For comedians, this year's Edinburgh Fringe is no laughing matter.
For veteran turns, the month-long event is often used as key stop-off point on a tour, while up-and coming comics welcome the Fringe as an important profile-raiser. For both, playing night after night at the same venue gives the act a chance to hone their material, experiment, and refine their 'voice'.
Even for dilettantes on the unpaid circuit, the annual trip to Edinburgh is an opportunity to turn a decent pub act into something more professional, with nightly shows giving many a turn some much-needed tuning.
Comedy fans queue up outside the Underbelly venue
One comedian friend three-years in to his stand-up career likes to describe the Edinburgh Fringe as a “comedy boot camp”. It’s apt, especially as many fledgling acts perform multiple times a day across the hundreds of pub backrooms, night clubs and converted restaurants that are available to hire during August.
And with comedians, sketch artists and other assorted acts putting on more than 2,600 shows at this year’s Fringe, it would seem that comedy is more popular than ever.
The one thing that both green and seasoned performers need is an audience. And this year, the audience has not been there, forcing comics to play to half empty rooms - rooms they very often need to fill just to break even.
So why is the Fringe falling flat? Several reasons have been mooted, from an Olympic hangover to more fundamental issues over the festival's organisation.
Stewart Lee, comedy’s chief contrarian, sounded the first alarm, writing a scathing opinion piece in The Guardian on the eve of the festival, in a piece titled: “The Slow Death of the Edinburgh Fringe”.
In it, Lee savages the “commercialisation” of the Fringe, citing rocketing tickets prices for customers, as well as greater expense to performers, the latter who serve to underwrite much of the cost of the festival.
Charlie Wood, the owner of the Underbelly venue - one of the 'Big Four' (along with the Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Assembly) who Lee blames for the Fringe’s “slow death” - quickly hit back, accusing the comic of “grandstanding” for his “own commercial interests”.
As Wood points out, Lee is one of the most expensive acts to see at this year’s event, adding that the comic’s comments were particularly unhelpful coming in the year that the festival faces huge competition from the Olympics (events in London overlapped the first two weeks of the Fringe).
The Pleasance Courtyard - one of the most popular venues at the festival
Whether it’s commercialisation, the Olympics or something more deep-rooted, numbers are certainly down.
Speaking to The Independent, William Burdett-Coutts, who looks after the Assembly, said: "During the first week the big comedians weren't selling out at all. Many had big gaps in the audience. It's picking up now but it has been tough."
Figures for the other big venues, such as the Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance, have also reported slow sales.
A well-connected promoter went as far to tell the Huff Post UK that last year audience figures were down 10%, while 2012 has seen a further drop of 20%, meaning 30% fewer people are visiting the festival this year than in 2010.
Anecdotal evidence supports this, with Richard Herring, Lee’s former comedy partner, using his Warming Up blog to complain of empty seats in his show, Talking Cock 2.
"I got a respectable 158 in tonight,” he wrote, “but that is half the number that came to see me last year and my lowest Friday night Edinburgh audience since 2005. It's very hard not to let your head drop as you think about the financial implications.”
Herring blamed the “Olympics/the recession/the dissatisfaction with high prices of everything in Edinburgh” for “sucking out all the punters as if someone opened the door on a space craft.”
”This is going to be a very quiet year in Edinburgh," he conceded, adding that it was “the same for everyone".
Speaking to the Huff Post UK, Taylor Glenn, who is playing her first solo hour at the Gilded Balloon, agreed.
“Some nights I've had very small audiences,” she said, adding: “The people who are showing up have been, on the whole, really lovely so size hasn't mattered.”
“However, I'm hearing lots of stress and frustration from various comics about audience numbers - so no doubt it's been a difficult year comparatively.”
Taylor Glenn: "It's been a difficult year"
“Part of the trouble is, on the Fringe, comedians, actors and everyone [else] are essentially telling stories,” she writes, “But real life [the Olympics] is currently way more exciting.
“The Olympics has everything: drama, redemption, jeopardy, love and, very unusually for Britain, a bit of a Hollywood ending. We don't need stories now. We've got the real thing.”
Speaking to the Huff Post UK, comedianLiam Mullone, who is currently performing at The Stand, was even more forthright.
“The Olympics shouldn't have taken anyone by surprise. Beijing hit numbers in 2008, and visitor numbers have been in sharp decline since before then. Festival organisers have consistently lied about numbers, repeating the mantra year after year that visitor numbers are up just to protect their funding. This year the lie is so patently ridiculous that they're left not so much with egg on their faces as drowning in insidious, mendacious omelette.”
Gareth Morinan, who is performing at the Underbelly, added: "My best audience was the day when other shows weren't performing, so there was less choice. The number of Fringe tickets on sale has always outstripped audience numbers, but this year it's just ridiculous".
Punters line up to buy tickets outside the Pleasance
Former journalist Lynne Parker has been producing shows at the Fringe for nine years. For the past decade, she has run a successful production company called Funny Women, which fosters new female comedy talent.
Speaking to the Huff Post UK, Parker, who is also a Huff Post blogger, blamed both the Olympics and a lack of organisational direction for the current state of the festival.
“This year has been one of the most difficult in recent times,” she said.
“One thing that has clearly affected numbers is the fact that people stayed at home and watched the Olympics. And even when they came into the venues, some had provided big screens."
Parker admits the Olympics created a buzz, but acts were “really struggling through some shows when the sport was in full blast.”
“Maybe the Fringe should have started a week later?” she adds.
Yet for Parker, the Olympics is only masking a deeper issue blighting the Edinburgh showcase.
“We have to ask ourselves ‘What is the Fringe about?'” she said.
“At the moment it doesn’t seem to know what it is. People are being encouraged to come and see the big names, but they’re not being encouraged to stay and see the new names.
“The ethos of the Fringe is new talent, but as a small promoter when you come up here and see huge posters for the big names everywhere it is as though you’ve lost before you’ve even started.”
If 'paid Fringe' performers are struggling to fill seats, then the problem is being mirrored on the 'Free Fringe', an off-shoot of the original gala in which up-and-coming acts play for free, having enticed punters into their shows through flyering on the streets.
“We’re having to sing harder for our supper this year,” said James Gill, a London-based comedian who has been gigging three times a day for the past two weeks.
“Broadly speaking, if you don’t flyer hard, you don’t get folk in.”
Gill adds: “From speaking with comedian friends – both those doing free and paid shows – numbers are generally down. While comedy is growing in terms of the number of comedians and shows, I’m not convinced the audience is growing at the same rate. That possibly goes for comedy in general.”
For Alex Perry, 31, another London-based comic playing on the free circuit, the equation is simple.
“Free Fringe numbers may be down [on previous years] but there also seems to be a lot more shows - so proportionally audiences are smaller.”
Perry adds that the Free Fringe has seen far more cancellations this year compared to last year.
“Unless you’re top draw TV face, most people, whether paid or unpaid, have been struggling,” he adds.
Comedians James Gill (left) and Alex Perry (right)
One comedian, who wanted to remain anonymous, went further, blaming the Free Fringe organisers for a lack of quality control.
“There are plenty of good shows on at the Free Fringe, but given that anyone can get a show, the quality can be variable. You do just get a lot of mad people being allowed to perform. It’s putting audiences off.”
The comic did quickly add a qualifier: “Though you could argue that mad people performing is what the Free Fringe is really about – it’s a very broad church.”
In his Guardian piece, Lee described the early Fringe as a “postwar utopian ideal, but with jokes, experimental theatre and a lot of fried food; anyone could perform in it if they could raise the programme entry fee”.
Parker’s view of the current festival provides a telling contrast. “It’s not really a Fringe festival any more – it’s a corporate trade show, a festival of fake grass and turf wars between beer brands.”
For the comics, promoters and, most of all the fans, it seems there's not a lot of fun in that.
Taylor Glenn's Reverse Psycomedy is on at the Gilded Balloon at 23.30 until 26 August
Liam Mullone's A Land Fit For Fuckwits is playing at The Stand at 3.30 until 26 August
Gareth Morinan's Truth Doodler is playing at the Underbelly Clover at 1.30 until 26 August
Catie Wilkins's Joy Is My Middle Name is on at the Underbelly (Cowgate) at 19.45 until 26 August
James Gill's Always Be Comedy is playing the Jekyll and Hyde at 21.20 until 26 August
Alex Perry's Once Upon A Lunchtime is on at the Rush Bar (Cowgate) at 13:45pm until 26 August
Funny Women is presenting lara A king, the 2011 winner of the Funny Women Awards, in People Pleaser which is on at the Bosco, Assembly George Square at 14.00 until 26 August.
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