A sort-of insider perspective on Fringe Festival

Connor at the Fringe 2015. Photo: Gilded Balloon

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe: the biggest arts festival in the world and the best atmosphere you could ever wish to spend time in. After my first visit as a teen in 2011, and following the realisation of my comedy ambitions, performing stand-up at the festival became a very real aspiration.

So many aspects make the month-long toil attractive: the camaraderie and community amongst comics; being surrounded by leaders in artistic fields; and the shared feelings of excitement and joy amongst thousands of performers, few of whom could fully describe why they are putting themselves through the physical and psychological hardships Fringe brings. It blew my prepubescent mind.

Reaping immense financial reward is not a reason entertainers come to Fringe. For comedians performing in the “Big Four” venues (Pleasance, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly and Assembly), a significant chunk leave the festival thousands of pounds in debt. This mounts up from the costs of renting a room for the month, the fee the Fringe Society charges to advertise in the official programme, venue charges and other extraneous exchanges involved in advertising to such a congested market.

Connor at the Fringe 2015. Photo: Gilded Balloon
Connor at the Fringe 2015. Photo: Gilded Balloon

Certain enterprises, like the Free Fringe in its various incarnations, go a significant way towards combating the debt many comics face by offering a free space to perform in and allowing artists to collect money  at the door after the show. This works exceptionally well and is the best way to tackle Fringe if you don’t want to end up with a hole in your pocket.

The “Free” movement has seen big-name festival acts move from mainstream venues and even allowed comics like Tiernan Douieb, Adam Hess and Joel Dommett (the latter of whom has reverted to a paid venue for this year’s Fringe) to establish a reputation  The winner of the 2015 Best Newcomer award, Sofie Hagen, was even performing at the Free Fringe.

There is a clear transition occurring in comedy, and in the next few years it is entirely likely that a majority of shows will be free. One of the biggest and longest-running festival venues, the Gilded Balloon, announced earlier this year it was branching out. Now, the Balloon runs a new venue where guests pay to guarantee a seat in advance or try their luck securing a free seat the day of the performance. Something very exciting is happening, and the landscape of the festival is changing.

Yet with no sure-fire way of turning over a profit at this point in Fringe’s life, why do upwards of three thousand shows still happen every August? The answer is simple: for the pure love of the craft. Of course there are careerist acts who spend the month eyeing up industry bigwigs and hanging out with reviewers and producers at industry hubs, but it’s safe to say that these aren’t the majority. Comedy is a meritocracy, but without genuine passion, success is a lot harder.

The comedy community is one which is hugely supportive and close-knit. I fulfilled my boyhood dream of gigging at Fringe last year in the final of a new competition at the Gilded Balloon. It was the single most exciting evening of my life at that point, and the pure unadulterated joy one gains from bringing an ambition to actuality numbed any nerves I would normally feel. In the run up to the show, I got in touch with several established acts who I had become friends with over the years, and they all offered great advice and support. Comedy is said to be one of the more competitive art forms, but from my experience nobody has been anything less than eager to pass on tips and anecdotes for fledgling comics hoping to better their craft.

This year, I’m returning to Fringe to mentor a new group of young stand-ups. I feel like this is a gear change for me, in that I am now in the position to pass on the advice I sought not too long ago. It’s very humbling to be in a place where people will look to me as somebody who can offer any kind of legitimate wisdom about bringing writing to the stage. In reality, I am only one year further ahead in my journey than they, albeit with what is likely a great deal more experience of comedy and the festival.

Fringe has always been full of wonder.  Next year, it turns 70 years old. If I can be even half as loved,  joyous and ever-progressing as it this festival is when I reach that ripe age, I will be a very happy old man.


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