Flooding the Fringe with amateurish greenhorns or providing a much-needed space for experimentation? Jay Richardson gets to the bottom of the Free Fringe
Free shows at the Fringe are like “a toddler” suggests comedian Cariad Lloyd. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what it’s going to grow into.” She’s not alluding to the squabbling that developed between Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe and Laughing Horse’s breakaway Free Festival after it launched in 2007. Nor the more recent, upstart emergence of Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe, which offers a “third way”, “pay-what-you-want”, reserve-in-advance means of getting into shows.
Rather, Lloyd – part of last year’s returning Free Festival smash Austentatious, and, like Imran Yusuf and Sam Fletcher, a comic nominated for a Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award in recent years for her free show – is simply reflecting the promise and uncertainty about the non-paid-for sector of the festival, which has risen dramatically from about ten per cent to 25 per cent of all shows in the same period.
The economics are certainly confusing. It used to be a given that free acts were reducing their festival losses to manageable amounts, while performers in paid venues grumbled about returning home with GBP10,000 of debt, albeit to little sympathy from the public.
Although the latter still holds true, the pioneering decision of established comics such as Robin Ince to decamp to the free arena, followed this year by the likes of Phill Jupitus, Nat Luurtsema, Addy Van Der Borgh, Luke Toulson, Alistair Barrie, Alexis Dubus and Ben Norris, some with free shows alongside their paid ones, has blurred the boundaries still further. Antifolk founder, anecdotalist and singer-songwriter Lach has his own BBC Radio 4 series. But he’s appearing in a Heroes of Fringe venue and profiting handsomely. True, he lives in Edinburgh so isn’t paying exorbitant rent. Yet after his first three nights, he says, he’d “had full rooms and already paid back all my expenses, paid the sound guy. Everything after, I’m making money on”.
Although their financial outlay remains a huge concern for most festival performers, free shows also have other commercial and creative advantages over their paid counterparts. Early on in his career, former marketing man Jimmy Carr played rooms smaller than his popularity, so he’d sell out immediately and need to “add” extra shows, a practice still employed to greater or lesser degrees of cynicism by big names in the bigger venues. Still, that’s nowhere near as impressive an advert as queues snaking round the block and people turned away at the door, one of the quirks of the free-for-all, no ticket system.
EastEnd Cabaret sent 250 people away from the final night of their 2011 debut on the Free Festival. “The ethos, the freedom, the atmosphere” all fostered a sense of something “exciting, underground and waiting to be discovered”, according to the duo’s Victor Victoria. She and co-star Bernadette Byrne moved to the Underbelly for subsequent festivals, largely for logistical reasons and audience capacity. But she believes the underdog label for free shows is fading and that they’re becoming more equal with the paid. Venues are improving their facilities, even as performers get more sophisticated at coping with their limitations and the three-minute turnarounds between shows.
Lach wonders if free has an additional charm. Discovering a great free show, he suggests is like “finding the lucky penny. Ultimately, they end up donating as much as they would have done buying a ticket anyway.”
Moreover, free has been instrumental in building Lach’s fanbase, both for his solo show and long-running Antihoot showcase at Henry’s Cellar Bar. “My show is different every night, I never know which songs I’m going to sing or which stories I’m going to tell, it’s very in the moment. But because it’s free, they’ll come to more than one if they’re here for the month.”
There’s also the “communal feel”, he adds. “They’re not just shuffling in and shuffling out. At the Hive, Lewis Schaffer is on before me. People coming out of his show, if it was GBP12, might not give me the time of day. But because it’s free and Lewis has put them in a good mood, they see ‘star of Radio 4’, think ‘this looks interesting’ and peek in. The original intent of the Fringe was to have people stumbling upon stuff, instead of neon signs pointing people to see things they’ve already seen because they know they like it.”
Lach performed his first Fringe show with paid ticketing at the Gilded Balloon, whose 2013 line-up he can’t enthuse about enough. However, he argues, “the audience is more relaxed in a free show. They’re not sitting there in the first ten minutes thinking ‘f***, I paid GBP12, this guy’s crap, here’s another airplane joke about peanuts. They’re not judging the show against the money. There’s this childlike feeling in them of ‘let’s see what happens’. They’re more open to experimentation because they haven’t paid for it.”
That’s why John Robertson, who’s hosting his cruel, interactive role-playing spoof The Dark Room at the Underbelly, stresses that it’s inconceivable he would have unveiled it there first last year. “It was meant to be experimental, I knew I had to try it out in a grungy room,” the Australian explains. “There was no way I could have said to the Underbelly or Gilded Balloon, ‘I’ve got this thing, I don’t quite know if it works’. I’d never used a projector before, I had no idea of the technology.
“Our first show finished after 20 minutes because all four guys playing the game died and they walked out. And I’ve never seen a crowd so ecstatic in my life. I knew then it had legs.” Transferring The Dark Room from the Hive to the Underbelly, he worried that it would lose “its edge, that nice, dirty, shambolic vibe”. But now, he says, the show has a life of its own, and each new venue he’s performed it in, across the world, throws up new opportunities. His current location’s low roof prompted him to add some shadow puppetry.
Lloyd, who’s also starring in the longform improv show Cariad and Paul: A Two-Player Adventure with Paul Foxcroft at the Pleasance Dome, reckons that the Free Fringe and Free Festival have now reached a “tipping point” in popularity for both audiences and performers, “as it’s getting harder and harder to do a paid show if you’re not guaranteed your audience because of TV”. She is, however, concerned that they’ll become a victim of their own success. “If it becomes this incredible money-maker, what if all the really successful comedians take all the Free Fringe spots, leaving no-one to try stuff? Where will the new people go?”
Last week, Edinburgh Comedy Awards director Nica Burns claimed the free line-ups are flooded with inexperienced rookies doing an hour before they’re ready – a claim disputed by the Free Fringe’s Peter Buckley Hill. EastEnd Cabaret’s Bernadette Byrne rates the chances of choosing something good at random as about “50/50. But that’s part of the excitement,” she argues. “The amateurish stuff is just as valid”.
And for Lach, even this free inclusivity and freedom doesn’t go far enough. “Now that we’ve gotten rid of people having to pay, I’d like to get rid of them having any expectations whatsoever. How about a new category of ‘Uncategorised’ [in the Fringe brochure]? “If ten different people walked into ten different seven-minute sections of my show or one by Tim Minchin, it’s like the blind man trying to describe the elephant. One would say he’s a comic, another a serious musician, yet another a storyteller, depending on which seven minutes. So let’s embrace this vague new category!”