As I have said (so much that it looks like I am lying BUT I AM NOT) I am glad to be taking a break from the Fringe this year and suspect that missing it will now be the norm for the next few years anyway. I still love the event though and my thoughts are with the people up there, getting their shows up and running now and full of hope.
And if you’re up there or thinking of going up in the future, it’s very much worth reading this blog by the stupidly hard-working Robin Ince
(who I first met and worked with at the Fringe in 1993). So much of the mentality of the Fringe performer is geared to short-term success: good reviews, prize nomination, TV commission, that it’s sobering to have both a more realistic assessment of your chances of that happening (certainly now with so many shows and a degree of professionalism that was not apparent back in the 90s). But also Robin’s career (and to some extent my own) show that short term and instantaneous success at the Fringe is not as important as taking chances, experimenting, meeting like-minded people and taking your time. Robin has never been nominated for the Edinburgh awards (not even Spirit of the Fringe which he surely exemplifies -taking chances, doing 100 performances a year, etc) but had created dozens of shows and as he says, the alliances and ideas he has developed at the Fringe have led to him achieving incredible successes (ones that might have gone unnoticed due to the stealthy nature in which they have come through), without the accolades or even (forgive me if I am wrong Robin) a single “break-through” Fringe where he was heralded as the next big thing. Whilst other acts might have had short-term successes and been nominated for the big award and then slowly or quickly disappeared from view (or taken the route to becoming a TV presenter, rather than a comedian, which seems to happen to a few, almost like comedy was never that important), Robin has put in the work, kept coming up with ideas, created shows without any obvious hook which would translate into TV (though sometimes a non-obvious hook will make for a better show, if only producers would put in the effort) and (aptly enough) evolved.
This is what the Fringe is about. Or should be, if you have real aspirations to have an inventive career, in which you come up with ideas rather than reading an autocue for a living. I am sure I will have pointed it out before, but as much as the Edinburgh award has helped launch careers, particularly in the mid-90s when the competition wasn’t so intense (in numbers of shows at least), it has also has some spectacular misses, arguably with many of the comedians who have had the biggest long-term impact. So sure, Steve Coogan, Harry Hill, The Mighty Boosh and the League of Gentlemen all got nods, but Bill Hicks, Stewart Lee, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did not. I feel like there was someone else too. Can’t think now.
But certainly for Stewart and I, the Fringe was a vital component in our eventual successes or in my case “successes”.
So I say this, just to reiterate what Robin has said in his much better blog. You might go up dreaming of awards and being discovered and as unlikely as those things are, that would be a good result. But equally what you learn, who you meet and the chances you take might be more important. You are investing time and in a lot of cases a fair amount of money and that investment is unlikely to come off in one month and might take a decade. You don’t need to spend loads though and should plan very carefully as to the right time to take the leap to make a huge financial investment. Because for everyone bemoaning the costs of the Fringe, the above names show that it can pay off and I think it’s disingenuous to think that most performers don’t go in with their eyes open - we’re all taking a bit of a gamble on ourselves and without the £40,000 I lost on the four plays I took up there in the 1990s, I would not have landed the Time Gentlemen Please job. The £45,000 I lost in 2014 is unlikely to be recouped, but I am still glad I took the punt. Because sometimes when you gamble on yourself you lose. But sometimes the gamble is a positive step anyway.
You will learn more from the fuck ups than then barnstormers anyway. And in the end, still being here is the achievement. Even if this year I’m not. And I am genuinely glad of that. I promise.