This year is my 25th consecutive Edinburgh Fringe. Many have done more, but 25 years is a long time, and giving up July and August each time is a big sacrifice for a family.
Over those years I have produced, presented, performed in, directed, written or fixed more than 100 shows. I have paid more in venue rent – and probably in accommodation – than I have earned. On paper, the risks have been enormous, foolhardy or downright stupid, but I have survived and here I am again.
I feel I owe the fringe a debt of gratitude as it has been a springboard to most of what I have done as an artist. I have experienced many highs and lows. Some shows have won awards, some have disappeared without trace, but for me, the festival has formed the cornerstone of my professional life, and like me, it has changed almost beyond recognition.
When I first came in 1994, I rented a four-bed flat for £500. Ticket prices were £5. There were no such things as advertising, online ticket sales or review stars, and the Scotsman and Herald covered every show.
In 2018, average accommodation prices are £1,000 per room. Ticket prices are about £12 and not advertising pretty much dooms your show. Review stars are common currency and you’ll be lucky to be reviewed at all. Meanwhile, the Fringe has burgeoned from 1,000 shows in 1994 to more than 3,000 in 2018. One thing has remained pretty constant throughout my time: an average attendance of about six.
The key difference is that it has hugely commercialised. While artists can still come up with experimental pieces just for fun, with more than 3,000 shows in competition, if they don’t spend money on publicity, they will be lucky to find a sufficient audience to cover their costs.
There are many new ways for an act to find its audience: from publicists to street teams to multi-show brochures, advertising in magazines and websites, posters and distribution outlets around town.
In reality, all these different businesses supporting the fringe are exploiting it and the artists are the ones paying for it, the ones taking the real risk.
I say “real risk” because operators will claim to be taking a risk, but mostly their bottom lines are covered by artist rentals. Without artists, there would be no festival, yet they are the ones who go home with their tails between their legs and a millstone around their necks.
So why do I do it? Because, on balance, the Edinburgh Fringe is the most important arts market in the world. An extravaganza on my own doorstep where punters, producers, journalists and artists share the energy. For the artist, it is both a barometer by which to gauge one’s work on a global level, and a gateway to the world.
Where else can you perform to six people, one of whom is a presenter from New Zealand, and in a couple of hours be invited to bring your work to the other side of the globe? The possibilities abound. Despite the expense and the risk, I would not change a thing.