Along these mean streets performers must go – including the Cowgate in Edinburgh
My first blog about the ongoing ‘free’ venue chaos at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe was posted over a week ago.
Now, NOT changing the subject…
I think, as a generalisation, most religions tend to be a good thing – most religions are amiable – but most organised religions are a bad thing. ‘Organisation’ inevitably means politicking and power corrupting originally admirable ideals.
As I say, I am remaining on-subject here.
The elevator explanation of the current chaos is that the PBH Free Fringe was created by Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) as an altruistic alternative to the increasingly commercialised and (for acts) expensive traditional Fringe where the acts pay to hire venues and audiences pay in advance of seeing the show.
The Free Fringe used the centuries-old model of busking and took it indoors. The acts do not pay to perform in a space. The audience sees their shows for free and decides, on exit, how much to pay, if anything.
PBH then joined forces with Laughing Horse promoter Alex Petty. There was soon a schism and Laughing Horse formed the Free Festival as either complementary or a rival, depending on your concept of the ‘ownership’ of the model of indoor busking.
Years trundled by and there was another schism. More of the PBH helpers – described by some as his “right hand men” – split off and last year formed The Freestival.
PBH had previously seen Alex Petty and the Free Festival as (my words) The Great Satan. Now Freestival became The Great Satan. It is a bit like the schisms in Christianity or Islam. I think calling PBH “the ISIS of free comedy” might be going a tiny bit too far, unless people start being beheaded in The Royal Mile. But at least ISIS take hostages and the Sunni/Shia aggro is not a bad analogy.
This year, as last year, there was a tussle over which organisation had rights to programme the Cowgatehead venue, owned and run in labyrinthine ways by three men from the same family, all called Kenny Waugh.
Last year, the Freestival ran shows in the bottom half of the Cowgatehead building; the Free Fringe ran shows in the top half.
This year (as far as anyone publicly knew until after the deadline to be listed in the main Fringe Programme was past – it is published tomorrow) the Freestival had rights from one or more of the Kenny Waughs to programme acts at Cowgatehead.
Then, out of nowhere, PBH suddenly announced (I think only on Facebook) that he owned rights to programme Cowgatehead although, as far as I know, no acts had, at that point, ever been approached or accepted to perform there.
The Freestival were (like almost everyone else, I think) surprised but eventually suggested a compromise which was that PBH should book acts into six rooms in the top half of the building, as they did last year. And Freestival would book acts into the bottom half of the building, as they did last year. Freestival would run nine rooms by building extra ones, as they did last year.
Freestival suggested a meeting to take place yesterday between them, PBH, a Kenny Waugh and (added into the equation later) the Fringe Office and Freestival’s sponsors.
This compromise would mean that PBH got the six rooms he proposed in the Cowgatehead venue. Freestival would get the nine venues they proposed there. And no acts would be adversely affected.
Any alternative would severely affect all acts who had – months ago with no squeak of any kind from PBH – booked into Cowgatehead with Freestival, paid the Fringe Office for a listing in the main Programme, written shows over the last six or more months and booked accommodation (with deposits) as well as having posters and flyers designed and, if they were abnormally efficient, printed.
Yesterday, Freestival issued a statement (I have not corrected the spelling):
Today’s meeting with PBH, the licensee (of Cowgatehead) and representatives of the Fringe office will now not take place. The Licencee agreed to travel to London and take part in compromise talks with PBH and ourselves. He, along with ourselves invited PBH to that meeting but despite multiple requests and invites from us, the licensee and the Fringe society and also our Sponsor flying to London to meet with Peter, Peter has refused to attend or to open a constructive dialogue.
As a result the licensee will now not attend the planned meeting. We are very saddened by PBH’s complete intransigence and the subsequent devastation this will now cause to many peoples Edinburgh program. We will be releasing a full statement soon with any further details we can obtain and will be continuing to work with the Fringe office on a solution.
While we haven’t given up on a solution if PBH can be persuaded to enter into discussions we must, for now, assume the Cowgatehead is no longer our primary venue. We also believe that PBH has taken control of St.Johns – Victoria Street and Probably the Tron Kirk although we have as yet had no official notification of this.
We are so very sorry that after everyone’s hard work since the last Fringe all our efforts and energies regarding these venues have been wasted. We have secured a number of alternative spaces in order to accommodate those acts not moving over to PBH’s ethos, we hope to have the complete number of new spaces required signed up by the end of this week. We will be contacting all acts involved shortly and making a statement once that is done.
It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.
In a posting on PBH’s Facebook page on 25th May, performer Ray Davis wrote:
Some 170 odd performers are booked into a performance space, with the considerable personal investment they would have made (these are “free spaces” yet accommodation for the month is typically £600-£1000 for a room in a shared house, almost £400 to be in the Fringe Programme, advertising, flyers, pre-booked transportation, etc.).
The venue was offered by an organisation called “Freestival” and only after the festival programme deadline had passed (£400 remember?) did PBH claim that these bookings were null and void as he had right to the venue.
PBH has held out what I believe he thinks is an olive branch in so much as he’ll consider acts transferring over “where he can” but they have to sign an exclusivity deal to do so, breaking links with any other organisation at the Fringe – so if they have another show elsewhere… can’t do it. If they’ve been invited to participate in a showcase… can’t do it. Bit like going into McDonalds and having to sign to agree not to buy (or eat) fast food from anywhere else for all of August.
To avoid accepting or even discussing the compromise in pursuit of personal revenge over people PBH regards as (my words) renegades from the true Free Fringe religion and a personal one-sided vendetta knowing for certain – for certain – that this will without any doubt at all result in mental anguish, financial damage and career damage to the performers you claim to champion is behaviour so self-centred and uncaring that is likely to mean that, even if PBH were to win this self-perceived battle, he would be likely to disastrously lose the self-declared war. Because all credibility and all past positive actions are likely to be wiped out by this act of sheer short-sighted selfish vindictiveness.
The PBH position is to refuse to even discuss a compromise where the Cowgatehead venue would accommodate a suggested 15 performance rooms. The PBH Free Fringe would prefer to accommodate 6 performance spaces featuring so-far un-booked acts simply to bugger-up the Freestival which had already booked acts into 9 rooms which a Kenny Waugh had told them they had the right to do.
PBH has said he might book some of the pre-booked acts into ‘his’ rooms but maybe at different times to those advertised (and paid for) in the main Fringe Programme. And all acts would have to sign his draconian 3,600 word contract which says the acts cannot appear elsewhere.
The Free Fringe is the only Fringe operator with this extraordinary restriction of trade preventing performers from performing.
Around 150-170 acts who have been writing, rehearsing and paying for their presumed hour-long, month-long Edinburgh shows for the last six or nine months now face cancellation of their shows, loss of earnings, loss of payments made, loss of deposits on accommodation and more. Even if they can find an alternative venue or are ‘given’ a room by PBH, their Programme listings will be wrong and paid-for posters/flyers will have to be changed.
It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost any money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.
The reason acts are going to be damaged – and they definitely are; they already have been – is solely because that compromise was not even discussed by PBH.
There is a show at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Tuesday 30th June to raise money for the PBH Free Fringe. Tickets cost £15 or £12.50 concessions plus a £2.50 booking fee. The acts advertised include Alistair Barrie, Nick Helm, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and Howard Read. It would be interesting to know if these same acts are going to organise any gig to raise money for their far less well-off fellow performers damaged by PBH’s scorched earth actions.
I asked various people for estimates of how much acts are likely to lose. One reply came from Ian Fox, performer and author of the book How to Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show. He told me:
I am not a Freestival act, but I would estimate the £150 Freestival fee, and £295 for a discounted Fringe Programme entry. It is a bit early to have paid for posters and flyers, but there could be advertising fees if they had a quarter-page advert in the Fringe Programme (around £1,500 says John), or bought space on a Fringe type website for £50.
If they get a new slot, they could still make use of accommodation and transport costs. Otherwise, the deposit on a flat could be anything from £300 to £500 and a rail ticket costs £75 approximately, unless they’re flying in from somewhere… So £1,000 is a feasible number, for worst case scenario.
Those shows in Cowgatehead 7,8,9 (the Freestival’s extra venues in addition to the Free Fringe’s six) which are automatically lost, based on 11 shows per room if they started at noon and went till midnight with a 15 minute turnaround between shows… £11,000 per room, £33,000 total. Add into that The Tron Kirk and St Johns and that’s another £22,000.
Then factor in the 6 remaining rooms at Cowgatehead… Some of the shows will have been moved over (from Freestival to Free Fringe) but say a third of them were not – that is another £22,000… So £22,000 + £33,000 + £22,000, means potentially acts have forgone up to £77,000.
Bearing in mind the amount of money potentially lost from a last-minute decision to switch a provider and break a verbal agreement… which I think puts them in an actionable position, as their actions have directly caused others financial loss… Who in their right mind refuses to turn up to a meeting?
Ray Davis, in his posting on the PBH Facebook page on 25th May wrote:
PBH’s Free Fringe is promoted as a collective, a freely run not for profit organisation, yet this smacks of the worst sort of bloody nosed business practice. Audiences of course won’t know nor give a shit.
Individual acts have only a small voice.
If PBH is a volunteer then this sort of who-hah won’t cost him financially. But in the longer term it could of course cost him the years of good will and hard work he’s put in to build a Free Fringe model.
Yesterday, to my knowledge, at least three performers cancelled the London previews for their Edinburgh shows. Presumably because they believe they will not be able to stage their prepared shows because of all the shenanigans.
Yesterday, too, an act who has performed on the Free Fringe for several years – and who has a show there this year – told me he had been thinking of cancelling his show because he felt uncomfortable being associated with the “stench” (his words) of the current Free Fringe. He said he had, however, decided not to cancel because of the cost.
It is a pity many acts will not be given this choice.
And still the saga continues because, this morning, I was told off-the-record of the existence of an e-mail which will further muddy the waters.
We live in interesting times.
And so the labyrinth stretches onwards.