Geraldine Hickey decided that if she ever came back to Edinburgh, she was going to do it properly. By the end of her four-week Fringe Festival run in 2008, she says, “I felt like I was drowning … It’s the loneliest I’ve felt in my entire life.”
It is late July, and the comedian is telling me about her first experience performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. She shared a rented room – and a bed – with another comedian. She was paid only what cash her audience dropped into the bucket she passed around after every show. “I’d be like, come on, I’ve come all the way from Australia! Put in a £5 note!” she recalls with exasperation.
Fifteen years later, with a Melbourne International Comedy Festival best show award and a large management company behind her, Hickey is revisiting Edinburgh with her show Of Course We’ve Got Horses. “I’m in a privileged position now because I make money doing comedy. This time I won’t have that stress of needing to make a profit.”
Hickey is one of 128 Australian acts this year taking part in the glorious crapshoot that is the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. It seems like a heroic act of faith for any performer to pit their talents against 3000 other acts (yes, 3000), but for many Australian comedians, spending August in Edinburgh is a rite of passage.
Enough Australians have broken through at EdFringe to make the dream feel achievable. In 1994, Lano and Woodley won the Perrier award for the best comedy show of the festival and were offered a television series on the strength of it. Tim Minchin’s debut in 2005 is legendary; after winning best newcomer, his career went gangbusters.
So much about succeeding at EdFringe depends on luck: venue location, performance time, whether a reviewer bothers to turn up… But these days, performers need more than luck: they also need plenty of cash.
Besides airfares, registration fees, venue fees and marketing costs, it is Edinburgh’s prohibitively expensive accommodation that is the real killer of dreams. The cost-of-living crisis, recent changes to the city’s accommodation laws and sheer economic opportunism mean it’s not uncommon for landlords to charge up to £8000 ($15,700) for a two-bedroom flat for the month of August.
The original spirit of EdFringe – the idea that absolutely anyone can put on a show – is now at odds with current economic reality.
Every year, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival offers financial support to its RAW Comedy, Best Newcomer and Pinder Prize winners to help get them to Edinburgh, and it works with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support tours by some Australian artists. Most Australian comedians are on their own, though, relying on fundraisers, savings or loans.
Will Tredinnick is a physical comedian based in Broome, where he works in community theatre. He has no manager and his producer is his partner. He tells me he’s spending up to $15,000 of his own money bringing his show Table for Two? to Edinburgh.
He’s managed to find student accommodation and is forgoing a publicist, which he says would cost him at least another $5000. Instead, he’s employing “guerilla marketing” tactics, such as handing out flyers on the street. He’s relying on his venue – one of the coveted “big four ” – to help attract audiences, despite his show being on at 12.20pm. “I think my best shot as an independent artist, relatively unknown in Australia and not known at all overseas, is through the venue,” he says.
One way for comedians to mitigate costs is to perform at a Free Fringe venue. The Free Fringe is an initiative started by a group of independent venues in 1996. Performers don’t have to pay a venue fee, but in turn they can’t charge for their show. Punters are invited to donate however much they think the show is worth (like Hickey’s bucket).
Tom Ballard, a Best Newcomer nominee at his first EdFringe in 2015, is bringing his show It Is I to a venue that is operating on a variation of the Free Fringe principle. His tickets are a modest £10 ($19.60) when booked online – the biggest British acts were charging double that amount – or potentially free if people turn up on the night.
The space he will perform in is a small, hot basement, but he doesn’t mind. “There’s a kind of magic to Edinburgh in that your room doesn’t have to be amazing. The fact that you’re squished into these weird little sections of the city is kind of cool.”
Anna Piper Scott can thank another artist-centred economic model for her appearance at this year’s EdFringe. She was originally offered a space by one of the big four venues for her show, Such an Inspiration, after a scout saw one of her shows in Adelaide.
“This is my first year as a full-time performer … and it’s paying off, but I’m still living from gig to gig,” says Piper Scott. “My producer and I put a budget together and estimated it’d be $20,000 to $30,000 to do it properly.”
She reluctantly declined the offer. Two days later, she was approached by House of Oz, an organisation founded by the Australian barrister and arts patron Georgie Black to showcase Australian talent at the festival.
The offer involves House of Oz underwriting all her costs (seven other Australian acts are also recipients). She even receives a wage. “The only expense I’ve had is passport renewal,” she says, clearly aware of her good fortune.
Edinburgh feels overwhelmingly chaotic when I arrive in the last week of August. It’s noisy: shouty street performers, rumbling buses and more bagpipes than you’d expect. The air smells yeasty. I navigate a seething river of pedestrians in my search for the comedians I’ve interviewed. I want to see how they’re holding up.
Hickey, who’s performing in a converted shipping container, admits it’s been a roller-coaster ride. She’s had a couple of sellout shows, “but if I was talking to you last week, I’d be crying,” she says. “My mantra’s always been ‘run your own race’. But here it’s like all the other runners are way faster and as they go past they’re all slapping you in the face.”
It sounds like a humbling experience, but Hickey says that’s a good thing: she believes it will make her a better comedian.
“All I know is that when I’m actually doing the show, I’m loving it. And I’ve had some amazing interactions with audience members afterwards.”
One woman approached her to say she saw Hickey’s first show in 2008, and has been checking the Fringe program every single year since, hoping she’d come back.
Hickey knows she’s not going to break even this time, but says she is definitely coming back next year. “My new mantra is ‘my audience will find me’.”
Piper Scott is already trying to work out the finances with her producer so they can do it again. “We’ve had such a sweet deal this year; we know we can’t expect the same next time.”
In the second week of the festival, she received a five-star review in The Scotsman and an offer of a gig in London. She’s still hustling for audiences, though, averaging 30 a night in a venue that can seat many more.
When I meet up with Tredinnick he is tired but cheerful, even though he’s nowhere near breaking even. As we sit chatting outside his venue, an old Scottish bloke who looks like he’s lived through a few Fringes approaches and asks Tredinnick if he is a performer. Hearing that he’s been doing his show for three weeks, the old bloke peers into his face.
“And you’re still smilin’!” He marvels. “Your eyes are still alive!”
He tells us that the Fringe has become a monster, too competitive, too focused on money. It should be about people like Tredinnick, who are doing it for the joy of it.
He says he’d talked to “a wee Aussie lassie” who had put in £20,000 ($39,200) of her own money and couldn’t get an audience. “She didn’t know what had hit her. She’s packed up and gone home.”
With this sobering thought, I go in search of Tom Ballard.
When I spoke to him in Melbourne before he left, he told me, “Every year, the festival belongs to some people and not others. The worst thing is being ignored by it.”
Ballard was not ignored this year; he’s going to make a profit, having had strong online sales and generous bucket donations. He’s exhausted, though. “This month has been a brutal reminder of just how much of a slog this thing is.” Lowlights have included the extra line-up gigs he’s been doing around town, some of which have bombed.
“One night, after having my best hour-long show of the run, I promptly went and ate shit in front of 200 people.
“But that’s the Fringe, baby!”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "To Scotland, the brave".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription