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A Fringe full of ventures Part 1: Freestival

By | Published on Tuesday 5 August 2014

Alex Marion

Whilst widely regarded as the biggest cultural festival of them all, the Edinburgh Fringe is also a significant forum for cultural entrepreneurialism.

Behind the scenes, alongside the hundreds of producers and production teams making the shows you all see happen, are a community of culturally-minded business people pursing their own Fringe ventures, whether those be venues, mini-festivals, show strands, awards, media, apps and so on. In much the same way the Fringe encourages anyone with a show to perform, it likewise welcomes anyone with a Fringe business initiative to pursue. Some fail. Some succeed. Some become Fringe institutions.

This is another reason why the Fringe is so exciting, and why so many innovative and inspiring things happen here. Though it’s also why the festival can be so confusing. And why the Fringe sometimes feels like a festival of festivals (within the wider Edinburgh Festival, which is already a festival of festivals). Plus sometimes these new ventures officially ally with the Fringe Society, other times they sit on the edge, on the fringe of the Fringe if you like.

Also, because there is no such thing as a completely original idea, most new Fringe business ventures are similar to and compete with existing Fringe business ventures. Sometimes to the annoyance of the existing players, though the Fringe is all about competition, and most new initiatives have some distinguishing features from what went before, serving the needs of a different kind of performer or a different kind of punter, or just taking things down a slightly different route.

It’s because of this process that the Fringe now boasts not one, not two, but three free show strands. It’s no secret that there have been some tensions between the Free Fringe and the Free Festival over the years, since the latter spun off from the former, after free show pioneer Peter Buckley Hill parted company with the Laughing Horse team, who collaborated on the Free Fringe for a while.

The latest free show strand, the Freestival, has also spun out of the Free Fringe, creating some new tensions earlier this year. Though ultimately – whatever frustrations may occur, whatever allegations may emerge – ambitious and entrepreneurial creative people launching their own business ventures, and providing new competition, is as much part of the Fringe as flyering on the Mile, discovering the next big stand-up, premiering a new play and moaning about the weather.

The Freestival’s Alex Marion (pictured) is very open about the circumstances that led to the launch of the Fringe’s newest free show strand.

“After years of collective experience at the free end of the Fringe, a group of us started thinking about how we could do things a little differently” he says, “to enhance the experience for acts and audience alike. One thing lead to another and we approached Peter Buckley Hill with some ideas for changes to the Free Fringe model. This seemed logical as most of us had worked with PBH Free Fringe for years, some of us very closely and very hard. Peter saw it differently and told us we should start our own free organisation. So we did”.

Though, Marion is keen to add, “there has never been, and never will be, any animosity towards PBH on our part. We wish the Free Fringe well, and all its performers are welcome to perform on our stages”. And Marion reckons that, whatever may have been said in the past, one crucial thing links all three of the free show strands together. “We all believe passionately that access to the arts for public and performers should not be limited to those who can afford to spend a small fortune” he says.

On where the three free groupings differ, though, he tells us: “The differences are small but crucial. The Free Fringe is run according to Peter’s ethos and depends on the collaborative efforts of all concerned in terms of running the venues, fund-raising and donations. Laughing Horse’s Free Festival is more business-like in the sense that it takes all the organisational load off the acts’ shoulders and focuses on key hub venues to showcase its acts and draw traffic, and they do it very well”.

He adds: “Both of these have grown very large and this is where Freestival comes in. Our belief is that unfettered growth inevitably dilutes the quality of shows on offer. We think that by remaining small and carefully curating our programme we can come as close as possible on the Fringe to guaranteeing quality shows for the audience”.

Though, he does note, the Freestival is not totally alone in presenting a tighter programme of free shows, pointing out that Bob Slayer’s Heroes strand – which has emerged out of the Free Festival in recent years – is doing something very similar. “And Bob has found a middle way by offering free shows where seats can be guaranteed in advance with a payment” he adds.

Despite being brand new, and smaller than its competitors, the all new Freestival has arrived with quite a fanfare thanks to sponsorship from pizza sellers La Favorita, helping to fund venue costs and a big marketing campaign. “We met La Favorita and they liked our model”, Marion explains. “They felt it mirrored their own commitment to quality and to supporting the arts and Edinburgh through the Fringe”.

On the inaugural Freestival programme itself Marion says of the shows that feature, “we watched every video, read every CV, and made collective decisions and built a programme filled with acts that we believe in 100%”. And as for the future he concludes, “we aim to learn from every mistake, enjoy working with amazing performers in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and keep doing what we set out to do, keeping small, getting better at all the time”.

LINKS: www.freestival.co.uk