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Reflections on the Fringe

While ticketed productions lose money, the Free Fringe is cleaning up in donations - but it is still theatre worth paying for.

Christian Butler

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It’s easy to get philosophical at the Edinburgh Fringe, especially after a few drinks. For me, it’s the serendipity and the conversations that you stumble into that make it truly special.

The other night, I got chatting to a woman from New Jersey after I stepped on her foot. She recommended a free improv show called BattleActs she’d seen twice already. An Irish girl and her friend overheard us, and asked for directions to The Counting House where the show was being staged. New Jersey said she’d take us there, and the four of us saw the show together.

It then transpired that Irish’s cousin was actually in the troupe, so I ended up talking to him and another of his fellow cast members in a pub after the show. As the conversation went on, they were almost evangelical about the free productions – deeming the ‘real’ Fringe as something they truly ‘believe in’. But this religion has demons, too. Both during and after the show, they singled out Alan Davies – this year performing a three-day stint at the Gilded Balloon – as everything that was wrong with the festival nowadays: a symbol of the gross commercialism which has engulfed it, with Davies and his off-the-telly ilk mounting an overpriced money grab and destroying the spirit of it all.

But they also said something very revealing. While an average Fringe show can cost as much as 15 grand to stage, they were paying a mere £300 for their venue. For a ticketed production, it’s a miracle to break even. But by the nature of their cheap production cost and healthy donations – ‘free to get in, pay to get out’, goes the ‘real Fringe’ motto – free shows are more likely to make a profit.

To be so romantic, if not down-right religious, about their art, and yet still be so financially savvy about the festival seemed a strange paradox to me. But these were seasoned veterans of the Edinburgh Fringe, realistic about their business as much as they were passionate for their craft.

Plus, the show was excellent; perhaps the best free show I’ve seen here. Well, I say free – moved by their words I found myself forking over some cash to the cast of BattleActs at the end of the show. To the talented members of the troupe who were performing that night (Anna Leong Brophy, Thomas Butler, Michael Keane, Phil Mann and Emily Lloyd Sanie), I acknowledge your ‘real Fringe’ production, and was glad I dropped some money in your bucket. The folks at BattleActs can have their haggis and eat it, too.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

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