2003 TO 2013

It seemed appropriate at this point to write some observations about how the Fringe has changed between 2003 and 2013. In some ways it’s hardly changed at all; it’s still overwhelming on the senses, it’s always felt like there were too many shows on, bullshit from industry types was always rife and the atmosphere is still incredible. Wandering down the Royal Mile after dark in the warm night air – pausing occasionally to watch a street performer balance a crystal ball to new age music – still feels exciting, even after regularly doing it for ten years.

My attitude has certainly changed in this time and a cynicism has started creeping-in. In the early years I used to look at the Fringe guide as soon as it came through the door. Now it quite often sits unopened for weeks before I get around to looking at it – if at all. Looking through the comedy section at other comic’s shows, I used to say to myself “I might go and see that”, whereas now I find the things I say the most are “not going to bother seeing that”, and “I can’t even be arsed bumping into them in the street”.

The scale of the Fringe is the single biggest change. It’s difficult to explain as numbers don’t really give the full picture, in any case I’ve pulled together these figures to try and illustrate the boom that has taken place in recent years.

2003 2013
Total Ticket sales
1,184,738
1,943,000
No. of shows
1,541
2,871
No. of Comedy Shows
354
847
No. of venues
207
273
No. of performances
21,000
45,464
Total tickets divided by
no. of performances
56
42

Compare Fringe guides from 2003 and 2013 and its easy to see where the extra shows are. With a total of 713 free shows listed in the 2013 guide, the majority of them are in the comedy section. Although that number of shows in 2013 was actually larger as a high percentage of the PBH shows aren’t listed in the official guide.

These extra shows are something that has caused great resentment in the comedy community with complaints about quality control and a dilution of audiences numbers. Yet I was always authoritatively told during my first year at the Fringe that the average number of audience members for a show was 7 – we certainly had plenty of average shows in 2003. How this figure was arrived at I have no idea, and for some reason I never questioned it. When you actually divide the number of performances by the number of tickets sold it gives a totally different story – although these figures are meaningless as some big productions can have audiences of 700, and other shows regularly get pulled.

It’s not surprising that free shows have taken such a hold on the Fringe. This year I was chatting to a guy who hadn’t been to the Fringe since the early 90s. Back then he was single, now he was with his wife and two children aged between 14 and 16. In the following days I bumped into them a few times as they ran between shows – mainly free shows. His children were too old for kids shows and wanted to watch comedy and theatre. An average ticket at full price for all of them to watch a show as a family could cost £40 a time, essentially for less an hour of entertainment. Factor in the inflated accommodation prices and the cost of eating out – which could easily cost £40 for a family if they tried to avoid KFC or MacDonald’s – it’s hardly surprising that paying out for a lot of shows becomes a problem. For years the business model of the big venues didn’t take into account the finances of your average punter, assuming – falsely it would seem – they were all from affluent backgrounds and could comfortably pay these amounts.

As the big four venues only open up in August using temporary staff – which is why the quality of venue staff is so variable from year to year – it’s hardly surprising that the local businesses in Edinburgh all year around were keen to get involved. Bars and clubs usually closed weekdays get the chance to become free venues with minimal overheads – stand-up shows do have very small technical requirements. Combine that with a marked increase in the number of comedy performers in recent years, and with hindsight you can see that the boom was inevitable.

In my personal experience free shows have given me freedom to try out new ideas, evolve as a performer and have a lot of fun in the process. The costs involved now are no where near as prohibitive as they used to be. Unfortunately some people are rushing into doing full length shows before they’re ready and a lot don’t seem to put the necessary work into making their show as good as it could be. Nica Burns – who has been producer and director of the Comedy Awards since 1984 – stated a similar opinion in 2013. Others have suggested some sort of selection criteria should be in place for choosing who gets to do a free show.

For me an example of why the idea of a selection criteria is both unfair and impossible to administer would be ‘Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for it: A One Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!’. Singled out by Chortle before the Fringe as one of ten shows with off-putting blurb, it would clearly never have been taken on by one of the bigger venues or PR firms, yet ended up with two awards – the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality and the Foster’s Award Panel Prize. Similarly Luisa Omelan’s ‘What Would Beyonce Do?’ which started life as a free show in 2012 has since has gone on to have a UK tour as well as play in Los Angeles and New York. Prior to 2012 Luisa would have been considered to have been inexperienced by those that didn’t know her or hadn’t already seen the show.

The simple truth is that up until the beginning of August no one other than the performer knows how much work has gone into a show. I don’t think it’s right that someone who isn’t aware of how long you’ve been working on your show, and how much effort you’ve put in should be making a decision about whether or not a show should be denied the chance to be put in front of an audience.

And of course the other fact overlooked by those suggesting selection criteria for shows is that if you start denying shows access to the Fringe they’ll simply find a way around it and do it anyway – that is after all how the whole thing started.

Ian Fox, October, 2013

One thought on “2003 TO 2013

  1. Pingback: 2014 version now available | How to Produce a Fringe Show

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