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Lyn Gardner: Those seeing Edinburgh Fringe shows for free need reminding who pays in the end

Today marks my 13th day at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I haven’t totted up exactly how many shows I’ve seen, but it’s a reasonable guess that I’ve had about £650 of free tickets. Maybe more.

Many of those will have been at shows where the ticket would otherwise have gone unsold, but in some cases my free ticket stopped the company selling a seat. The allocation of free tickets that companies get from venues is tiny. In small spaces, a couple of extra tickets given away for every performance over the run of the festival can be the difference between breaking even or not. The margins at Edinburgh are miniscule.

I am not alone, there are hundreds of reviewers on the fringe and hundreds of promoters and producers seeing thousands of shows on tickets paid for by those who we all know have the least money – the artists.

This year the #PayIfYouCan campaign has been launched by a number of producers and companies trying to create a more open and transparent discussion around promoters’ tickets. Companies such as Lung, Breach, the Queer House, Walrus, Jake Orr Productions and many more have come together to suggest that producers from commercial or well-funded organisations should pay for their tickets if they feel that they can.

Edinburgh Fringe companies urge organisations to avoid requesting comp tickets [1]

It is a brave move, and one that many fledgling companies, desperate to get theatres in to see their work, understandably may not feel that they can engage with fully.

But what if every promoter who requested a ticket was asked if they and their organisation, whether a funded theatre or a TV company, could afford to pay? If they said no, then when the free ticket was handed over they would be gently reminded how much it was worth and that the company was paying for it. If it was done as a matter of course, it wouldn’t feel like a ticking off, merely a gentle reminder that every ticket is costing someone, even if it is not costing you and your organisation.

It strikes me that there is something wrong with a theatre industry in which those on salaries and with all their expenses paid come to Edinburgh and see loads of shows. They will only book a fraction of these shows and while longer-term relationships may happen, often they won’t.

One veteran fringe producer told me that he keeps annual lists of which producers from which theatres have come to see the work. He follows up rigorously and if they keep requesting tickets but never take the shows then he pulls down the shutters.

But he has the clout to do that; for young companies at their first or second Edinburgh, it’s hard to take such a stand. You are desperate for anyone from any theatre to take an interest in your work, which is why #PayIfYouCan needs to be embraced as policy by all venues and by the Fringe Society so the responsibility is not on the individual company to ask Rufus Norris if he can pay for his ticket.

I think the reviewers’ tickets situation is more tricky – and I recognise that as a critic my saying so may look like self-interest. Every year I have benefited by stocking up on my larder of knowledge about British theatre because of the shows I see at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Angry residents, worker exploitation, soaring rents – can the Edinburgh Fringe really go on like this? [2]

For producers and promoters and all those TV companies in town, the fringe is the quickest, easiest and often the cheapest shopping trip they will ever do. But for individual freelance critics like NI Critics, and many others, as well as publications like this one and little outfits such as the Wee Review, it is one of the most expensive operations of the year.

The Herald now runs very few reviews and a couple of weeks before the festival the Scotsman planned to cut its coverage in half – that only didn’t happen because venues stepped in with last minute sponsorship.

If critics had to pay for their tickets, it would only speed up the rush for the fringe exit. Getting reviews is one of the reasons companies come to Edinburgh and the fact that increasing numbers no longer do, needs to be addressed urgently.

But if every time we were handed a ticket by a smiling press officer we were reminded how much our ticket is worth and the fact that it is the artist whose work we are going to see who is paying for it, perhaps it would make us appreciate that art costs in many ways. It would reinforce the point that our free ticket is a privilege not a right, and help cull some more arrogant reviewer behaviours such as no-shows and walkouts.

Lyn Gardner: Is all that separates great theatremakers in Edinburgh the size of the budget? [3]

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner [4]