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The Edinburgh Fringe’s free festivals as seen by The Free Festival’s Alex Petty

GrouchyClub_MalcolmHardeeAwards2014

Blatant self interest at Edinburgh Fringe

I have to declare an interest. At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, the annual increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show AND the daily Grouchy Club which I am hosting with critic Kate Copstick are both being staged at The Counting House – a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue. The Edinburgh Fringe is strangely complicated. Pay attention. This year, the Fringe officially starts on Friday but, as always, actually starts this Wednesday. The Laughing Horse Free Festival and Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe/Pay What You Want shows start on Thursday. The La Favorita Freestival starts on Friday. And the PBH Free Fringe starts on Saturday. There are two types of venues in Edinburgh. There are the traditional ‘pay’ venues. That means audiences pay in advance to see the shows and the performers pay large amounts to rent the rooms and facilities.

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

But there are now four organisations hosting ‘free’ shows. That means entry is free (though you are expected to donate money on the way out) and the performers pay nothing to perform in the venue. The original Free Fringe was started by Peter Buckley-Hill (known as PBH) in 1996. He was later joined by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse Comedy, but they split in 2004 and Alex started the (in Peter’s eyes) competing Free Festival. My understanding was that Peter did not agree with Alex’s view that they should charge the acts a small amount to cover the cost of appearing in the printed Free Fringe programme (although the PBH Free Fringe runs fund-raising pre-Fringe shows in London). Last year, Bob Slayer started his ‘Pay What You Want’ version of the free model which means you can either get in for free or guarantee a seat by buying a £5 ticket in advance. This year, there was another breakaway from PBH’s original Free Fringe organisation. The breakaway organisers – calling themselves The Freestival – have managed to get £25,000 sponsorship from local La Favorita pizza chain, matched by £25,000 sponsorship from Arts & Business Scotland.

Alex Petty talked to me at the Soho Theatre

Alex Petty talked to me at the Soho Theatre

“PBH seemed to feel threatened by your Free Festival,” I said to Alex Petty when we met at the Soho Theatre in London. “Do you feel threatened by the new Freestival this year?” “Not at all,” said Alex. “I think the more free organisations the better. And let’s not forget the Scottish Comedy Festival down at The Beehive, where they do a mixture of paid and free stuff.” “Would you take sponsorship like the Freestival?” I asked. “I think that’s given them a good foundation this year,” said Alex. “They’ve started as quite a large organisation with several venues and performance spaces, whereas we started with one venue and gradually grew and acquired equipment and things we needed over the course of eleven years. What they’ve managed to do is get the equipment and stuff in and pay for the set-up for their venues in one go.

The Laughing Horse Free Festival logo

The Laughing Horse Free Festival logo for this year

“The Free Festival gets sponsorship in little ways – Kopparberg sponsor various bits of The Counting House. The Three Sisters is sponsored. It tends to be the venues themselves in partnership with sponsors, not us. It pays for the stages. “And then a lot of the companies behind the venues put money in as well. Our three main venues – The Counting House, Three Sisters and Espionage – spend a lot of money on advertising themselves, supplying equipment and staff. “We’ve never got to the point of having a big headline sponsor for the Free Festival. A lot of companies who want to sponsor comedy are alcohol companies and they want to get their products into the venues, but we have 22 venues all tied to different breweries, different companies. Some are owned by bigger companies; some are independent; trying to get them all to sign up to the same thing is difficult.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from pizza sponsors La Favorita

“Now, with the Freestival,” I said, “there is even more competition.” “We’ve all got slightly different ideas,” said Alex. “It’s going to be a friendly rivalry.” “Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want shows are listed in your Free Festival brochure,” I said. “Can you see a joint Free brochure coming out?… Although presumably not with PBH Free Fringe shows in it.” “Peter can be very combative about stuff,” said Alex. “It’s his way or no way. He’s got a very set vision and sticking to that is good in many ways. You would think Peter would be happy and proud that there are so many people now doing free shows, but he’s not happy with other people doing similar things.” “The perceived problem with free shows,” I said, “is the quality.”

Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want hybrid of free and pay to book

Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want hybrid of both free & book

“Well,” said Alex, “there are good and bad free shows. There are good and bad paid shows. There used to be a lot of Oh. It’s free. It must be rubbish. But now people are just treating them as normal shows. Every individual show, free or paid, rests on its own laurels. “The more people put on serious free shows and set up decent venues, the more people will come across to the free shows. In the last eleven years, it’s grown ridiculously and we have not seen a dip in audiences even though, every year, there are more shows – We have grown; PBH has grown; Bob Slayer has come along and expanded things. I think, with bigger and better acts and more venues running for free, that is going to pull audiences away from paid to free venues rather than taking any numbers away from the existing free audience.” “But the quality of the free shows,” I persisted, “must be lower, because you haven’t got the technical back-up. You can’t do a 10-person musical.”

The cast of Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel (Image by Idil Sukan of Draw HQ)

The cast of Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel (Image by Idil Sukan of Draw HQ)

Austentatious was in The Counting House Ballroom last year,” Alex pointed out, “and this year we have Who Ya Gonna Call? (the Ghostbusters musical). In terms of putting on large, complex productions, it’s difficult. But the Ballroom at The Counting House means we can put on things which have 6-10 people on stage. It has programmable lights; we can do scene changes and lighting changes. The Three Sisters is getting there as well, with a couple of its bigger rooms.” “I understand,” I said, “that the Freestival have put soundproofing into the Cowgatehead. So things ARE looking up. But what do you get out of it? Not vast amounts of money.” “Sadly not,” said Alex. “Laughing Horse gets work and good PR. When performers go up to Edinburgh and then progress their career, we go on with them to other festivals where we do make money and we get a lot of good PR which pushes us up in the industry a bit for getting further work.

Janey Godley at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show last year (Photo by Stephen O’Donnell)

Janey Godley at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show in the ballroom of The Counting House (Photograph by Stephen O’Donnell)

“We don’t run quite so many comedy clubs any more. We have 10 or 15 places where we do regular monthly gigs or on-and-off. But we do a lot of corporate bookings and one-offs. We have 22 venues in Edinburgh during the Fringe – about 35 performance spaces. We have four venues during the Brighton Fringe. This year we did the Perth Fringe in Australia for the first time. Our main one in Australia is still the Adelaide Fringe; we manage some spaces out there. And we’ve done the Melbourne Fringe for the last couple of years. The Singapore Comedy Festival we started doing this year: we actually run that festival with guys out in Singapore – we pay acts to come out and do the festival. So we run venues and promote and produce shows and make money throughout the year.” “So how can you expand in Edinburgh?” I asked. “We’re comfortable with where we are at the moment. We’re at a size which is manageable. We want to do better what we are doing now.” “Have you ever wanted to perform yourself?” I asked. “No,” said Alex,. “I see all the stresses and strains the acts go through. I like being in the back room, enjoying it and putting stuff together.” “How did you get into the business?”

Laughing Horse came out of the Black Horse

Laughing Horse Comedy originally came from a Black Horse

“I used to go to a comedy club in Richmond with a mate of mine, Rob Lee. He wanted to get into comedy. It ended up not being the thing for him. “But I had sat down with him and his brother and we wrote a bit of material for him and he did do a few gigs and one of the local pubs we drank in – The Black Horse – said You should run a comedy club. That’s where the name Laughing Horse comes from. A couple of the guys he’d done open spots for – Kevin McCarron and Fenton McCoot…” “Fenton McCoot?” I asked. “He was an ex-hairdresser who, about a year-and-a-half in, just vanished completely. I’ve not heard from him since. He moved back to Ireland, apparently. But he just vanished at one point and him vanishing was when I started booking the acts because no other bugger would do it. So we started running a comedy club and we fucked everything up as we went along but gradually got our thing together and we got a second comedy club and, over the course of two or three years, learnt what we were doing and started to go up to the Edinburgh Fringe. We just learnt as we went. Now I can book all the acts I want to see myself.” “I like comedy,” I said, “ because it gives me a chance to meet bizarre, mentally-deranged people.” “There’s certainly a few of those around,” said Alex, “But I think the one thing that’s lacking on the comedy circuit these days is there are not the good entertaining nutters around that there used to be. People who would go on and do bizarre acts and be great at what they did for five minutes. I miss that element of the comedy circuit. It has got blander.”

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A revolution at the Edinburgh Fringe. New Freestival organisers explain what to expect from them and their sponsors

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe is a thing of Byzantine beauty organised by no-one and, within that non-organisation are lots of people organising things. 

I organise the annual highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Last year they were the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. This year, they are the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and my blog has taken over the mantle of being increasingly prestigious. Say it often enough and, with luck, people will start believing it.

If I were to attempt to simplify the organisation of the Edinburgh Fringe’s non-organisation, there are venues where you pay in advance (pay venues) and there are ‘free’ venues where you pay nothing to enter but, if you want, you can donate money on the way out (a bit like indoor busking).

There were, until this year, three free organisers:

PBH’s Free Fringe started it all, organised by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee Peter Buckley Hill.

Around ten years ago, there was then a split in the Free Fringe ranks and the Free Festival began, organised by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse, in one of whose venues I stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Emerging from the Free Festival in the last couple of years has been the Heroes of Fringe Pay What You Want venues run by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Bob Slayer. At his venues, you can either walk in for free or pay for a ticket in advance to guarantee a seat.

Then, back in December, I blogged about another rift in the Free Fringe which has now spawned the Freestival, organised by a hydra-headed committee of performers all of whom, I imagine, aspire to win a highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

If you need any more background, I suggest you either take counselling or settle down, take Valium and read the blog I wrote last December about the genesis of the new Freestival group.

On the Freestival website (soon to be re-designed) there are eleven members of “the current committee and helpers” listed.

Last night, four of them – Dan Adams, Sean Brightman, Al Cowie and Alex Marion – explained more to me.

Last night (from left): Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion, Al Cowie

Last night in London (from left) four elevenths of Freestival: Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion and Al Cowie

As they are part of a hydra-headed collective speaking collectively – and, frankly, because I can’t be bothered to differentiate between the four voices on my sound recording – I shall quote what the four of them individually said as coming from a mythical single beast called The Freestival.

“You had a big bust-up with Peter Buckley Hill,” I started. “You suggested ways in which you thought the Free Fringe could be improved.”

“An innocent mistake,” said the Freestival. “In hindsight, we should probably not have done that but, then, we would have ended up doing shows somewhere else.”

“So you would have broken away anyway?”

“We might have gone with Laughing Horse,” said the Freestival, “or Heroes of the Fringe without the hassle.

“With the Free Fringe, it’s PBH’s name on it and however much he’s set up committees in the past, it’s pretty well established it’s always him. With Laughing Horse, it’s Alex and he gets other people on board to help, but it’s him and he works very very hard. Bob Slayer, same thing: he’s keeping it very small – very wise – and he’s going great guns with it but, again, it’s just him.

“We set the Freestival up as a committee and the thing that differentiates us from any of the other free groups is we have an accountant. Plus, should any issues happen, we’ve got some flexibility in the system, because what we’ve done is looked round at who has the expertise in various different areas, so that we can call on them and genuinely use them. None of us knew about accountancy, so we’ve got in a fantastic accountant performer – Gemma Beagley.

“Essentially, we want to bring in the money from outside that will allow us to put on really good free Fringe sh…”

“You can’t use those two words together,” said the Freestival, interrupting itself.

“Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the Freestival, “apparently it’s illegal for us to use the two words together.

“It’s difficult to describe without using those words,” continued the Freestival. “But essentially what we want a festival full of acts we believe in so we can promote them to the public with genuine honesty. With all due respect, all of the other free organisations are pretty much open to anyone.”

Random visual plug for my Fringe show

A random plug for Bob Slayer

(Before I get a complaint from Big Bob Slayer, I should point out that, keeping things small, he is very choosy about the acts he allows to perform in his venues.)

“What we have,” continued the hydra-headed Freestival, “is the manpower to select the acts we really want to put on. It’s like running a comedy club where we put on the best acts available to us on the night. So, when people go to a Freestival show, they will know it’s going to be a good show in a good venue. We want all of our venues to be a pleasure to go to. In Edinburgh, for performers and audiences, that’s not always the case. There was one in a toilet last year.”

“There seemed to be some doubt,” I said, “that you had The Tron as one of your venues.”

“We do have The Tron,” said the Freestival. “And The Cowgatehead, which is opposite the Underbelly. Last year it was called The Cowshed.”

“They were both PBH venues last year,” I said.

“Yes. The reason they’re coming with us this year,” said the Freestival, “is that they are directly linked to our sponsor. We do have a sponsor – La Favorita, a chain of Pizza restaurants, a local Edinburgh business. They’re a restaurant group (the Vittoria Group) with a small chain of pizza delivery restaurants. They had a concession outside the Tron Church at last year’s Fringe.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

“How many venues have you got,” I asked, “and how many rooms within those venues?”

“We’re currently working on getting around twelve venues,” replied the Freestival.

“Each with multiple rooms?” I asked.

“There might be more spaces, but we’re working towards a 12-venue plan. We’ve got the Cowgatehead, the Tron, St James, which is a brand new venue near the Grassmarket. Inside that, we’ve got two floors with a main room for about 150 people and we’re going to put two rooms on the top floor, each of which will be 60-80. It’s going to be built to our spec.”

“Why are you different from the other free venue organisers?” I asked.

“We want people,” said the Freestival, “to be astounded by how good our venues are. And we want to publicise all of our shows. It’s not enough to just say They’re in our brochure, so that’s our responsibility to them discharged. If both the acts AND we publicise those shows, then all of us benefit.”

“Is that where the sponsor’s money is going?” I asked.

“The sponsor,” said the Freestival, “is paying for the brochures, the publicity costs, the new website and the setting-up of the venues. The acts are spending six months preparing the best show they can create and we don’t think they should have to set up the venue themselves.”

“So,” I asked, “will each of your venues have a venue manager and a sound person?”

“Yes,” said the Freestival, “though there might be a couple of venues that share sound people.”

“Are the sound people free?” I asked.

“There is a small up-front sub,” said the Freestival, “which is on our website. It is £80.”

“What was PBH charging last year?” I asked.

“£3 per each individual day’s performance,” said the Freestival, “and/or you had to organise as many benefits shows as you could for the Free Fringe. If anyone thinks they can find a venue in Edinburgh in August, fully set-up with publicity and technical support as part of the package, for less than £80 over three weeks, they’re welcome to go and take it. What the sponsor’s money allows us to provide is quality venues. And soundproofing wherever possible.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “the sponsor could soundproof the walls with pizzas. You could have the first edible Fringe venues.”

“How we have approached sponsorship,” explained the Freestival, “is How will it benefit what we want to do? NOT How will it benefit the sponsor? The sponsor gets concession stands selling pizzas at a couple of the venues and outside The Tron, exactly as they had last year. They want to get their name seen everywhere because they want to grow as a business and this does that for them.

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of ingredients

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of different ingredients

“Having an accountant and sponsor on board informs the decision-making process, but we have control over any artistic decision. There will be nothing about this does or does not fit the sponsor’s brand. None of that at all. What the sponsor wants is to be part of something which will be good. They have no control over the creative side of things. They are just a conduit to provide us with the ability to stage some really good shows.”

“What about the antagonism from PBH over the split?” I said.

“He wants to shout, he wants to scream at us,” said the Freestival, “but really we’re not here to undermine him. We’re just here because we think there’s another way of doing things that can achieve a better set of results.

“Every year, the Free Fringe grows, every year there’s more venues, more shows and inevitably what that means is that there’s less control over the quality of the venues. What we want to do is keep small, keep to a limited number of venues, keep to acts we believe in, that we can publicise with our whole heart, that we can inter-act with and put them in venues they are happy to play in and the public want to spend time in.

“We have made a conscious effort to make relationships with other parts of the Fringe and the comedy industry in general. Hils Jago of Amused Moose will be running Logan Murray’s comedy courses in our venues.

“Whilst we are another free entity up in Edinburgh,” said the Freestival, “I truly believe there’s room for many more free entities up there and many more different models. All of us really believe in our model but, if other people want to go with different models or to perform in our venues AND in other people’s venues, fantastic for them.”

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