Edinburgh without its Fringe: a performer POV
Updated: Aug 28
On the last week of what would have been Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2020, Kate from Beside Ourselves went to see what the city was like without its usual August buzz.
It was at the end of my first year of uni in 2004 that I first got to go to Edinburgh Festival Fringe, co-directing one half of Leeds Uni’s student Airbourne Theatre double bill.
I remember imagining it for months in advance with this sort of legendary aura that was only part dispelled by the rollercoaster that it turned out to be.
And unlike so many music or arts festivals this one came with the added bonus of being mainly on tarmac and having actual toilets. (I don’t care what you say, the portaloo favours the penis).
Edinburgh might be the only place where networking is fun
I wouldn’t say I’m quite a Fringe veteran, but I’ve performed, produced, and reviewed shows at various festival years between 2004-17. There are so many reasons why so many artists and punters return so many times.
For a start, as a performer, you have a genuine possibility of advancing your career with the vast number of industry folk who are there to talent scout and, in contrast to the rest of life, are often just approachable over a casual pint in one of The Fringe’s many watering holes. Edinburgh might be the only place where networking is fun.
As comedian Narin Oz says, “the open [stand up] spots are
invaluable because you make great contacts and because you’re always honing your skills.”
You also get to see a plethora of world-class culture for a fraction of its ordinary cost (if you catch the previews). I’ve witnessed umpteen sights and sounds, from incredible performers and performances that have tattooed their brilliance onto my imagination.
Partying every day and every night, rinse and repeat
And then there’s all the accidental wonders and hilarious chaos, which surface in a sort of haze in my memory:
D-list celebrity fights in Pleasance VIP bars, hiking up Arthur’s Seat after dark, sneaking into shows on friends’ venue passes, crashing on strangers sofas & waking up to the sound of seagulls and misty cliff vistas;
hangovers of every hue, renting a flat above a “massage parlour”, performing in dripping caves, drinking on the streets, in warehouses, in basement bars, in caves that are also bars (so many caves), hiding from a flyering shift in Brass Monkey’s bed-room (yes a room with a huge bed in it);
hawking The Royal Mile like the best of them, stapling reviews to endless fliers, flyering endless people, trying every gimmick under the sun to sell your show.. and partying every day and every night, rinse and repeat.
“I had to get drunk just to make it through; I was burned out by day three.” Steph Parker, Big World Small Pockets
No doubt performing for the whole month at The Fringe is not for the faint-hearted or weak-livered. It pushes you to your limits - physically, emotionally and, especially, to the limit of your overdraft.
Talking of financials, rarely in any other form of business can so much investment from the producer result in so little return to them and yet continue to attract thousands to its model.
Welcome to the Live Arts industry.
To perform at reputable venues such as The Pleasance or the unmistakable purple cow franchise, Underbelly/Udderbelly, companies are asked to sign a guarantee, which is usually 40% of your potential ticket sales and invoiced at the end of the festival. This can be anywhere between £2000 - 100,000k depending on the size of your venue.
In addition, artists need to pay for entry into the main Fringe brochure - a must if you want anyone to come and see you - and quite often the venue’s brochure too (so an extra £300-500 pre-VAT). Usually, venues allow you to bring your own lighting & sound technician, but should you wish to hire one this will be somewhere between £600-1000 pre-VAT.
Then there are all the other fees, including ticket fees i.e. The main Fringe box office and your venue will charge you a percentage for selling your tickets (4% + VAT), marketing fees, publicity fees, equipment hire and PRS music licensing fee.
And that’s all before you’ve got yourself there, housed yourself, and fed yourself. Not to mention budgeting for booze and going to see the international melee of genius on your doorstep.
Edfringe.com’s budget case studies suggest that even if you are a solo comedian, performing at a free venue, your outlay for August will be roughly £2000. For larger companies and venues, you’re looking at £25k minimum.
“Edinburgh’s sh*t. Don’t do it. You lose money. No one f*cking comes… see you there next year.” Narin Oz, Comedian.
With upwards of 3000 shows for audiences to choose from, it’s not unusual for artists to not meet their 40% minimum or only scrape enough to cover their guarantee. Forget about making a profit. So it’s one thing to go and perform as a student, when your uni is paying for it, or if you’re a big enough name to sell out your run before the festival has started. It’s quite another thing when you’re an unknown professional, trying to get your foot on the proverbial stage ladder.
Performing at one of PBH’s or Laughing Horse’s free fringe venues is one way to reduce costs and one which Beside Ourselves took when we were developing our show Just Don’t Do It in 2017. We actually made £500 from the bucket on the door. It was, however, like performing in a multi-storey car park. We also had to provide our own lighting (a lamp from John Lewis, if you’re interested.)
It’s not just the financial cost but the toll The Fringe takes on your physical and mental health as well. If you’re there to further your career, the price tag is too, well, pricey not to take the opportunities it provides seriously. More and more of my peers are withdrawing from the festival
highs, only focusing on promoting and doing their own show, to get the most exposure they can and to avoid the dreaded Edinburgh lows.
For the first time since 1947
I was visiting an old housemate in Glasgow last weekend and couldn’t resist going over to see what Edinburgh is like without its festivals, for the first time since 1947 when some upstart performers hijacked the International Festival to stage their own fringe.
“It’ll be like how it is the rest of the year,” my Weegie friend said. And in some ways she was right. It was wet and quiet. So far, so normal, right? Within an hour of being there and walking up one hill, I have shin splints. Also normal.
But that’s where, imo, the normality ends.
It’s not just that you’re not accosted by over-enthusiastic students or bored promo workers with flyers, flyers and more flyers,
or that your attention isn’t snatched by dizzying acrobatics or a musical theatre improv parade.
There’s a different damp over the city in the wake of lockdown. Scotland has been more cautious about reopening than England, and for cafes and restaurants along Edinburgh’s cobbled streets it is painfully quiet when it should be the busiest time of year. Even the blue poncho tourist brigade is missing.
There’s a terrible irony about the signs asking people to
queue or to leave space between tables when there isn’t anyone there to observe them.
Making my way through The Grassmarket, I miss the flashes of pink and blue, indicating that some establishment is also temporarily a venue.
Peering through the bars of the now gated Cowgate entrance to Underbelly, which would
normally be buzzing with neon blue and purple lights and audiences queueing for near sold-out shows, it looks like some dingy Dickensian alleyway where hapless creatures meet their end. Bar Bados claims that it is open, but looks boarded up. And don’t get me started on Bristow Square or Pleasance Courtyard.
I walk around the old haunts and realise I am feeling... haunted. It feels a bit like something has died. Is it just me, or is the city grieving?
Call it projection if you like, with a nice smattering of pathetic fallacy in the sideways rain, but it feels very different to be here right now. It feels sad.
Will the Edinburgh Festival Fringe ever be the same again?
It’s no secret that coronavirus has hit the performing arts hard and that recovery will be slow. The question of what live performance can look like after COVID-19 is an urgent one for performing artists, as we watch our industry crumble before our eyes.
For live comedy, clowning especially, there are particular ingredients needed for it to work. Being able to look into your audiences’ eyes, audience members sitting close together,
feeding off each other’s energy, and being able to laugh and breathe freely.
In the absence of Edinburgh Festival 2020, the team at Edfringe have attempted to ‘keep the spirit alive’ by moving a number of programmed performances online. And Shedinburgh Fringe Festival have ingeniously been streaming live performances from ‘the very best of the Fringe Stalwarts’ from sheds around the UK. All proceeds will go towards enabling new artists to perform at next year’s festival. If that happens.
Of course, it’s not the same. Digital platforms can’t replace live experiences. But this is the world we live in currently and possibly for a while to come, so, like all species before us, performers, venues and the industry itself will need to adapt if we are going to survive the unknown interim. Deanna Fleysher (aka Butt Kapinski) talks real good about adapting her clowning practice for online audiences here.
Some things need to die off in this brave new world
Like all institutions, Edinburgh Festival Fringe needs to let some things die off or preferably be replaced with better things. Not least the unsustainable advertising practices that see tonnes of paper consumed and chucked every year in brochures, posters, and the ubiquitous flier.
Many feel that the anti-establishment
‘Spirit of The Fringe’ has essentially been trumped by corporations. (Mike Small wrote a fairly scathing review about this last year). When artists need to basically guarantee the equivalent of a house deposit to perform there, without much hope of profit, it makes it even less viable for those from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.
When the Free Fringes are the alternative, and much closer to where The Fringe began, but the venues available are really only suitable for stand-up, does it just become a comedian’s festival?
And despite being international in its scope, topping this elitist cake - if we can call it that, and I will - is usually a very white cherry. Which, of course, the rest of the arts scene in the UK is equally guilty of.
As an unrivalled global platform, it matters who performs at Edinburgh’s Fringe, what stories get told, who is producing, shaping, and consuming the culture. Now, more than ever is the chance to shift this. It was inspiring to see Dancebase and The Playhouse using their closed venue fronts to emblazon messages about Black Lives Matter.
There's a lot of work to be done if the opportunities are going to be levelled out. The art that Edinburgh showcases - quality, life-changing, educational, funny, empowering, hope-giving, illusion-smashing, plain entertaining art - should be available to the masses. And artists from everywhere should have the chance to make it. But the onus shouldn't be on us creatives, many of whom really are struggling right now, to just offer our work for free.
To be fair to them, EdFringe is using this year’s breather to ask these very questions in their #futurefringe campaign. Moving shows online is one way to make the possibility of seeing artists and performing as a part of the festival more accessible.
If The Fringe can return in 2021 let's hope many significant changes have been made, including more mental health safe spaces and resources for performers, and many more funded opportunities for talented, emerging artists from diverse backgrounds to perform their work at notable venues. Equally, it's my hope that, in a post coronavirus world, many of the mind-bendingly beautiful things about the Edinburgh experience remain. I wouldn't change my memories of it for the world.
Except for that time I had a breakdown in the Underbelly cafe. But that's another story.