Fringe on benefits: How the credit-crunch is hitting the Edinburgh Festival

Heard the one about the comedian who played Edinburgh and ended up £15,000 out of pocket? Veronica Lee reveals how the crunch is hitting the Fringe – and why that might mean rich pickings for culture vultures
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The Independent Culture

Fringe Sunday has been cancelled, as have the opening and closing parties for performers; the Cavalcade has been greatly cut back; there is a dearth of sponsors; and, heaven forfend, Soho House will no longer be providing free champagne for its members staying north of the border during festival time. The recession is certainly having an effect on what is being called the credit-crunch Fringe, which gets under way in Edinburgh next weekend.

But if things are looking grim for the world's biggest arts festival, new chief executive Kath Mainland is putting a brave face on it. She was appointed following the resignation of Jon Morgan after just one year in the job, in the wake of 2008's ticketing fiasco, when a new box-office system failed disastrously: people didn't receive tickets they had paid for, and tickets for some shows were sold twice over. The furore attracted acres of negative publicity for the Fringe Society and necessitated a £250,000 public bailout.

Yet, says Mainland: "I'm cautiously optimistic about what will happen this year, as all indications are that people are staying at home rather than travelling abroad, and Edinburgh has so much to offer. Nowhere else can you get this range of culture in one place at one time. We were very much heartened that the Fringe brochure is just as full this year."

Performers may want to come, but sponsors don't seem so keen. The Edinburgh Comedy Festival – launched last year at the "big four" Fringe venues of the Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly – still doesn't have a sponsor; Assembly has lost its beer backer, Belhaven; and the rebranded Edinburgh Comedy Awards (formerly the Perriers and latterly the if.comeddies) don't, at the time of writing, have one at all. It seems a poor omen but, says Mainland, "Sponsorships do come to an end."

One wouldn't expect anything but soothing words from a chief executive in difficult times – yet others are also optimistic. Advance sales across the Edinburgh festivals, including the International, are holding up, say the organisers, and comedian Stephen K Amos, a long-time Fringe favourite, concurs: "My advance sales, and those of a lot of comics I've spoken to, are very healthy; people just want to have fun, and Edinburgh has a lot to offer."

His show at the Pleasance, The Feelgood Factor, couldn't be more timely as an antidote to continuing economic and political turmoil, but the comic doesn't claim any prescience. "I wish I could say I saw the signals of all that has happened in the past year, but I didn't. Actually, because a lot of people said my 2008 show made them feel better about life, I thought I'd do one about keeping a positive outlook when so much depressing news is around."

Independent producer James Seabright of Festival Highlights also describes his mood as "cautiously optimistic". He has 18 theatre and comedy shows at the Fringe and has, bravely, not downsized any – one production, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (at the Musical Theatre in George Square), has, by Fringe standards, a whopping company of 12, plus musicians. He has tracked his shows' advance ticket sales against last year's and, although they are marginally down, he says: "It doesn't surprise me, because we have found with our touring shows that people are booking later as they are less willing to plan ahead in uncertain times." Overall, festival ticket sales are down on this point last year, but holding steady against previous years.

Seabright has noticed one silver lining in the downtown: he has paid about £30,000 for accommodation for his performers, the single cost that has stabilised. "Normally, there's a year-on-year rise for rentals," he says, "but I think people in Edinburgh know they can't justify an increase when mortgage rates are at an all-time low."

Any financial relief is welcome; shows can cost several thousand pounds to stage, and many performers lose from £5,000 to £15,000: everything comes out of their, or their producers', pocket – travel, accommodation, subsistence, press, marketing, inclusion in the Fringe and venue brochures, while anything from 10 to 15 per cent of takings goes to management or show promoters.

The real killer, though, is the "box-office split", where venues take up to 40 per cent of ticket sales or are on a guaranteed fee for "space rental", regardless of how many (or few) people walk through the door – and the venues charge extra for technicians or, as one performer drolly told me, "an old untuned piano left on stage". Venues are rarely left out of pocket, but even those performers who sell out their run will probably take home less than half the box-office takings – although, as Seabright points out, the venues do have year-round costs for something that attracts income for only one month.

What does this mean for this year's visitors, who have seen a big, regular, free event such as Fringe Sunday cancelled? Well, others are doing their bit to keep costs down for audiences – see box, right – but will their efforts make for a happy Fringe? Maybe. Edinburgh has contracted this year, and even the relentlessly positive Amos adds a note of caution: "If they're paying £10 or £15 for a ticket, people will play safe with someone they know, then maybe take a risk on something in the Free Festival," he says. "So the big names will do well but the smaller companies and emerging talent might feel the squeeze."

And as Free Fringe inventor Peter Buckley Hill warns: "Because of last year's events and the current economic situation, this is a make or break year. We hope the audiences come, but if they don't, the purpose of the Fringe will be questioned – which is unimaginable."

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (www. edfringe.com) runs from Friday to 31 August; The Edinburgh International Festival (www. eif.co.uk) runs from 14 August to 6 September. Phil King, who is presenting a new play at the Fringe, is blogging about the festival at independent.co.uk/life-on-the-fringe

The Festival on a budge: Get your money's worth

The World Is Too Much

Leading playwrights including David Greig and Zinnie Harris will be contributing to an early-morning season of short dramas. Plus free coffee and bacon butties!11-30 August, Traverse Theatre (0131 228 1404)

The Underbelly

Just £6.50 for 98 per cent of its shows on Mondays and Tuesdays, including poetry star Luke Wright (right). 6-31 August, The Underbelly (0844 5458 252)

Frank Skinner's Credit Crunch Cabaret

Skinner brings his acclaimed West End show north of the border: 90 minutes for just £10. 14-30 August, Assembly @ George Street (0131 226 0003)

The Enlightenments

The visual-arts programme at this year's International festival, reflecting on the Enlightenment, won't set you back a penny.

7 August-26 September, Dean, Collective and Talbot Rice galleries (0131 473 2099)

Al Murray

The Pub Landlord performs material from his Perrier-nominated and winning shows from 1996-1999; at just £5 a pop, he's rolling back the prices too. 26-29 August, Pleasance Courtyard (0131 556 6550)

Pappy's Fun Club's World Record Attempt: 200 Sketches In An Hour

Comedy fans get bang for their buck with this London troupe's breathless show. 5-31 August, Pleasance Courtyard (as above)

The Free Fringe

Inviting audiences to pay as much – or as little – as they want, the "Fringe's fringe" has expanded to 22 venues. 8-30 August, various venues ( www.freefringe.org.uk)

The Stand

There is no better refuge for comics than Tommy Shepherd's comedy club, which hands its performers the entire box-office takings. This year's acts include Stewart Lee. 2-31 August, The Stand (0131 558 7272)

Blow Up: The Credit Crunch Musical

Song-and-dance response to the financial meltdown. Could be a blast, though we can smell the whiff of comic desperation. 6-28 August, The GRV (0131 220 2987)

Suckerville

A multimedia piece refracting today's meltdown through the prism of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. 6-31 August, C Cubed Main Space (0845 260 1234)

Hugh Montgomery

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