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The Free Fringe Performer: Nick Doody

By | Published on Sunday 17 June 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time, comedian Nick Doody, who now performs as part of the Free Fringe each August.

In the two decades ThreeWeeks has been covering the Edinburgh Festival, the emergence of the free show strands has been a big development.

The Free Fringe and Free Festival run an assortment of venues around Edinburgh, mainly in pubs and clubs. Whereas performers often have to pay significant rental fees to stage shows at the bigger Fringe venues – which mean they risk losing quite a lot of money, even if things go well – venue overheads are kept to the absolute minimum with the free show strands, greatly reducing the upfront costs paid by performers.

Rather than selling tickets ahead of each show, performers make money by encouraging audience members to put money in a bucket at the end of the performance. For some comedians, this alternative approach to doing the Fringe has proven to be much more lucrative.

TW favourite Nick has staged shows at both the big comedy venues and on the Free Fringe, opting for the latter approach in more recent years. We find out why he prefers the Free Fringe and how performers can make free shows really work.

CC: You have done both paid-for and free shows at the Fringe. What first drew you to the Free Fringe?
ND: Well, the attraction of putting on a show without incurring thousands of pounds in overheads and probable losses are pretty obvious. And in the end it was mainly that that drew me to the Free Fringe: ie the balance sheet.

If you’re not filling rooms of over about 125 every night, you likely lose money on the – what shall we call it? – the ‘paid Fringe’. It needs its own official name to differentiate it from the Free Fringe, doesn’t it? The Expensive Fringe, maybe!

My first solo hour on the Expensive Fringe sold out every night and we put on an extra show in a larger room, yet I still owed money at the end of it. That’s hard to swallow, both financially and morale-wise.

CC: So it’s true that – as a comedian – you can make more money putting on a show in the Free Fringe than with a paid-for show at one of the bigger comedy venues?
ND: Yes, but that’s completely uncontroversial. If you only made £1 every show, that would still be far, far more profitable overall than doing a 60-seater at the Pleasance! It all depends on scale, though. Once you are in profit at a big paid-for venue, it can really add up. So if you’re selling out the big purple cow for the whole festival, you’re raking it in on a scale the Free Fringe probably couldn’t compete with. But the names who can do that are few.

CC: The Free Fringe and Free Festival are both really well established at the Edinburgh Fringe and are really popular. But do you feel there is ever a stigma attached to a free show rather than a paid-for show?
ND: I don’t know. Maybe with some punters – the type who’ve just come in drunk for something to look at, for example – but that’s not the impression I tend to get.

In general, a good show is a good show, and regular Festival-goers will have had wonderful Free Fringe experiences and godawful ones that cost them £20 a ticket. Plus as you say, the idea of free shows is well established at the Edinburgh Festival now, so people are very used to the idea that some of them can be great.

CC: Do you have to do any extra work when you stage a free show, compared to if you hired a paid-for venue? If so, what is that extra work?
ND: My only experiences of doing free shows have been with the PBH Free Fringe, which entails certain responsibilities, like looking after the door for the previous and next shows, and flyering the previous show’s audience as they come out. Other than that, it’s all the same workload as doing an Expensive Fringe show – flyers, posters, publicity, actually writing the thing…

CC: It feels like there is a real Free Fringe community. Would you agree? How can that help?
ND: Yes, I think so. In particular, the other free shows in the same venue can be very helpful. In a previous year, a bunch of us in the same room negotiated some changes with the landlord of the pub the room was in. That felt very cooperative and satisfying.

CC: Not asking for any money upfront obviously gives any free show an advantage over a ten pound ticket show, but then there are lots of free shows to compete with. How can you make your show stand out?
ND: Having a good flyering technique, generating some word of mouth and gratuitous nudity.

CC: Is it harder getting press into free shows? If so, does that matter?
ND: In my experience, yes, it can be difficult to get press in – not that a paid-for venue guarantees they’ll come, either. The reason, supposedly, is that because the shows aren’t ticketed, they can’t get a press ticket, which means they can’t guarantee getting in.

Whether that matters depends on what you’re after. Last year I didn’t get a single review, and that’s happened to me twice doing the Free Fringe. A little dispiriting, admittedly, but I still had a show at the end of it.

If you make it all about press and awards and so forth, you’re giving other people an awful lot of power over you. There are great reasons to do a show in itself, especially for a comic.

CC: Many Free Fringe performers find clever ways of encouraging people to put money in the bucket at the end of the show. How much should you incorporate ‘the bucket’ into the act?
ND: That is entirely up to you. Some people murmur something inaudible, gesturing awkwardly towards a bucket, and some people have a big speech prepared. I might do it as a song this year.

CC: Is that asking for cash thing tricky when you first start doing free shows?
ND: It’s not something you look forward to at first, but those reservations disappear pretty quickly. It’s actually incredibly honest and straightforward: they’re paying you directly for an hour’s entertainment.

That kind of direct transaction is pretty rare these days. There’s no middle man and they know that their money won’t go to propping up Third World dictators (unless that is how you choose to spend it).

CC: Any tips for getting people to put more money in the bucket?
ND: Do a great show! Failing that, incorporate a lot of material about how difficult you’re finding it to feed your children.

CC: Tell us about this year’s show.
ND: It’s about me facing the challenge of writing material suitable for a PG-type audience. However, the show ends up [REDACTED AS UNSUITABLE FOR A FAMILY PUBLICATION LIKE THREEWEEKS]

CC: It’s your tenth full-hour show at the Fringe. How has performing at the Festival changed since you did your first full-hour show?
ND: The hangovers take longer to get over. Edinburgh 2015’s hangover is just starting to clear now. Actually, the emergence and growth of the Free Fringe is probably the biggest change in that time. It’s made performing at the Fringe accessible again in a way that was starting to die out.

CC: You are going on tour supporting Dave Gorman after the Festival. I guess that is the opposite to Edinburgh – rather than organising everything, you just show up each night and be funny. Is that a relief after a month of multi-tasking?
ND: Ha, you’d think so, but since the last tour, both Dave and I have moved out of London, and in different directions – me North, him South. So the logistics of everyone actually getting to the tour venues might be… interesting, let’s say.

Edinburgh might be a slog, but at least your venue stays in the same place. With tours, the travel is the exhausting part, and it doesn’t always make much sense, geographically. Last tour, we did St Albans twice, but not on consecutive nights.

CC: Other than Edinburgh and that tour, what other projects do you have in the pipeline?
ND: Like all comedians, I have a podcast. I’ve started doing one with Carey Marx. It’s called ‘Citizens Of Nowhere’ and is about us trying to negotiate sensitive issues of the day while not fitting into tribes, which often means we have opinions we’re slightly afraid to air online.

Also, improbably, I’m writing – and terrifyingly soon due to deliver! – a chess book with a friend of mine who’s a Grandmaster. So maybe I’m finally about to find my unique little niche.

Nick Doody performed ‘PG’ as part of PBH’s Free Fringe at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

LINKS: nickdoody.com