It’s awards season at Funny Women and I’ve spent the last week or so marking comedians new, and not so new, as they perform on heats via Zoom in the hope of making it to the Stage Award semi-finals. Now, it makes perfect sense that you would be most interested in the acts who make it through to the next round, or the comedian who wins. But actually, I’m most intrigued by the acts who I put this little note next to “next year”. If you need that code cracking it means I think the act isn’t quite ready yet, but I see great potential and I’d be excited to see them in the heats next year and see how they’ve developed as a comedian.
This also goes for Work in Progress (WiP) shows, I love seeing WiPs and I love seeing the finished product months or even years later. Why am I telling you this? Well, recently a journalist wrote about the return of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in The Edinburgh Evening News, in the article a number of perfectly valid points are made and then, right at the end, this clanger is casually dropped: “I’ve also noticed a number of ‘work in progress’ offerings this year. Having had the best part of two years to get a show together, I find charging for a ‘work in progress’ an anathema.”
Let’s return to the more valid point made, in order to bring us neatly back to that clanger. The Fringe this year is much depleted, in 2019 almost 4000 live shows were listed, this year, pinging allowing, and discounting live streams, 428 live shows are set to take place. So far, so mathematical.
I don’t think I’m saying anything groundbreaking when I say by 2019 the Fringe was getting rather bloated and the writer of this article feels similarly, suggesting 2000 shows would make a nice round number. It would certainly be more pleasant for the Edinburgh residents, more manageable for the reviewers, and easier for the comedians performing to create a buzz around their show and achieve the main goal of the Fringe, which is to win recognition (if not awards) that will tip you over the edge into TV/Radioland and justify the thousands of pounds spent as a ‘career investment’ rather than… crippling debt in pursuit of a comedy dream.
Quite how one would skim a couple of thousand shows off the programme is skipped over, the reader is simply advised not to waste time on a show they aren’t enjoying, “…the Fringe lacks quality control – don’t be afraid to leave if you’re unlucky enough to pick a dud. You don’t get the time back, ever.”
Those of us who have been fortunate to attend comedy fringe festivals have all attended a ‘dud’ show, it does create a sensation of feeling trapped. It’s buttock-clenchingly awful, a dud show will unfailingly trigger your bladder to inform you it’s brimful and your stomach to inform you it’s empty. I can imagine something worse though. Imagine having to perform a dud. AT A FRINGE FESTIVAL. Forced, like some kind of comedy Sisyphus to perform that dud again and again for eternity/until August finally ends because, well, you’ve spent the money now. Because a few months ago you loved this show. Because maybe you’ll crack it tomorrow. The least an audience member can do is suck it up for an hour and maybe work it into a bitchy anecdote. As a reviewer, the least I can do is write nothing because no one can use “fucking lamentable” as a quote.
There’s a good way to avoid said dud though. It takes time and it takes money but it’s the only tried and tested way of getting a good show and that is (wait for it…) the Work in Progress. It’s the only way to find out if your ideas are clear, your jokes funny, and, uh, if you can remember 50 minutes worth of material. Now, I realise the writer is not against WiPs per se. However, I’d like to use this opportunity to briefly tell you why I love them, in list form.
They can be absolutely wild – Sometimes to work a concept out you have to dial it to 11 before finding the setting an audience can get behind, usually a seven. Or it doesn’t work at all and often a WiP audience becomes a select group who witnessed someone try to rap for one night only.
You’re part of a creative process – Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a kernel of an idea form? Or find satisfaction in a eureka moment? Oddly a WiP is the one time a heckle (very much depending on the heckle) really can help the performer.
They give comedy insight – I am going to make the assumption that you are reading this because you are a comedy enthusiast, if not a comedian. Attending WiPs is a great way to learn about the comedy process of a comic you admire and aspire to be like. It might sound like schadenfreude but you can learn from other comic’s failures and so can they.
I find it confusing why the writer thinks the acts who are bringing WiPs up to Edinburgh this year have had two years to work on their shows.
I’d like to know exactly which venues he thinks they should have taken their WiPs during the various lockdowns.
I’d like him to remember that the comedians are people susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and may have been ill for a long time.
I’d like him to consider that shows are an absolute money-suck and with live comedy out the window for most of the past 18 months many comedians had to turn to other work to make money to support themselves, perhaps their families and yes, the WiPs they’re taking to Edinburgh.
I’d like him to consider how the acts have had to decide and then commit to their take on the general public’s attitude to the pandemic, should they spend months writing a satirical hour about vaccines or an hour of silly escapism?
The fact people have a WiP to take up at all is something to be praised.
With regard to the conundrum of whether or not an audience should pay to see WiPs, I ask those who are gainfully employed this; do you ever have planning meetings at work? Have you ever been given the opportunity to try an idea out at work that ended up going nowhere, or maybe even failing? For that matter, do you ever go to the toilet at your office, ON COMPANY TIME? Do you still get paid?
The clue is in the name, it’s work. It’s just not finished yet. But if you don’t support live comedy with your time and money this year then it really will be finished.
So to the comedians out there who are working on new ideas, trying out new concepts, devices or characters I say WiP it, WiP it good.