Big venues 'squeezing out the spirit of Edinburgh Fringe'

The head of Edinburgh's most prestigious comedy awards has warned that the "spirit of the Fringe" is in danger of being lost because of the attention given to the festival's largest venues.

Nica Burns, the producer of the if.comedy awards – formerly the Perrier awards – has ruffled feathers by criticising the "big four" venues which put on about 30 per cent of all comedy performances at the Fringe.

She says more attention should be given to the other comedy shows, including the 300 free events, as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful theatre, dance, performing arts and children's events that still make up the majority of the festival.

"There is a divide between the professional and the amateur festival now, and the two rarely meet, but part of the fun of Edinburgh is that you have them both," said Ms Burns. "The big venues are very well run, but everyone is in their own small world when they need to look at the whole mix.

"The four venues sell almost 50 per cent of tickets, but are a world away from shows like the American High School performances. The Edinburgh Comedy Festival is just [marketing the shows that] they always have, and the Edinburgh Fringe has been there since 1947, so how can they call it that? It is the mix that makes it a fabulous experience.

"There have been comments that Edinburgh is too much about trade, but let's not forget that there are 247 venues, not just four; lots of one-man bands that are just as important. Everyone else is just as important as we [the professionals] think we are, although we go around thinking we are the most important people in the world. The Fringe is about everything.

"Someone from one of the venues complained to me that there is juggling and face painting in the Fringe brochure, but this range is a vital part of the Fringe: everybody owns the Festival."

Ms Burns said venue owners, promoters and reviewers needed to remember the amateur element was vital to the "spirit of the Fringe". She also criticised the branding of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, asking the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly venues to change its name because she felt the name "Edinburgh" belongs to all acts, not just the paid-for, professional ones.

Tommy Sheppard, the director of The Stand comedy clubs, said the four venues' "Comedy Festival" was "a slap in the face", adding: "They are acting as a cartel and trying to monopolise the Fringe and sponsorship. The four venues are making the Fringe look divided when the main thing we are trying to do is present a coherent, united front to get the city council and government to support the festival."

Ms Burns added that the Fringe director, Jon Morgan, needs to raise his public profile in response to Thundering Hooves, a major report on Edinburgh's festivals warning that their world-famous position could be threatened by other events if they "rest on their laurels". She said: "They should front the Fringe to the international marketplace against Sydney, against Australia and Canada – selling the idea of the Fringe abroad. It is an advocacy role, about having a public profile, marketing the Fringe as a whole, not just by a few individuals.

"Edinburgh needs to compete with upstart festivals promoting their countries, and it seems to me that a festival worth £75m should be supported more by Edinburgh. The Fringe Society and director should be empowered to go out and sell the Fringe internationally, but they are quite under-resourced."

William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of the Assembly Rooms, defended the new Edinburgh Comedy Festival: "I believe in saying what's on the tin, and we are in comedy and celebrating the festival. Unless we find a title sponsor, we are likely to continue with the name. I think the greatest thing in Edinburgh is the spectrum from first performers to professionals, and we should all call ourselves different strands of simply the Edinburgh Festival."

Mr Morgan said: "My only concern is that there is a diverse mix of stuff, comedy and theatre, economic and uneconomic, so that audiences can have a completely different experience. You can choose your own totally idiosyncratic route through the Fringe."

But he agreed that he and his organisation could do more to promote the Fringe internationally: "There are things we could do, capitalising on how the Fringe is loved, and maximising that."

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