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BWW Interview: Alex Petty of Laughing Horse on the Edinburgh Free Festival

BWW Interview: Alex Petty of Laughing Horse on the Edinburgh Free Festival

Tell us a little about the Free Festival and why it was started

Myself and fellow Laughing Horse promoter Kevin McCarron had been to Edinburgh for a couple of years in the early 2000s looking to put on some Laughing Horse Comedy compilation showcase.

Much for the same reason as everyone else: to raise our profile and get festival experience. However, we found - as do many shows/producers - that the cost to do this was prohibitive.

Our maths showed we could sell out every night and still lose money, a problem a lot of performers were having at that stage, so we decided it wasn't worth it and to concentrate on our London clubs.

At that stage, there was a single show in Edinburgh that was a compilation show with free entry, with donations, and it was always busy and great fun - and this seemed like a good alternative way of doing things. Indoor busking.

The guy running that was Peter Buckley Hill, and we decided to work with him to expand the idea he never had, and that led to us giving it a go in 2004. After trialling it for a year, the idea seemed to work, so we grew it from there when we got more acts involved and slowly more venues. We soon had the belief it worked as a model that could work for many shows and be a viable alternative.

Fairly soon it was clear we couldn't work with Peter, so decided to go it alone and do our own thing. We both essentially are trying to get to the same end by different routes, so we left him to do his thing and continued to grow what we had been doing, and have got to where we are today.

What does it mean for performers?

It means performers don't have to pay the high costs usually associated with doing the Fringe; they can get a good level of income from the collections, and generally get bigger audiences to perform to. All that while still getting the benefits of being part of the Fringe - industry and professional exposure to further careers, and the experience and benefits of performing daily for a month.

The Fringe is an amazing experience for performers, but it should be fair to them.

What's the difference between Laughing Horse's Free Festival and other 'free' show organisers at the festival?

We operate venues in a similar, but lower-scale way to paid venues, which leaves us close to the way the Pay-What-You-Want venues operate, rather than the other main free operator PBH. Frankenstein's and The Nightcap are other independent free venues that operate in a similar way to us too.

We supply the tech set-up, signage, PR and organising - everything that's needed to run the venues - investing more each year into upgrading things with a desire that free shows and venues should be on a level pegging with paid shows. Our hub venues have tech and PR people on hand, and we're there to ensure things run smoothly technically.

We believe the performers should concentrate on what they're there for - putting on and producing their shows - and that free venues aspire to be as good and as professional as possible, more like the paid venues.

PBH Free is more of a performers' collective, where the performers do it themselves, build their own venues, find their own equipment and bring it with them and put it all together themselves - rather than just doing their shows, they have to do everything else.

You see a lot more table lamps lighting stages than spotlights and lighting panels. They also have a lot of rooms that aren't separate performance spaces - something that's an absolute must for shows. You can't put a show on in a bar full of people not there for a show. That's not a venue - it's a pub!

We have a very easy, honest and upfront system - you pay a contribution, and that gives you everything we say we do, and we're totally upfront about the costs of this. Performers pay us a small contribution up front (£100 per show for a full run this year). With PBH Free performers are told it's free until the end, where there is always a chance to make "voluntary" contributions.

The contribution has enabled us to considerably upgrade our services, for example new lighting panels, LED spotlights that help shows and the environment, expanded mixers, new technology at venues, tech and Front of House staff in some locations to aid big performances. It's the professional approach, which free shows should aspire to, not make-do-and-mend. And it's how PWYW and paid work on varying scales - using the income to invest and improve.

One thing that's very important for us is that we're also part of the main Fringe, exactly like all the paid venues and PWYW venues - all our shows are part of the main programme to get all that provides, and all the services the Fringe has to offer. You benefit from being part of it and the continued success of the Fringe benefits from you being part of it.

You don't miss out on the professional opportunities the Fringe offers: industry attention, reviews, awards judges, and audiences gained just from flyering people who are around on the back of Fringe and other venues advertising.

Who can take part in the Free Festival?

Anyone. It's open access just like the Fringe itself - and we have all genres of performance.

Though for our own venues we do programme shows in an application process, so we look at what shows we think fit us and the venues best. We do occasionally have shows approach us with their own venues, which we're happy to include, and have had venues be programmed by others.

This is in fact how Heroes Of Fringe started - as part of Free Festival, and growing out of this to eventually do their own thing with Pay what you want.

When do people start applying for venues?

Late December/early January.

How much would one of the top venues set a performer back during the festival?

It costs performers £100 to put a show on for the full fringe with us whichever venue - from the large venues with full spec, to the smaller rooms. On top of that, they pay their Fringe programme entry and need to pay for their own advertising, plus anything else they need for the show.

So even if someone was to have a successful run at a paid venue, they'd still be taking a huge financial hit?

In most cases, yes. The paid venues charge a large guarantee to performers, so they're paying the venue a minimum of thousands of pounds - even if they don't get much of an audience in.

Add on top of that the extra advertising shows need to get audience, the costs to get into the big venues, programmes, and the cut taken from ticket prices by the Fringe, venue ticketing etc. It's very difficult for acts to cover costs and make money, and leads to the often quoted figure of shows costing £6,000+.

Of course, some shows outside of the "TV name" do make money, but you're certainly doing very well if you do. In many cases this loss is balanced by future work, career development etc.; in even more cases it isn't.

Is there any kind of support provided for people who are new to performing at the Fringe?

We supply a constant stream of advice through the year for our performers. The Fringe itself supplies a lot of information online, and through info sessions. During the Fringe they offer support through events at Fringe Central and info sessions like Meet the Media to help promote and sell shows, and to put your show to producers, promoters and the arts industry. One of the big benefits of being part of the Fringe!

Do you need to have an agent/PR to do a run at the Free Festival?

No, and most don't - but a PR can certainly help, particularly if an act isn't the best at admin and chasing the industry, reviewers and the career advancement side of things the Fringe offers.

Do you think there's a strong community feel to the Free Fringe? Artists being encouraging for audiences to see other shows at their venue?

Most definitely, and we encourage this.

Shows help each other out to reduce costs, and cross-promote and, generally, the performers feel like they are all in it together to make their shows, their room and their venue succeed.

There's no competition for audiences as generally crowds are big - so shows aren't desperate to get every one possible person in like in a paid venue. It's definitely collaborative for the acts, and they all feel part of something they can work together on.

What's the benefit for audiences?

Audiences can now get out and consume a huge amount of the arts, without it costing a fortune. Back in 2004/5, when we started, people couldn't do that - there was a limited choice of what to see, as ticket costs were so high.

Now people can see lots of free shows, and as a side effect, paid venues have had to offer better value tickets to compete as well.

Arts are now accessible to all in Edinburgh, not just those that can afford £10-£15 tickets, and people can get out and enjoy shows all day.

Show ask for donations, but we encourage shows not to stress if people don't contribute. The shows are very much for people who can't normally afford the arts to see them as well. It's very much a philosophy of ours that everyone gets something out of it - the performers, the audiences and the venues, as well as others. It's win-win all round!

We also usually have a charity we support - we host a food bank at the end of the Fringe for performers to donate leftovers to the local community that need it rather than being thrown away (an idea from one of our performers, Simon Caine), and a lot of small change from performers' collections is distributed to the homeless.

The Free Festival can't be cheap to run - how is it funded?

In the most part, the £100 contributions from shows - many of these add up to a reasonable budget to keep things going. We're also very frugal with reusing equipment and items each year as much as possible, while also investing and upgrading to better equipment.

We also take advertising and sponsorship, and our venues help and support us a lot. The Laughing Horse runs its Pick of the Fringe show, and the collections for these go back into running the whole thing.

Any companies out there want to sponsor and help us do more? Get in touch!

Many shows have already been announced for the Free Fringe, with the full programme being launched at the end of May.

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From This Author Natalie O'Donoghue

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