writers, producers are very busy and hard-working and when you only have three or four days to 'see stuff' and find new talent, it seems like a more promising pool to fish from.

So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue?
So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue? Or a very cheap, unrecognised one? Here's the thing. Producers are in town for a few days at a time. But fellow performers are in town for a month. Impressing your peers in Edinburgh is as important as impressing the industry. Let's be honest, you're first outing at Edinburgh is unlikely to be picked up a producer at Big Talk or Objective and thrust onto E4. The main reason for the show is unlikely to be all that good. It may be fresh, have flashes of brilliance, and be sporadically hilarious - or consistently amusing without ever quite taking off. But bear in mind that there are a few dozen comedians and writers who are a little less fresh, with a few more years experience who are about to generate more frequent flashes of brilliance which are more consistently hilarious.

But other performers at your venue might see your show - and like it. And tell other people about it and bring you some audience. Or tell someone who has a 'best of' show that you could do a spot at, at which a producer might be in attendance. Equally, you might see someone else's ramshackle show, and like bits of it and realise they are good at things that you're aren't so good at. And that you could help them. You might work well together either now or in the future. They might do well, get some interest but want some help and could pull you on board. You might join forces, pool resources and come back the following year with something better, leaner and stronger.

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Comedian

The reality of writing and performing is that it is a lonely business - especially if you're not a gigging stand-up comedian - but for one month in Edinburgh, you're surrounded by similar people to you and this can be rather a nice thing. You feel like you belong. Okay, after a fortnight, the novelty wears off and everyone's tired, broke and angry. But you'll have forgotten that by November and be back next year, invariably with something better. After doing that for a three or fours years, maybe you'll finally be that an overnight success we keep reading about. And when those opportunities come, you'll be able to handle them and make the most of them.


  1. I don't believe there's greater screening and filtering at the money venues than at the Free Fringe. The Free Fringe certainly screens the shows offered to it, as carefully as we can. The one piece of analytical work that has been done on this (Chortle in 2010)shows that the average start rating for Free Fringe shows is higher than many groups of money venues. It is, admittedly, lower than Assembly.

    There is a pirate operation that puts on free shows and doesn't vet quality, but that's not the Free Fringe.

    As for producers, I have no more insight into their minds than anybody else, but I'm sure they don't see shows at random. They plan what to see. The only difference is: at the money venues, you know they've been in, because they've been issued a complimentary ticket. At the Free Fringe, there are no tickets, so you don't know they've been in. Unless they tell you.

    I think you're absolutely right about the rest. And the audience is usually more open to what you give it. Not: I've paid £12 for this; it'd better be good. More: what have I got to lose by giving this show a fair hearing? In fact, more like the attitude of a TV audience, but without the remote.

    Peter Buckley Hill
    The Free Fringe Ltd

  2. I can't recommend the free Fringe highly enough. Not just for all the excellent reasons mentioned by you and Peter above, but also for financial reasons.

    I used to do Edinburgh in the 80s and 90s and just about broke even or made a small profit, these days it's almost impossible to do without losing bucketloads.

    Paradoxically, at least if you do the Free Festival you know exactly how much it will cost you before you go up - so any money you make from the bucket on the door is a bonus.