The Free Fringe: Swapping the Bills for the Bucket

Comedians Stuart Goldsmith and Caroline Mabey remind us of the benefits of moving from the paid to the free fringe – for both artists and audiences

Feature by Jenni Ajderian | 05 Aug 2015

The Free Fringe has been going strong for nearly 20 years now and sprawls across the city much like the Festival Fringe itself did in its early years. The fact that there are now four free fringes is testament to this, as is the growing number of comedians who have chosen to go from charging for tickets to shaking a bucket at the end of the show.

It is a natural assumption at the Fringe that there's a certain progression to be made: you start out in the small venues, with the small prices and the small audiences, and then you get to the big venues and get to charge the big audiences big ticket prices. Why, then, would anyone take a step back? Why would a comedian choose to go from a paid venue to a free one?

Part of the impulse towards the free model is down to the enduring costs of bringing a show to the Fringe. As well as transport, accommodation and loss of earnings for those with parallel careers, performers often pay for their venue: "When you do a show in a paid venue, chances are you're losing money every day," explains Caroline Mabey, who is bringing her fourth full-length show Chaos is a Friend of Mine to the Fringe this year. "If you sold out every day in a paid venue, you'd make money on the venue. But then you've got so many other costs, for most people it's not even possible to break even."

Mabey is moving back to the Free Fringe organisation, and sees the free shows allowing artists more time to focus on what's important: "Worrying about ticket sales is the last thing you want. Unless you're a really big name it's difficult to sell loads of tickets in advance. If you go on the free fringe, suddenly it becomes about the show and not about marketing yourself as a product."

Also performing a free show this year is Stuart Goldsmith. "The free model's great," he tells us. "It's like the Fringe used to be. Before the Fringe became this massive swollen fight for advertising and ticket sales, it was just people in pubs doing shows."

Next to the seemingly endless circuit of paying for a venue with the ticket money from the venue, the ‘free model’ is relatively simple. Punters don’t pay for tickets, and acts don’t pay for venues. If you want a drink, give the venue a little money on the way in; if you want to support the act, give them a little money on the way out. Acts still get an audience, audiences still get a show, and venues still get to sell drinks and become better known.

The move from paid to free signals a change in comedic tack for Goldsmith: "I always get called slick. I don't want to be slick. What I'm trying to do this year is not polish the show, and just keep it really live and loose."

Whether it’s ‘slick’, ‘practiced’ or ‘expensive’, there’s a feeling that only certain traits make for a good show. In the early days of the free fringe, audiences had little faith in free shows, and comedians were much the same. "Comics were in that mindset of, 'I've got to go up to Edinburgh and lose 11 grand, otherwise I'm not doing it properly.' That has been completely blown out of the water."

With both big-name comedians like Phill Jupitus doing free shows, and small-name comedians winning critical acclaim, the free fringe offers an alternative. In 2013, John Kearns won the Best Newcomer award, and the next year won Best Show – the first act to win the two awards on consecutive years in Fringe history, and both of them for free shows. As Goldsmith says: "Now we've had a Newcomer and the main Best Comedy Show both on the free fringe, there is no excuse for thinking that you have to go up [to Edinburgh] and lose your shirt."

For audiences, a punt on a free show is automatically less daunting than being forced to pay up-front: if you hated it, you don’t have to pay, and if you loved it, you can empty your wallet out at the end. Years of free fringe shows have proved that this isn’t just a testing ground before graduating to the ‘real’ Fringe, and for certain acts both the price and the atmosphere of the free fringe make it far more inviting in the first place.

"The free fringe is much more in keeping with the spirit of the Fringe," says Mabey, "and with why you want to go to the Fringe. Which is to think about your show, and not about money."

Stuart Goldsmith: An Hour (Free Show), The Canon's Gait, 8-18 & 20-30 Aug, 4.55pm, Free Caroline Mabey: Chaos is a Friend of Mine, Opium, 8-17 & 19-29 Aug, 1.15pm, Free Two Stupids: Michael Legge and Caroline Mabey, Liquid Room Annexe, 8-18 & 20-29 Aug, 3.45pm, Free