Andrew Eaton-Lewis: People will be watching the Assembly Rooms very closely
TUESDAY evening, and I’m at a rowdy press conference for the Alternative Fringe, a sort of festival-within-a-festival at the Hive on Niddry Street, which is promising to offer fairer deals to performers than the bigger venues.
None of the journalists is really asking about this, though, possibly that’s because we’re too dumbstruck by the drunkenness of our host, comedian Bob Slayer. So friends egg him on with daft prompts instead. “If you could burn down one Fringe venue and not get caught, which would you choose?” Slayer is delighted, and before his panel of performers can get a word in edgeways, he bellows out an answer on behalf of all of them: the Pleasance, the Underbelly, the Assembly and the Gilded Balloon, obviously.
The Fringe’s “big four” venues are used to being criticised – for their ticket prices, hire charges, the power they wield at the festival generally – but the rebellion is spreading noticeably this year. Slayer has been particularly vocal, as has Stewart Lee (left, in a spirited if frustratingly perverse newspaper rant last week), but their most significant critic is Stand Comedy Club boss Tommy Sheppard (below).
The big four made an enemy of Sheppard some time ago with their shortsighted decision to create an “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” which wasn’t an inclusive, city-wide event, as the name implied, but a self-serving branding exercise for a few select venues, not including the Stand, the city’s principal comedy venue.
Sheppard, below, has now taken over the Assembly Rooms on George Street, which is why there are suddenly two separate operations with the same name. He was right to keep the name – as he points out, the building has been called that for over 200 years. Still, he has taken every opportunity to undermine his rivals, contrasting his new venue with the “ugly aluminium building sites” where the big four are concentrated, writing an introduction to the Assembly Rooms brochure which conspicuously failed to acknowledge Assembly Theatre’s 30-year residency at the venue, then opening his new venue on the same night as Assembly Theatre’s gala launch.
If all this was just point-scoring by commercial competitors, it wouldn’t matter much, but Sheppard is also laying down an ideological gauntlet. Instead of charging performers up-front fees, he is running the new Assembly Rooms as a profit-share operation – and, implicitly, accusing other venues of exploiting artists by not doing the same.
This in itself isn’t new. Sheppard has run the Stand Comedy Club on a similar model for years (which is part of the reason for its popularity among comedians). Neither is it unique. Bob Slayer’s Alternative Fringe is now doing it too, covering its costs by taking £1 from every ticket sold.
There is a big difference, though, between putting on solo shows in a small venue, like the Stand or the Hive, and financing a substantial programme of theatre, cabaret and music, including big hitters like the National Theatre of Scotland. The obvious defence for the big four’s business models is that programmes like theirs are expensive to put on. Sheppard, though, is proposing that a major venue like the Assembly Rooms can effectively be run on a similar model to the Stand. If he can actually pull that off, it could be game-changing for the whole Fringe. A lot of people will be watching the Assembly Rooms very closely this month.
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