Every August the magical city of Edinburgh is transformed into a month long celebration of the arts when the world famous Fringe Festival comes to town. Fringe, which is the world’s largest arts festival, has been running annually since 1947 and attracts thousands of tourists every year.
However, there is a catch; Edinburgh is already the second most expensive city in the UK to visit. This cost only rises during August as demand for accommodation and attractions rises astronomically, with shows costing an average of £15 (€19) or more depending on the fame of the act. Across the month for frequent attendees of the festivals events, this can mean quite a sizable bill by the end of the month.
One group of people who are making the Fringe more available to tourists on a budget are the Laughing Horse Free Festival organisation who runs the Free Festival Fringe alongside the traditional Fringe Festival.
I spoke to the Laughing Horse Free Festival Director, Alex Petty who told me more about the company and why and how they do what they do.
The Free Festival began in 2004, when Laughing Horse Comedy started to run and produce shows just outside of central Edinburgh. Prior to this they had visited the Fringe on a number of occasions and realised the traditional way of producing shows wouldn’t work for them. They noticed performers were losing thousands of pounds every year due to them performing to small audiences because ticket prices were so high.
During these visits to the Fringe prior to 2004 they had seen a free show, run by eccentric comedian Peter Buckley Hill, and saw how that operated: gathering large audiences by not charging in advance and then money being made with a collection being taken at the end of the show – an idea that had been taken from what buskers had been doing for many years (essentially moving the busking indoors).
Since 2004 things have grown for the company with them now running a number of venues as well as producing shows.
Alex spoke passionately about the company saying that they have grown significantly over recent years with them now seeing huge numbers of people enjoying their shows every year: “We have just over 300 shows this year, which makes around 6,000 performances over the month all for free. It’s a bit difficult to gauge exact audience numbers as the shows are mostly unticketed, but we’d estimate over 200,000 people come through the venues to see the shows each year, and it gets busier each year.”
Free Festival runs alongside the official Fringe Festival in harmony with the pair working together for the past 12 years. The Free Festival acts as a ‘bonus option’ for many Fringegoers and locals as they view it as a great, affordable way of experiencing an extra show. Fringe last year sold an estimated 2.3 million tickets compared to the 200,000 of the Free Festival.
According to Free Festival the company has four aims in running the festival every year.
- To provide professionally set-up and managed Fringe venues, where there are no charges for audiences to watch shows and no charges for performers to hire the performance spaces.
- To grow and develop free performances across the Fringe, while supporting and working with other venues, promoters and performers that offer good value for performances.
- To try and make sure that everybody performing in our venues has a successful Fringe – for them to come back from the Fringe having developed as a performer.
- To allow performers to enjoy the Fringe again by trying to provide a community atmosphere and a support network from fellow performers.
Alex stressed that one of the key reasons why they run the Free Festival every year is not only for the benefit of patrons of the festival, but also to give independence and freedom back to the artists as well.
The Fringe Festival has proven to be a springboard platform for many acts over the years but the rising cost of putting on a show during the festival muscled out many smaller performers. Alex said that the Free Festival has given this opportunity back to many acts.
“The free platform acts as a way for all acts to perform at Edinburgh in a much more affordable way and is a mixture of professional performers and newer ones – without high room-rental costs performers can hope to recoup the costs of producing their shows using the free format, and in a lot of cases will make some money.
“This gives them the creative freedom to put on the shows they want and develop the shows rather than being constrained financially and worrying about the bottom line all the time.” he said.
Alex says that one big thing that helps them run the festival every year is the fact that the venues allow them to use the space for free; in return they gain the patronage of everyone attending the shows in a mutually beneficial manner.
“The venues let us use their spaces for free, that’s part of the deal – for the venues they get a big increase in trade by having the shows. This means we can give the spaces out for free to performers, and only charge a small fee to cover the advertising and production we do for shows.” said Alex.
There is a fee of £90 which the Free Festival charges performers, total, not per performance, which is then used to cover the cost of the free festival printed programme, website, all of the technical equipment, and all of the printed posters and signage at venues.
When talking about the cost of visiting Edinburgh, particularly during Fringe, Alex admits that the rising prices of shows did put people off in the past before Free Festival came along and made shows so much more affordable to the general public.
“This has changed with the free shows. If you go back 10 years or more, where free shows were a novelty and really didn’t exist, people were being put off by high ticket prices. This has now changed; there will likely be over 600 free shows this year, along with venues that offer ‘pay-what-you-want’ tickets, as well as a lot of venues offering better value tickets to shows, as they all now need to compete with the free shows.”
He says enthusiastically that one of the biggest selling points of the Fringe nowadays is the huge availability of free shows which are now on offer, making the festival so much more appealing to visitors and locals alike: “I think one thing that really sells the Fringe as whole now are the free shows, and the fact that people can now see lots of shows for free or on a pay-what-you-want basis, as well as the big ticket price shows.”
Much like the original Fringe Festival, the Free Festival also has a wide variety of shows ranging from comedy to theatre which are available for people of all ages to enjoy.
The Free Festival programme for 2016 was officially launched on June 2nd and is available to see on their website www.freefestival.co.uk.