The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world with 2,695 different shows being performed there this year. Of these, about 970 of them are comedy shows. Every year a large number of our Irish comedians travel over to the festival for the three weeks to showcase their talents and this year has been no exception. I came back from Edinburgh yesterday having spent 10 days there both performing and watching shows. To the uninitiated or naive, doing a Fringe show sounds like a great excuse for comedians to go to Edinburgh on a three week booze holiday (and to some it is) but for most it really is quite the opposite. The Fringe is an expensive three weeks out of your normal life. A lot of performers have full time jobs and need to take holidays/leave in order to facilitate their trip and they often leave their family and friends behind. I only went over to do a week’s worth of gigs in the Free Fringe (I’ll explain in a bit) with another comedian, Greg Marks in a show called “The Full Irish” (we had a great time and our numbers were good…thanks for asking) but it was tough going. We had a fraction of the work that performers doing their own one hour shows had to do and yet at the end of a week, we were exhausted. Doing a full Edinburgh Fringe show is a serious business.
For me, being at the Fringe for a week felt like a month so I can’t begin to think what three or more weeks is like. I was lucky enough to see some Ireland’s best comedians like Chris Kent, Eleanor Tiernan, Gearoid Farrelly, Trevor Browne and Fred Cooke go through their Edinburgh experience. It’s an endurance race; a marathon. The Fringe is a little world of it’s own and while performing at the Fringe, the outside world loses importance, the days merge into each other and you have very little time to do anything other than promote, perform, eat and sleep. Although it can be great fun, it can also be very stressful. The whole experience can be huge drain psychologically, physically and financially. For a start, flyering and performing every day is physically tough. Not only do comedians have their own show to do but often they will take guest spots at other shows in order to promote their own show. There’s also compilation shows to do such as Late ‘n Live, The Best of Irish and the Death of Comedy (some of these shows run very late into the night). There is constant admin to be done, emailing review sources and making sure reviewers get comps, interviews with journalists and doing podcasts. Others have places in comedy competitions such as So You Think You’re Funny, Funny Women or the BBC Radio 2 Comedy Awards (which I competed in but didn’t get through to the semi-finals. It was great fun…again thanks for asking). These competitions can add an extra layer of stress to an already stressful time.
Putting on a show is a Herculean task that starts long before the Festival itself. There are months of writing and trying out material for your show by doing shorter gigs, rewrites and finally a few full preview shows to bring all the elements of the performance together. Some performers even employ the services of a director for their show to help them craft it.
There’s also the decision to be made as to whether you want to do a show as part of the Free Fringe or as part of the paid Fringe for one of the “big four” venues (Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly) or for the independent “Stand” venues. As part of the Free Fringe any performer can apply to either the Laughing Horse or PBH organisations for a place in one of hundreds of venues around Edinburgh. The performer has minimal costs for this (a small fee for the venue and a fee to be included in the main Fringe programme) and makes money by asking for contributions from the audience at the end. This is how myself and Greg did things (we managed about £60 a day between the both of us, which paid for meals and a few drinks). This approach is best for those that don’t want to make a big financial outlay. It means you can get experience doing a show without the big risks. You do all the tech work yourself as well as all the promotion and flyering. You’ll get some exposure and you may also get a review from one of the Fringe review sites such as Three Weeks or Broadway Baby.
If you decide to put on your own show in one of the “big four” venues such as the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance, you have to rent the venue for your time there. This is an expensive route often costing anything between £3,000 to £10,000 depending on the size of the venue and the technical requirements. For this you get support from the venue/promoters, you get a dedicated “techie” to do the sound/lights for your show and you get people to flyer for you. Flyering is very important at the Fringe. It’s where people (yourself included sometimes) go outside the venue and solicit people to come to your show. With so many shows available, it’s important to have people doing this that know about your show, are enthusiastic and can charm people into taking a punt on your show above the others that are on at the same time. With the paid route, you are basically trying to recoup the rent you pay for the venue via your ticket sales. For many, this means that they leave the Fringe having lost money. The exception to this is the Stand, a collection of comedy venues on the other side of town from the Gilded Balloon, Underbelly etc. They put on shows where the performer has no upfront costs. The venue/promoters take the financial risk of the show and underwrite the costs, meaning the performer does not lose money. The venue then splits the ticket sales with around 20-30% going to the performer. This route would seem to be the ideal but getting one of these venues can be difficult as demand is high and they only pick performers that they are confident will recoup their investment.
The other reason to do a show in one of the “big four” venues (or the Stand) is that you are more likely to get a review from one of the more prestigious sources such as Chortle, The Scotsman or even one of the national newspapers such as the Guardian or the Independent. It also means that you’re more likely to be taken into account for one of the major comedy awards such as the “Eddies” (formally the Perrier Award). Winning one of these can hugely raise the profile of any performer. Again, reviews and awards pile on the pressure.
So if it’s such hard work and so stressful, why do it you ask? Well firstly, doing your own show is almost a rite of passage for many comedians. It’s a major achievement regardless of the reviews you get. It’s the sign that you’re moving things up to another level and taking your career as a comedian more seriously. An Edinburgh show is a way of getting yourself noticed, gaining more respect in your field and most importantly, increasing your chances of getting bigger and better paid gigs than before. There’s also the chance that someone in TV or Radio might take notice of your show while you are (though don’t hold your breath). But most of all, despite the hard work, the Fringe is fun. It’s a chance to meet up with your peers in a beautiful city, watch other talented people do their stuff and eat the odd battered Mars bar.
The Fringe is an expensive proposition no matter which way it’s worked, so if you see a comedian doing a “preview” show in Dublin next year, do go along, support them and give them a few bob for a ticket. They deserve it. Especially if it’s me.
Christian will be spending the next 11 months writing his Edinburgh show and boring the arse off anyone who will listen about it. Now is the time to defriend him on Facebook and unfollow him on Twitter.
*Photo by Angela Curiello