Greetings from the Edinburgh Fringe, more specifically the PBH Free Fringe.
I went to bed at 9.30 last night due to sheer exhaustion: a show every day, lots of guest spots at other people’s, countless ones I want to see and, of course, oceans of lovely beer which doesn’t drink itself.
This is the busiest August I have ever had. Rebellion punk festival at the beginning of the month, then a couple more festivals, then up here for two weeks (interrupted by a return trip dash down to Leicester to see the Seagulls fail to score or get a point for the second week running) and then, three days after I get back home, I’m off for a tour of Sweden. All go. Not complaining though: it’s my life, and I love it.
It’s impossible to describe the intensity of the Fringe if you haven’t experienced it. Every conceivable space is turned into a venue: larger ones are often subdivided up to provide more performance opportunities (and money-making ones for promoters, see below). I’m regularly accosted by leaflet-wielding students desperate for me to attend Trumpton University Drama Group’s play about the innate existentialism of underwater hang gliding. Or something.
I just cheerily say ‘Got my own show in a minute’ and, in a flash of thespian solidarity, they leave me alone.
But the thespians, for so long the mainstay of these three weeks, are actually in the minority these days. The Edinburgh Fringe has for years been swamped by a ghastly corporate comedy splurge, so much so that many people think it’s actually a comedy festival: a trade fair for the newest trainload of fresh-faced aspiring bland TV/radio game show fodder, fresh off the London comic-in-a-basket circuit conveyor belt.
Nothing wrong with wanting to earn a living as a comedian. Everything wrong with having your dreams shattered by being shoehorned into a cupboard and charged an unbelievably exorbitant fee by a mainstream corporate comedy promoter so you can lose thousands of pounds playing to three people a night. It happens to so many, and it’s WRONG.
I performed at the Fringe from 1982 to 1996. I earn my living from gigs and did so there quite happily for fourteen years. Then the last venue happy to let me do a show there for a percentage of the door money closed down, I was confronted with the comedy closed shop and their pay-to-play regime, and I stopped coming. I returned last year thanks to the PBH Free Fringe: a simple concept thought up by Peter Buckley Hill.
He, like me, thought that a combination of soaring costs to performers and massively increasing ticket prices for punters was making a mockery of the initial idea of the Fringe as an innovative celebration of culture open to all, and he came up with a brilliantly simple idea. Pubs, clubs, restaurants and community centres open their doors to performers for free. Punters get into the gigs free of charge and pay what they want at the end of the show. Venues sell food and drink. Everyone’s happy.
And it works. I’m playing at Bannerman’s, a legendary punk/ metal/beer emporium where I’ve actually performed several times outside the Festival, and getting great crowds who fill my ancient suitcase with healthy contributions after each show. Most of the people I have talked to playing the Free Fringe are having a good time too, and, collectively, we are bringing back to part of this festival the original idea of culture open to all regardless of ability to pay.
Thank you, Peter Buckley Hill, and more specifically from me to Paul B Edwards and Matt Panesh who have put so much time and energy into organising the spoken word/performance poetry side of things. If you’re in Edinburgh, please go and see their shows if you can. Tonight’s the last night. I finished last night.
I have an appointment at Vicarage Road, Watford, at 3pm this afternoon. Points, and goals, urgently needed.