Edinburgh Fringe: Do costs cause a class divide?

The financial costs of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe may cause a divide in comedy, which dominoes into a wider problem of representation

Feature by James McColl | 16 Apr 2018
  • Guru Dodo at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe is an open access festival and acts performing in Edinburgh take on a number of financial risks to put on their work. Comedian Lucy Harrington cancelled her 2017 Fringe show after 17 days last year. On her blog she wrote: "I have paid handsomely to be a part of this experience, financially and emotionally. On top of funding the creation of my work, I have paid for venue hire, posters, flyers, travel, accommodation and affording to eat. As well as performing my show I need to work 12 hour days producing and flyering […] if you want to compete in an over saturated market place you need a team of people and a lot of money." 

It’s no secret that performing at the Fringe incurs such commitments. And those speaking about the issue often highlight the various differences between venues and their associated costs. This year, however, how costs impact comedians from different backgrounds has become the focus. Tom Mayhew wrote a detailed and representative article for the British Comedy Guide on being a working class comedian. Since then, Lee Kyle has crowdfunded a campaign to produce a brochure at the 2018 Fringe specifically to help working class comedians. 

Acts who perform at the Fringe are those who can afford to, or are willing to put themselves in a situation they can't afford. On Twitter, Bethany Black highlighted how this spirals into greater problems of representation. Black's thread started: "Basically, the way the comedy circuit works, people who can afford to gamble £7000+ per year get to go to Edinburgh to do an hour show which is like an industry audition piece to get them potential TV work over the year, it also has a cumulative effect." She added: "As a result some really great comics never really go and do a full hour, and then get branded 'circuit comics' by reviewers and eventually the whole industry […] As a result the industry promotes mostly men, mostly middle class, mostly white, and mostly straight, some exceptions make it through. Everyone who got massive success did so by working hard. But the same amount of hard work doesn’t get everyone the same distance."

It is difficult to read this and not think the consequences may show every week on panel shows. Strudel, a data website, has a thorough breakdown of statistics on the composition of these shows. The demographic is overwhelmingly white male comics.

However, none of this seems to stop a high number of acts arriving in Edinburgh each August. And there are many valuable reasons for performing that have little to do with climbing the comedy career ladder.

Hannibal Buress's profile puts him in a better position than most comics, but in his Netflix documentary his reasons for coming to Edinburgh are probably fairly representative. It's an uncompromising marathon-like performance schedule and hones your stand-up skills. As he puts it: "You get better as a comedian, performing every day for a month."

The Fringe finance debate has also broadened this year with the release of the Fringe Society's workers' survey. This revealed it is not only performers taking on financial risks, but also everyone else – from box office to bar staff. Almost a quarter of all workers are volunteers.

This statistic speaks of a general attitude for many at the Fringe: people are not there to make money, it’s about the experience. And the survey confirms this with 38% answering that "wanting to be a part of the Fringe" as their reason for working there.

Unfortunately, this good will can be exploited, and naturally still excludes those who can't afford to volunteer their time for what might be a valuable experience. That the Fringe Society have conducted and published this survey does speak of a new determination to highlight the extent of the issue. And it puts the onus on all of us who take part in the Fringe, in whatever capacity, to think about where ticket money goes – if it sustains those helping the Fringe to thrive or if it is passing costs on to the performers and workers who actually make the Fringe happen.

The 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs 3-27 August – read our reviews, interviews, lists and features on all things Fringe in our Festivals section