With queues going around the block for free Fringe festival shows again this year (be that the Free Fringe, the Free Festival or Bob Slayer’s Heroes of the Fringe) the prospect of well-known acts starting an exodus towards the free sector has been raised.
The calibre of free shows has been already recognised by the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, with past nominations for Imran Yusuf, Cariad Lloyd (appearing in another free show this year with the fabulous Austentatious improv troupe) and Sam Fletcher. Meanwhile, among the older guard of profile performers opting to play the free festivals are Robin Ince, Phill Jupitus, and Alistair Barrie.
All this begs the obvious question, why would anyone want to spend out large amounts of money on venue hire?
I asked the key festival venue directors what they made of the emerging trend of act migration and I found the representatives of the fee zone, so to speak, understandably ebullient, without sounding like they were out to actively out snare big game:
Director of the Free Festival, Alex Petty:
“We are speaking to an ever increasing number of performers who are dissatisfied with losing thousands of pounds coming to Edinburgh, when they can achieve the same results, if not more, by doing this through a free show. I already know that there could be a few interesting surprises of migrants to free for Fringe 2014.”
Peter Buckley, Free Fringe founder and curator adds:
“I don’t anticipate we shall ever get many of the stunningly famous: such names are among the few people who can make a profit on a Fringe run. We expect applications for 2014 from more excellent comedians, of a Comedy Store headline standard or similar, on the back of this year’s success.”
When the same question was put to the ‘big four’ venues, responses were more disparate – if forthcoming at all.
A pragmatic note was struck by
Anthony Alderson at The Pleasance:
”At the Pleasance we have some acts who do one show with us and another show at the Free Fringe. I think it’s quite exciting for performers and audiences to have the full festival experience. The quality of great shows will always come first, as long as collectively we’re not devaluing the art.”
Karen Koren at The Gilded Balloon sees the threat to the status quo coming from different directions and appears to set the cat among the pigeons in terms of how the relationship between the ‘big four’ (aka the ‘Edinburgh Comedy Festival’) is playing out:
“The Free Fringe is great for new performers getting their taste of the Fringe, however, it is not professional enough to attract big names.
“The competition of the bigger venues and also too many big venues (like the EICC and McEwan Hall) is not good for the Fringe, and big name TV acts coming up year after year to those venues does not help the Fringe either.”
Sadly, neither the Assembly Rooms nor The Underbelly put forward a response.
My instinct, and my vox popping, leads me to believe that there are some interesting times ahead for the ‘big four’. A mass exodus may not happen, as Brian Logan in The Guardian believes, but a rationalisation of the paid-for venues could be on the cards to avoid over stretching and mitigating any migration; punters may benefit from marketing wheezes like inter-rail style tickets to make venue loyalty that much more important.
The good business for the free festivals could have a rationalising effect on them too. Brian Logan believes extra costs will come with expansion, meanwhile continued success might even change the ethos of the free festivals.
In conversation with Jay Richardson (whose article on this last week kick-started the debate), Cariad Lloyd implored: “If it becomes this incredible money-maker, what if all the really successful comedians take all the Free Fringe spots, leaving no-one to try stuff? Where will the new people go?”
Will the old free fringe need a new free fringe to out-Fringe it, not unlike the Judean People’s Front parallels the People’s Front of Judea?
Peter Buckley Hill, for one, would rather this didn’t happen:
“We must and will remain true to our principles of co-operative operation and performers giving their individual skills for the good of the Free Fringe community. If it were otherwise, we would not be what we are; we would have taken the first step to corporateness.”