This year, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is not taking place. Rob Oldham, a comic who has performed at the last five festivals, ponders what this means for the British comedy scene.
When I heard about the Fringe’s cancellation, I was relieved. In fact, I only wished that it had been cancelled a bit sooner. Instead of admitting in March that I had nothing worth saying and that the festival brought out the very worst in me, instead I could tell everyone that I was devastated not to be able to perform my greatest show yet.
To me, the Fringe is a comedy festival. There is plenty of theatre, but it is almost always either bad or expensive. For comedians, the Fringe is usually your only chance to perform a full show of your own – the rest of the year, unless you have a TV or radio vehicle, it’s club nights. I don’t know what the economics of the Fringe are like for the theatre crowd, but I can tell you that they are punitive for comics. Having performed in sketch shows and shorter stand-up shows at previous Fringes, I made my full stand-up debut in 2018. Economically, a full debut is usually disastrous, but if you want to be commissioned by a major broadcaster, you have to do it. If you try to debut on the cheap, you may be able to drag industry people in, but most likely you will be drowned out by acts like myself, who have been able pay for promotion and production.
The only PR agencies that are any good charge at least £1500. PR is indispensable as press coverage for the festival has shrunk. Papers send up a critic for a week or two at the very most. Only The Guardian has a dedicated comedy critic. Other broadsheets make do with a generalist arts and culture bod, or a dilettante graduate who tweets ‘any comedy shows worth seeing?’ on the journey up to Edinburgh. This makes getting a press release into the relevant hands harder yet more vital than ever.
You then need to register for the Fringe brochure (circa £300). You need to print flyers, and pay for flyerers. The latter are uninterested students, understandably perturbed by your desperation. It is a constant battle to get them to do anything, as they just want to sit in doorways, smoking and snogging each other. This is exactly what they should be doing with their summers and you can’t begrudge them for it. Nevertheless, it’ll cost you another grand over the month. If you have a producer, that will be another £1000 at the very least.
Finally, you have to rent somewhere for the month, which will cost at least £600, probably a lot more if you don’t want to share or be miles out.
This means you need to pay out £2000 before the festival. During the month, your ticket split with the venue will be about 60/40 in your favour. If your show sells around 60% of its tickets (a real achievement as no one has heard of you), you could be down another £2000 at the end. However, if you sell just under half of your tickets for the run, which is very much a possibility, you could end up £4000 in the hole. Finally, you need to be able to take a month off work, or quit your job. Then you need to do this every August for as long as it takes to build a profile. Then you might start making money from the Fringe.
The issue of privilege extends beyond the performers. Each year, there are a few articles discussing shows you can see that showcase more diverse voices at the Fringe, and yet the vast majority of the journalists writing these articles are themselves from certain backgrounds (due to similar issues in arts journalism).
Perhaps more significant is the question of the audience. Fringe-goers fit, largely, into four categories. First, the university student drama types, who are probably performing skits about the Dunkirk Evacuation in a cupboard somewhere off the Royal Mile at nine in the morning. They are sleeping four to a room and are having the best time in the world. They flyer in costume, do their play to three people, and then somehow have the energy to see about six shows a day. The second type are young professional couples who fancy a weekend away. They will wear good, functional footwear and hold hands. Thirdly, you have the 60-something Guardian readers from places like Bath, Lewes, and Norwich, who have been coming for decades and want to see at least two contemporary dance shows. Lastly you have the industry types who are, broadly, villains, cowards, perverts, or some combination thereof. What links these disparate groups is that they are overwhelmingly white and well-off. (There are of course plenty of locals, but understandably around 80% of them wish you were dead.)
In hindsight, my debut went well. I only lost about a grand. I got a couple of nice write-ups, which could be mined for quotes for next year’s poster. A few TV and radio people came along. At the time though, it felt like a failure. There are few other professions where you spend a month walking past posters of yourself and your peers which have star ratings plastered over them. You try to guard yourself against envy, but it is difficult. I spent many late nights refreshing the British Comedy Guide website to see who was doing better than me. I drank a lot. I didn’t accompany my girlfriend to the National Gallery of Scotland when she visited. I wallowed, despite everything being fine.
I do not want to dress up my character flaws as mental health issues, but I do think it is worth noting how psychologically ruinous the Fringe can be for performers. Projects coming straight from the heart are met with indifference. Comparison with others is inevitable. You constantly go for drinks with people you hate. It rains all the time. Basically it’s like normal life but worse.
The Fringe that I remember most fondly is my first. It was 2015 and two friends and I performed a mixture of quite good and quite bad sketches in the basement of a James Bond themed nightclub. We had several edible props which curdled ‘backstage’ (which was behind the bar). We had to deliver the final fifteen minutes of our show very loudly as a DJ would begin playing upstairs, more often than not opening his set with I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas.
Five years later, it’s easy to laugh at the various disasters of that August, such as the night we ‘sold out’ because thirty Honduran naval cadets turned up, and sat in confused but polite silence throughout the show, or the performance when both chairs broke during the ‘Imagine if Wallace and Gromit did coke instead of cheese’ sketch. At the time, desperate to take the first step towards professional comedy, I was petulant and distraught.
The 2019 Fringe was the one I actually enjoyed the most. A few writing projects were on the boil, and I was enjoying my day job. This made me less emotionally vulnerable to the fortunes of my show. I was also less exposed financially, as I was performing on the Free Fringe, a model where venues don’t charge you. The audience comes in for free and you shake a bucket at the end, keeping whatever money they give you. You can have a PR and a producer behind you, but most Free Fringe shows don’t do that. The joy of the thing is that most people only come to your show because you have flyered them in the last couple of hours and told them it’s free. So each night feels different and slightly risky. You and the audience have taken a punt on each other. You can get arseholes in, who, having not paid, have no reason not to shout and throw limes at you (this only happened once). But on a good night, I would get a mix of students, some people who’d seen one of my previous shows, and people I’d spoken to in the street. When it went well, everyone, including myself, was united by a sense of joyful surprise that it wasn’t shit.
I stayed with a good group of people. We were in a vacated student block where the sheets were the size dishcloths and there was only one pot. We ate kebabs constantly. We gave a bit of ham to the spider that lived in our kitchen. One of us went to the gym every single day. Another person became very religious. We remain very close to this day, and perhaps, after all, that was the real point of the Fringe? (Of course not, it was about seeking validation through the laughter of strangers, but friendship was a nice bonus.)
But the most important reason that the 2019 Fringe was the most fun was because I had things I wanted to say. I’m sure other comics feel like this every year, but it was new to me. A desire to take part, not to miss out, to become a ‘proper comedian’ had driven me to Edinburgh for the previous Augusts, rather than having a story I truly wanted to tell.
I think that the 2019 Fringe will probably be my last. I love comedy: I will keep writing and performing, but I doubt that I have the time, money or determination needed to go up again. Still, I consider myself lucky. I had the means to go up to Edinburgh enough times to gain something of a toehold in the comedy world. This is enough to submit pilot scripts, get a bit of acting work, and put myself out there. Instead, I feel sorry for those who wanted to perform this year but won’t be able to. I feel especially sorry for those who have lost money. But the people I worry about the most are the beginners, the talented enthusiasts who want to become professional comics.
Because when the Fringe returns, it will be with heavy costs, both financial and psychological. And despite these, aspiring comics will of course do anything to keep coming back. The bittersweet magic of the Fringe is that no matter how unlikely it might be that your show becomes a cult hit, or a commissioner comes and loves your performance, or you got a great write-up in a broadsheet, it is, still, technically possible. And the belief in this possibility, albeit a belief which will become eroded and frayed, year on year, will take them back, again and again. Money alone will not be enough to succeed, but talent without money won’t have a chance.