'So you work every single day for a month, with only one day off, and it costs you thousands and thousands of pounds for the privilege of doing it? That sounds ridiculous. Why?'
The above is the question that the few friends I have with more normal jobs would ask me when I'd explain my ventures to the Edinburgh Fringe. I used to have an answer for them too. 'It's an investment' I'd say, explaining how it could lead to further comedy or possibly television work. 'You may get spotted' I'd exclaim, as if warning of an on-coming measles epidemic. However, after seven years at the Fringe doing a range of shows from mixed bill, sketch and three solo stand-up shows, I decided, for the first time since working in comedy, that I wouldn't go last year.
I was terrified I'd miss it, or miss out on something. What if not being there damaged all my chances to excel in the field of funny? What happened instead was that I got a good amount of paid work, saw my friends, stabilised my bank account, paid all my bills for the first time in years, saw Blur in Hyde Park and generally had the best summer I've had in ages. My personal Edinburgh bubble very much burst.
It's become more and more evident since I started comedy in 2004 that Edinburgh has long stopped being a Fringe where audiences could see 5 shows a day gambling between experimental madness and unheard of comedians. Instead raised costs all round mean it's now a place where punters spend £15-30 each seeing one 'television act' whose agency can afford to stump up £12k for them to shout at people in a hot room.
I'm still paying off my last Edinburgh Fringe attempts from 2011, having a superb deal with a top venue whereby if I sold 100% of my tickets I'd only lose £4500. The Fringe equivalent of saying 'If you escape the maze and save your family from the villains then we'll only cut your legs off.' Probably. Anyway, I didn't (sell 100% that is, not save my family from villains) and therefore here I still am, having fond memories of watching my team of flyerers sitting around instead of working, chatting about who threw up most last night, as each month chunks of money depart from my account.
On top of that, you have PR, print and postering, admin costs, travel and the amount it costs to live up there all the while you're earning next to nothing for a whole month. Suddenly the people who are the reason for the Fringe happening in the first place, are the ones who are going bankrupt to perform at it.
Add to this that, every time you hand over that cash, you are submitting yourself to months of stress working on a show that is constantly subjected to critical abuse by students working for one of numerous Fringe websites that have been invented the month before in order to get free tickets. Most of those students have never written anything outside of a GCSE exam before and don't understand that the current Fringe system means you have to have more stars than the belt of Orion on your posters to compete with the other 2500 shows on that day.
There are of course alternatives. The Free Fringe is growing ever bigger, allowing acts to perform in a venue for no cost, and the audiences in turn don't pay a charge unless they feel the performer deserves it at the end of the show. This also means though that anyone can wander into your show, your venue could be anything from a perfect comedy room above a pub, to the corridor adjacent to the house Irish band whose noise is only buffered from your audience by a flimsy curtain. Curtains of course, so well known for their sound prevention skills that there are whole areas of Ikea where no one can hear you scream. Oh, and you still have to pay to live in Edinburgh in a flat that a local resident has kindly vacated for the month so they can charge you six times the usual amount to see how many fat mice they have. In 2011 I saw one (a mouse this is) that genuinely looked like someone had stuck ears and a tail on a hacky sack.
So as you can probably tell, I'm not going again this year. Instead, thanks to an excellent idea from the very funny comic Tiffany Stevenson, we are running our own fringe in central London for a week at the beginning of August. One venue, 8 days and 34 shows, the Phoenix Fringe runs from August 3rd to the 11th.
Featuring acts such as Rufus Hound, Robin Ince, Shappi Khorsandi, Isy Suttie, Mark Watson, Alan Davies and many others, it has a bill of new shows, old shows and one-off specials as you might have in a proper fringe. More importantly than that, it's affordable for you, the audience, at £8 a ticket in advance or £10 on the day. Or, best of all, there are day tickets at £20 to see every show on that date. It's also affordable for the acts too with no one losing any money in order to entertain. We're doing this without funding, without sponsors and without any PR. Oh and the room is air conditioned so you shouldn't be half evaporated 40 minutes into a show.
It's only year one for the Phoenix Fringe, but all of us who are involved in it would like to think this Edinburgh alternative might becoming ongoing thing for those acts and audience members who don't want to trek up to Scotland to pay obscene amounts to watch the same agencies showcase which of their acts will have the biggest debts in September.
Why? It's 'an investment.'
The Phoenix Fringe is in Cavendish Square, London between the 3rd and 11th August 2013. To find out more visit www.phoenixfringe.co.uk
Extra notes from Tiernan:
- I very much like Edinburgh as a city outside of the Fringe. Despite the fact that, against all reasoning, wherever you go you constantly seem to be going uphill.
- I should also point out that The Stand in Edinburgh don't run like described above at all. They very much look after the acts and supply them with a weekly payment depending on ticket sales. Though sadly they are the exception, rather than the rule.