Free Fringe shows come of age in the battle for awards
FREE comedy shows are now as important to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as ticketed events, the organiser of the main comedy awards has said.
Nica Burns revealed that 25 per cent of the 536 shows which will be judged for the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards this year will be in “Free Fringe” or “Free Festival” venues.
Organised by rival promoters, they account for more than 800 events in the official Fringe programme, which has a record 2,695 entries this year. That compares with just 177 free shows in 2006.
Now, two years after Imran Yusuf became the first performer in a free show to be nominated for one of the two main comedy awards, Ms Burns said they had come to epitomise the spirit, principles and ethos of the Fringe as much as shows in the “big four” venues, despite concerns that they may be luring audiences away from paying for tickets.
Launching the 31st awards yesterday, she told The Scotsman: “The general quality is not as good as the bigger venues, but it is gradually getting better.
“It’s very important for us now to make sure that we see all the free shows that are eligible for the awards.
“You only have to look at the numbers now to see how much they are a part of the Fringe, compared to just a few years ago when there was less than 200 scheduled.
“We would like to see the technical quality of the venues and the audience experience get a lot better than it is.
“You are often crowded into a room in a pub where you can hardly see because it is so dark.
“Also, because acts don’t have to pay a fee or a guarantee to put on a show in a free venue they are often able to take more risks with a show, which is clearly a good thing.”
Tommy Sheppard, the outspoken owner of the Stand Comedy Club and an arch-critic of the awards over the years, has launched a new crusade against the high costs performers face to put on shows.
One of his highest-profile acts, comic Stewart Lee, sparked anger days before the festival got under way with claims that performers in major venues faced forking out upwards of £10,000 to stage comedy shows in Edinburgh this year.
Ms Burns said: “There’s always a bit of competition to create controversy at the start of the festival as so many people are trying to sell tickets.
“But it’s rubbish to suggest the Fringe is dying. How can it be when we are seeing more shows being staged year after year?”
She went on: “The system of fees and guarantees isn’t new. It’s easy for Tommy Sheppard to criticise it when he is here all year round with a venue that is making money. Most operators of venues have to set them up from scratch in Edinburgh, with all their overheads.
“People are effectively buying an entry in their programmes, but the alternative is that they put on shows and completely rely on them to sell tickets to generate income. It would be too big a gamble.”
Meanwhile, Ms Burns said it would not be a “failure” for the Fringe to suffer a drop in ticket sales this year, as long as it is no more than a 5 per cent drop, because of the clash with the Olympics.
She said it would be no surprise if the Festival suffered a slight drop in sales based on the dramatic 20 per cent fall in visitors to her own theatres in London.
She said: “It would help us a great deal if Sir Chris Hoy could send out a message after the Olympics that the greatest arts festival in the world is still happening.
“I’ll be getting in touch with him to ask if we can help get the message out to the world.”
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