Reviewers at traditional ‘paid’ shows get free tickets in advance. But, because the performers at ‘free’ shows tend to stand by the door afterwards, encouraging people to put money in a bucket if they have enjoyed the show, there is an embarrassment factor for the anonymous and sometimes-unpaid reviewer if he/she does not fork-out money. The result is that, ironically, reviewers see ‘paid’ shows for free but may have to pay to see ‘free’ shows (and, over the Fringe, may see 125 shows of various kinds).
Steve Bennett, editor of Chortle, the UK comedy industry website which runs extensive reviews of the comedy shows at each year’s Edinburgh Fringe, has now sent me this reaction to my blog:
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Yes, it is a bit odd that those are the only shows we reviewers end up paying to see… but to me it’s not a deal-breaker even if it can be an awkward moment. I sometimes put a couple of quid in, though actually putting money in can seem weirder than not, if I know the performer. Financially, it doesn’t add up to that much over the whole of the Fringe – though it is socially odd.
It is harder to get the ‘intern’ reviewers to go and see free shows, as free tickets is a perk of the job, but I pay the more established writers, so that’s not so much of an issue. Strangely, though, it can mean the more experienced writers reviewing the less experienced acts, and vice-versa.
I agree with Peter that reviewers have a greater role with the paid-for shows, in directing people as to what to spend their hard-earned on. But time is as much as a commodity in the Fringe, too, and I think it’s useful to point people out to the free shows that are worth seeking out. There is a lot of dross in the free circuit (not that it’s confined to the free circuit, but still…) but some absolute diamonds in the rough, and I hope reviewers have a role in identifying that.
Plus I think performers feel that being reviewed on the Free Fringe/Free Festival legitimises it… to push the idea that shows there are not a poor second to the ‘paid for’ model. Also good reviewers (and I accept there are an awful lot of people writing fringe ‘reviews’ with no real grasp of the subject) should be able to give pointers that the comedian MIGHT want to consider about their work, even if they dismiss it.
Not getting in can be a pain – but usually avoided if I drop an email beforehand (which can solve the payment awkwardness too) as people are usually happy to reserve a seat/perch at the bar. But then a lot of free shows I go to because of last-minute schedule snafus which don’t leave me time to sort a press ticket from the paid venues, so that’s just the swings and roundabouts of taking a punt on a random show.
One thing, though, is that on the free circuit acts never know when a reviewer is coming, whereas the press ticket system means they do in ticketed places. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter – as Peter says, comics should do the same show whoever’s in the audience – but I know free performers can get a shock when they see me walk in. Oh, and the packing the room with your mates thing never works… the laughs always sound false and badly timed, and it winds most critics up.