Warning: Non comedy goers, this may be the most boring blog you’ll ever read. Sorry about that. Less a musing on life and more an essay on the Edinburgh Fringe with no real conclusion.
Another Edinburgh Fringe over with, another Comedy Year closed. Having cheated this year with only half a run, and only 29 shows in 11 days, I’m slightly baffled as to how, now home from the land of hills and rain, I’m still feeling like I’ve been battered inside and out by tiny goblins with sticks. Who were, no doubt, doing a show somewhere at the Fringe and definitely had flyers attached to their wooden poles. I could play the ‘I’m not as pathetic as I sound’ argument and point out that much like everyone that did the full fringe, I also only had 1 day off doing shows in the last month, but half of that month wasn’t spent traipsing over cobble stones dodging over enthusiastic flyerers like a very boring Matrix movie*, learning how to block the sound of bagpipes from my ears at all times**, and training my body to survive entirely on a diet of cheese. So it could be that I’m just getting older and my body is less able to deal with such a lifestyle, but then how would you explain all the acts at the festival who are older than me and still go? So maybe, just maybe, it’s because even half a run is a stupid amount of relentless work in a limited amount of time?***
I last did a full Edinburgh Fringe run in 2011, with three hour shows every day plus extra shows. By the end I was more burnt out than the shell of my previous car with the sort of debt that I’m sure if more people would have known about it’d have been blamed as an implicit part of the Eurozone crisis. In 2012 I relished a year off enjoying the vibrancy of London in the summer, especially with the occurrence of the Olympics. There was a lot of work going and for the first time ever, it occurred to me that outside of Edinburgh in August, most of the rest of the world really couldn’t give a shit about the Fringe. No one was checking reviews or commenting on ‘the next big thing’. There was sunshine, sport and summer and so why on Earth would anyone care about your show at 4.15pm in a skip round the back of the Sainsbury’s based on your second hand experience of depression, replete with a poster with someone else’s boobs on? Up until this revelation I honestly had felt like the world stopped for Edinburgh. The riots in 2011 gave a glimpse that it didn’t. Fear that things back home were in a state, an understanding of the anger and an overwhelming feeling that us prancing around in damp caves was a mere speck in the happenings of the world. But having finally escaped the bubble myself in 2012, I realised riots or no riots, this was true of every year. In 2013 I again didn’t return. A combination of previous Edinburgh debt, a lack of show ideas and a London Phoenix Fringe set up by Tiffany Stevenson and myself, meant there was no need. Instead I spent a large amount of time writing articles for Edinburgh festival publications on how the fringe was dead, even though I wasn’t there and didn’t really know. I popped up for 3 days, consoled all the people I saw that were sick of the place and pissed off to the Highlands to look at eagles and seals. None of whom cared about the fringe either.
So it was with reluctance that I returned this year but I felt like I actually had some reason to. It was the first time ever I had a few things in place to make things more affordable and I had a solo show that I’d already performed and honed around the country on my self made tour which I could now do on the Free Fringe. All in all it seemed like, for the first time in 9 years of going, I may actually leave the month of August with some money instead of thousands of pounds of debt. While I have left with pockets full, (of coins mostly, like a poor man’s [duck’s?] Scrooge McDuck) the last two weeks have left me as confused as ever about whether or not the entire Fringe is useful or not. This is all bearing in mind that I’ve been gigging for far too long, never win anything for it and don’t remotely have a TV career. I think if any of those things are different for you, then it may well be a useful place. For new acts it can help you develop as an act hugely. Like a fast track of several months of shows all in just 4 weeks. That kind of circuit training is invaluable. If you have a TV career then you can afford to go into a paid Fringe venue, sell tickets for a silly amount for a work in progress show you haven’t finished yet and walk away with a nice amount of money and a show that you can then take on tour to earn more money from. And if you win an award up there, aside from a lot of talk this year that the amount of awards handed out at the Fringe has quadrupled and therefore diminished the power of any of them, the extra cash and profile can never be a bad thing. But for the other two thousand odd shows and acts? I honestly don’t know.
My agent told me that this year a lot of TV and radio producers, the likes of which acts hope to be spotted by during their show’s run, weren’t heading up at all or, if they were, just for a day or two at most. It seems more and more that programs and stars are spotted and created long before the Fringe program is even released, so that aspect of opportunity is increasingly less likely. There were less reviewers there too this year with most stars adorning posters coming from unknown bloggers or people wanting to get freebies on their press pass with little previous knowledge of comedy. Stars really felt a whole lot less important in terms of selling a show. Like awards, if everyone has them, how can they matter? And there felt like there was less audience too. Drinking with one of the production managers from one of the big four, they told me that for the first time ever they’d had shows cancelled on a weekend due to no sales and it scared them. During the Phoenix Fringe in London we once again had people tell us they were at our Phringe because they could no longer afford to go to Edinburgh.
Where the people were though, was in the Free Fringe shows. It seemed like this year everyone with no entry fee was raking in crowds. Despite only doing a half run, I had lovely crowds in everyday and took good money from donations. My venue was as good as many I’ve paid for in the past and I had a great time slot in a good area. There were downsides to the free fringe ideal which I discovered quickly. That is, while it’s great anyone can come to your show, it’s also a problem that anyone can come to your show. Edinburgh on a weekend has joined the throng of many a UK city and appears as though an airstrike has dropped drunk stags and hens across the city en masse. It was only on my last show that I realised sometimes it’s better not to flyer at all and that way the people that come, turn up because they actually want to be there. Of course this meant less audience, and less donations at the end, but it made for a much better more wholesome experience. 11 consecutive shows have made my ‘Read Something’ show better than it’s ever been, even though I’ll now sadly not be performing it anywhere else. Despite not paying for PR or particularly wanting reviews I got one nice one which is a bonus. So taking all that into consideration, was it worth it?
I honestly don’t know. What I can tell you is that I already miss being there. I don’t know why. I saw some amazing shows that made me excited about comedy and theatre again in a big way (Every Brilliant Thing, Show Pony and Funz and Gamez to name three of many. Ray Peacock & Thom Tuck’s shows were also wonderful). I got to see people I rarely get to hang out with and engage in the sort of comedy chat that is mostly yawned at by others but is sometimes good to get off your chest. I met new people who are lovely and I’m pleased to now have in my contact list of even more useful people. Oh and I had a butterscotch cronut which has basically changed the entire way I evaluate everything in life i.e. all things are now ranked by ‘Is it as good as that cronut though?’ method. I’ve been wondering if I should’ve done the whole run, feeling oddly proud of my show now it’s too late, and I’m already jotting notes down for the next one. The fringe has definitely changed. Corporate signs of tens of thousands of pounds spent on advertising is evident everywhere you go from the big agencies, but so is the hand made flyer of the established acts now doing the free fringe as a fuck you to those companies. I don’t think it’s dying. It’s just regenerating and I’m excited to see what the next reincarnation will be. Till then I’ll get eating some vegetables, and avoiding booze and hills for as long as I can.
* Yes, even more boring than The Matrix: Revolutions.
** A sound I’ve realised I like anywhere except the Edinburgh Fringe where it seems to be endless, like the soulless wailing of despair from all the artists enduring the marathon of performance.
*** It could also be because I made the grave error of getting a Megabus Gold home, which I believe is so called because the air circulated on their is from at least 50-60 years ago. The whole journey gives the unique experience of what it’d be like to be buried in a coffin if there was a man in a hammock above you who kept dropping bits of muffin on your face at every opportune moment. No stars.