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 Post subject: Why go to Edinburgh?
PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2006 12:11 pm 
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Hi everyone. This is a piece I put on my blog but I'd be interested if anyone had any comments. It's a long read but more than happy to hear any opinions on it.


"Why go to Edinburgh?"

OK, deep breath.

Every year, lots of people ask me "why go to Edinburgh". Some of those people are non-comedy industry friends, and interviewers, who want to know what the attraction is. That's easy. As an event to be enjoyed, it's a hedonistic joy. Edinburgh is a party capital the other 11 months of the year, and like my home town of Brighton, if you can't have fun here, you aren't trying. Also, people forget that performers are also punters too. I have a huge love of comedy - it's coming up to 10 years of me doing this and on the whole it just doesn't bore me. I'm pleased with how many extra shows I have seen, and how many of those were smaller, low-key shows that were hidden gems. When you're sat in a single-figure audience watching a wonderfully performed and scripted show, you feel like it's *your* discovery.

And then my agent asks "why go to Edinburgh". Or more specifically, "why not go to Edinburgh". From a career perspective, this is my toughest shout every year. Ignoring the cost for a moment (I'll deal with that later), you have to first and foremost get some sort of perspective as to what you hope to achieve. People pitch into Edinburgh at all sorts of levels. There are the new acts, maybe in a competition or two, getting a taste for the festival, meeting the more established acts and being bitten by the bug of performing. They're doing sparsely attended late night shows for beer money, but that's OK, because that's what they do the rest of the year anyway. For these people it's pretty much a no-lose situation. Nobody is expecting anything from them, and stage time in Edinburgh can be very rewarding, as all the main agents and bookers are up here at some time. And at the new-act level, nobody can 'plan' to win a competition, so when someone like Wes Packer does, it's a massive, unexpected bonus and a huge shot in the arm for their career.

And then you have the not-so-new act, with 2 - 4 years under their belt, embarking on their first Edinburgh properly; possibly a one man show or a packaged show with other acts. I find this is where the glamour evaporates. You're not a name, and maybe your venue isn't either. So you have no choice but to do all the legwork yourself. If you're not out flyering, trying to get into the late shows, doing whatever you can to get yourself across; you can easily end up with no audience. And Edinburgh crowds can run short of sympathy if they're sat in near-empty rooms, in the sweltering heat. On top of that, you're having a crash course in what works and doesn't, and it's possibly your first time doing an hour - and it makes you feel like a brand new open spot again, having to learn that it's so much more than '3 consecutive 20's'. And you're not worrying about bad reviews, you're worrying about GETTING reviews - many shows go through the whole festival unseen by the press. It's soul destroying, and many comics never go further than this - including many established circuit regulars. But the biggest consolation at this point is that 95% of performers have experienced this and persevere, still going on to bigger and better things as a result. And at this level, you're learning at an exponential rate.

At the next level, you have the fringe regular. Someone who could have 3 or so hour shows under their belt and heads up to Edinburgh, possibly with an agenda. For the new acts above, these people appear to have a much better time; but you'll find the agendas vary wildly. For a lot of these performers, there are expectations. They could be that they will get critical recognition and with that, a small shout at a nomination - though to perform specifically to achieve this, is a hugely risky tactic as for every person who gets it, there are 10 who are 'unfairly snubbed'. As the majority of fringe comedians fall into this category, the competition for press and punters is fiercest. You may have a reputation elsewhere on the circuit, but up here all rules are reset. I remember reading a news article about 'the Dinks' a few years back, where it said, "fringe favourites Tony Law and Dan Antopolski are joined by festival newcomer Craig Campbell'. Newcomer! Astonishing stuff.

The other agendas include the basic job of promoting yourself to the wider world. I suppose part of my reasoning behind Edinburgh falls into this category. Putting the art to one side (discussed later), demonstrating to the rest of the comedy fraternity that you're perfectly capable of writing and performing a good quality hour of comedy will always elevate your standing, even if it's not commercially successful and the majority of the buzz is 'word of mouth'. It's sometimes helpful, if a little too clinical, to think of Edinburgh as a massive trade fair for comedians. Your show is a little stall at the NEC, with your product on offer, and you're hoping that the important people wandering past will suddenly take an interest and who knows where that will take you. This is why PR becomes so important - for all these points, it can be critical. The importance to a comedy career of Edinburgh is probably overstated in recent years, but look at the people who have recently made it; Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Alan Carr, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay - their Edinburgh success(es) came at a defining point in their career paths. They weren't the be-all and end-all, but they were still significant. However, Justin Lee Collins, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Rufus Hound - could all argue otherwise.

And if this is your intention, it's not just Eddie judges or reviewers that need to be impressed. The chances are that parallel industry peoples - producers, writers, promoters and the like - might pop their head in to see you too. Certainly this is where I'm concentrating this year. My mission this Edinburgh is to try and get the main international festival bookers to see me this year, and then hope the show I put in front of them was worthy of consideration. If they don't, it's not been a failure, but it's right at the top of my hitlist.

Of course, for many of us, the agenda of writing and performing a great one hour show is still the main draw. It's a huge challenge, and a massively rewarding one; when you're on song, and the audience love it, you feel so much more reward than you do in a club circuit environment. I find this buzz an exaggeration of the feeling you get after a successful 'normal' gig. If you have something you feel you need to say, or your best comedy ideas are the sorts of ideas that work best in a festival environment, this might be your spiritual comedy home. But for everyone embarking on this and not treating it liking 'an extended set', with a show that is so much more than just a string of sequential funnies, you'll find this the biggest reward, and the quality of your comedy elsewhere will only benefit.

You're still learning at this level; not just the mechanics and intricacies of an hour's show, but also, how to tackle Edinburgh. What venues, what timeslots, who to butter up, who to give a kicking, what late shows and afternoon shows will drum up a crowd for you, how to get your press to the top of the pile, and how to pace yourself... the list goes on. It's all invaluable stuff.

At this level, nobody's agenda is to make money - not even if it's with an eye to 'tour the show later'. If they tell you otherwise, it's bullshit wrapped around pride. I'll mention the money side of the fest later.

At the top level, with your Jason Byrnes, Rhod Gilberts, Mark Watsons, Reg D Hunters, Steve K Amos's, and the like, it almost comes full circle. These people have little to prove; they're the darlings of the festival and they're playing to sell-out crowds most of the time. Unless they arrive with a stinker of a show, they have nothing to lose, and they concentrate on the fun and the sheer joy at the root of all this; writing and performing an hour's show every day to an audience that has solely come to see you. Don't believe for a second that these people just pull it out of the ether though; as they'll work just as hard, if not harder, than all the people operating at the levels below them. I can't really expand on this level, as I have absolutely no first-hand experience of it. But these people still have all the same posters, flyers, press, and so forth, so they're not divorced of the leg work and slog of those people vying to become the next fringe favourite, even if they're not doing it themselves.

Back to the question "Why go to Edinburgh". This becomes a lot more pointed when a fellow perfomer poses it. For every act I know who thinks of August as the highlight of the professional calendar, there's another one who finds the prospect of doing a festival show utterly ridiculous. And they have a point. It's an expensive, emotional, and rubbish replacement for a holiday; many acts take large chunks of September off to just recover from August, and those aren't always the heavy socialisers. This is in an industry where the difference between meagre or plentiful earnings is the fact that we have to travel long distances to perform and that we don't work every day. And yet, in Edinburgh, we do at least one show every day, the gigs are on our doorstep, and yet we stare in the face of financial ruin come the bank holiday Monday. Madness.

But then, as I was talking to Alun Cochrane yesterday, he reminded me that there's a hidden depth to the process of doing Edinburgh that can re-light the internal spark of every performer. Quite aside from the fact that it can do wonderful things to your performing skills to have that much stage time in front of such demanding audiences, it gives you the perspective of a true performing artist. Whereas most of my actor friends hold the skills of a stand up in some reverance; the arts world tends to sneer at it, as a low-rent form of appeasing drunks who are too tired to go clubbing. And to a certain degree, they're right. There's not much beauty in crowd control at Jongleurs Portsmouth in July when the Ark Royal is in port.

And as an artist, you start to tear down some of the internal boundaries that you put up yourself during the rest of the year. You unlearn some rules, on what material works for what crowds. You experiment with ideas that would seem suicidal elsewhere - and when you get it right, it's magical. For this reason, Edinburgh is not just a hotbed of performing activity, it's one of huge creativity. I was only 5 days into this year's fest when my mind starting generating ideas for next year's festival show. Maybe it's the discipline of performing every day, or maybe it's the constant company of other like-minded souls, but this city is a major conduit for inventiveness. Some of my best comedy ideas I've performed all year round have come while in Edinburgh itself. It's one of the major reasons why having an Edinburgh run under your belt not only improves you as a performer, it expands you too. While Edinburgh may not be that healthy for comedians, it's very healthy for comedy. Originality is rewarded, and the resulting spill-over to the rest of the circuit helps keep everything fresh and dynamic.

And because I get caught up in that tide of invention, having a show with a perspective and a purpose gives you a decent amount of credibility within the industry - and specifically, between your peers. The value of that cannot be underestimated. Ask any established act where their major career jobs came from. Sure, some came from high-ranking producers pointing a indiscriminate finger of destiny, but many would have come from recommendations from other performers, or acts who landed themselves production roles. Having a strong reputation amongst fellow performers gives you such a huge advantage. Personally, with my style of performing (mainly compering) being somewhat loud and rabble-rousing, a considered & passionate hour that helps fellow performers and industry people rethink their opinions of me is paying massive dividends.

This is all part of the long-game. For most comics, Edinburgh is not about awards and having a Russell Kane style elevation to TV figurehead (genuinely, good luck to him). 2 years ago Christian Knowles saw me compere SYTYF and was astonished how I'd progressed - and gave me his Singapore gigs shortly afterwards. Before then, he hadn't really given me a second thought. This year, he's my producer. Likewise, after some gentle pressure from my agent, Nigel Klarfeld from Bound and Gagged came to see my show on Thursday. He's not seen me for over 5 years. He now has a totally different opinion of me - and hopefully, a better one. That'll make a difference, I'm sure of it.

Finally, the key question of "Why go to Edinburgh" comes from the people closest to me - my family, my close friends, and my wife. This is the toughest justification every year, and with good reason. When you put aside the short term advantages (a change of scene, the social side, the joy of performing your own show, the brief feeling of being important(!)), the cold hard facts of Edinburgh are difficult to justify.

First of all, the cost. I think media people must think comedians are money-obsessed maniacs, as we have a habit of mentioning the cost of Edinburgh at every other opportunity. But it's totally gargantuan - only at the very bottom and very top levels is it slightly more realistic. Having to compete with similarly talented performers for a crowd and press attention, means that the amount of audience you get in is totally disproportionate to the cost and effort ensnaring them. I may well publish my full spreadsheet costs for this Edinburgh; it will astonish you. My box office figures have just hit five figures; but at the same time, so have my losses. It's the sole reason I didn't do Edinburgh last year, as I was getting married as well, and the cost of both would have been crippling. They're similar experiences, to be honest; 9 months planning, a five figure cost, you only enjoy it while there and often there's very little to show for it afterwards.

But there are also knock-on costs that people don't appreciate. The first one is that during August any jobbing comic who isn't in Edinburgh usually has a fairly full diary of weekend gigs - especially when all the other acts are in Scotland. It's stag and hen season, so it's not nice, but then they tend to pay well. So you lose a month of income - not an inconsiderable amount. Then there's the previews. This year I must have cancelled and refused about 10 'normal' shows in order to do my preview shows. With previews, the rules change. A round trip to Cardiff for half the money I'd normally get is suddenly OK. And in London, these shows are NOT earners. In the case of my shows at the Hen and Chickens and the Albany, where I am effecting hiring the venue and the majority of the audience are invited, I'm losing about £100 to do each one. Add to that the shows you refuse in September to give you time to recover. It's madness.

I expect to be down approx £11,000 this year. It sounds ridiculous, but when you itemise it, it makes perfect sense. Eleven grand. That's an expensive trade show for a one-man company in any industry.

Then there's the other costs. The physical cost. Edinburgh is a tough place to keep well. The late night diet is rubbish, the weather is permanently damp (even when warm) and in my case, it's tough to keep my voice and health intact for the whole month. It may seem minor, but this is my biggest hurdle to committing to Ed. each year. A damaged throat isn't just a barrier to a good performance, it's a psychological thorn in my side. I don't commit to my material as heavily, and the laughs subside. This year it has been marginally better, as I took off every Monday; but the volume of additional shows (which were essential to get the crowds in) and the technical nature of my show that requires quite a range of dynamics and voices has frankly knackered it.

And finally, the emotional cost. Being away from home is a feature of this job, but Edinburgh is a loooong month. Thankfully my wife comes up most weekends, but it's not the same. To keep my voice in one piece, I'm silent most of the time (hence these truly mammoth blog entries), and I don't go out much in the cold. That's not fun for her - I'm pretty much a zombie when off stage. And I miss (in a rough order) my cat, my house, my car, my friends, my computer, and my bed. I have a nice flat here, but it's not the same. I've had my highest highs and my lowest lows in Edinburgh, and this year, despite my wife's injury, my theft, and my second 5 star review, this has actually been a mild one. I've only cried 3 times in the last 5 years - once when my cat disappeared, once when I was hit at 40mph by a full-sized Go-Kart, and once when I found I had no tickets sold on a Saturday night in 2003 when all other shows that day had sold out. Suicidal is no exaggeration as to how low I felt.

So what was the deciding factor in chosing to do Edinburgh myself? Well, when I asked *myself* the question, "Why go to Edinburgh", the answer was, "because, in my opinion, I have a great show which I think deserves to be seen." In contemplating the enormity of all other factors surrounding the fringe, it's actually easy to overlook the basic question, which is; 'do you have a show?' For me, the show has to be 3 things; great for me to perform, great for the audience to enjoy, and a great demonstration to the wider world of what I can do. If I didn't have that, the entire process would have been counter-productive. Edinburgh is such a risk - professionally, emotinally, financially - that to do anything other than your very, very best would be utter folly.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2006 3:41 pm 
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What an absolutely fantastic post, this has to go into Chortle Gold.

Thanks for typing that out Mr Grant.

I came up to Edinburgh for my first ever taste of the festival this year and despite knowing all about it I still wasn't prepared for the sheer enormity of it.

The points about inventiveness hit home with me, I didn't do a single gig in my 8 days in Edinburgh but I took in plenty of shows and I wrote more material and ideas in a week than I would normally do in a month or more.

I've also been inspired to try to do my own show, although reading Mr Grant's post above I'm now reconsidering it slightly!

Thank you once again Mr Grant for a truly inspiring and informative post.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2006 4:53 pm 
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I've always wanted to perform on the Fringe and even though that post really did scare me it's also encouraged me because I want my work to be seen and I know that that can't happen at this end of the country. And also you enjoy it while it's there- for me that's the important thing. And if it doesn't go so well.... at least you can say you've done it, you don't have to go into detail!


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 28, 2006 8:19 am 
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Stephen,

Fantastic post. What else can we say. It can't be improved upon.

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 28, 2006 11:55 pm 
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I *heart* Stephen Grant.

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 Post subject: a gem
PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 2:48 pm 
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thank-you thank-you thank-you stephen.
That post is the most enlightening and encouraging read I've had in ages.
Very generous of you to share your knowledge and experiences.
I only spent one week up there this year but I am sooo fired up to do a (another) one hour show next year. :shock: :shock:


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 3:14 pm 
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i'd like you to go back up next year because i then have a really good blog read. most blogs i skimmed through but yours i actually read. and i knew you wouldn't crack the password.

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 Post subject: Re: Why go to Edinburgh?
PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 9:44 am 
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Stephen_Grant wrote:
I expect to be down approx £11,000 this year. It sounds ridiculous, but when you itemise it, it makes perfect sense. Eleven grand. That's an expensive trade show for a one-man company in any industry.


I understand that that's not ALL venue hire and you have publicity and warm up gigs etc
and lost revenue from not working but from a purely clinical financial point of view

1) You've got to be getting more than £13-14,000 of work out of this to even begin to justify your investment.

2) Say you didn't go for 5 years and just saved £10,000 each year.
Optomistically in 5 years you'd have £50,000. If you got together with two or three
performers who'd made similar savings over the same time you could have
£150,000 - more than enough (and let's say you took out a mortgage on it secured
by your own colateral) to buy your own small venue within the the precincts of the Royal Mile
which you could then rent out to other performers to finance your own shows?
and you'd probably make more than £11,000 back on your investment each year if you were cute.
Why you could probably set up a small company for only £200,000.

When the cost of going to the Fringe every year is getting to the point where it would
be more economic to take out a mortgage society - and indeed the "comedy industry" -
really has gone wrong?

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:20 am 
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I need to put that figure in contrast; firstly, it covers the main non-performing costs involved in being in Edinburgh, such as rent, web adverts, and the like. But it doesn NOT include the loss of earnings before, during, and after August - that's a knock-on cost. I haven't factored those in. If I did, it would make for a very depressing figure.

My costs tend to be about 30% higher than the norm as I have a habit of going in all guns blazing. But at my level (the 'experienced fringe act', the third level described in my original post) Edinburgh does not generate an additional 13K worth of work, that's for sure. Like most people in my situation, who've been on the circuit for 9 or so years, I've got a full diary of work every year anyway. Edinburgh doesn't change that. What it does is give you other avenues of work that may have much longer reaching career implications.

Your mortgage suggestion does unfortunately involve not doing Edinburgh for 5 years to make that move, and doesn't really deal with the fact that you would have to run your acquired venue the other 11 months of the year. That's why so many venues are University buildings, they're already paid for Sep-Jul. Your £150K would be better spent buying residential property which you leased out to students the rest of the year and then lived in yourself in August - this year my rent was nearly half my venue's guarantee on the room I was performing in. Your idea is quite neat, but the insinuation is that the venue owners are the ones creaming off the big monies. I don't think this is the case.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:23 am 
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Stephen_Grant wrote:
Your mortgage suggestion does unfortunately involve not doing Edinburgh for 5 years


I'm being pessimistic in my sums I'm sure you could do it for less in less than 5 years
if you shopped around.
And anyway, I thought you were in it for "the long game"?

Didn't mean to depress you, Mr G.
Afraid it is my curse that I think more about pounds than art.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:41 am 
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A brilliant exposition Mr Grant.

It's voodoo economics, but look at it from Paul Sinha's viewpoint.

I agree with Stephen that mainly it isn't the venues that are cashing in, I wonder where the money does go, though. The city of Edinburgh must do well out of it, all the rent and increased business and so on, yet it seems they almost resent the intrusion.

Allow me a tedious mention of the free fringe. My net costs were about £600 not including lost work -which will be nowhere near Mr Grant's figure - but including accommodation and publicity and everything else. I got everything out of it that I wanted and don't think I'd have been any better off in a big4 venue.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:46 am 
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Well in the cold, clinical light of day that tends to follow an Anthony Miller posting(shit, did I really spend 20 minutes thinking?)

I'd like to ask Stephen Grant a question, if you're still here Sir...

Do you think you have a strong brand?

Does Stephen Grant have a gimmick?
(I quite understand that Mervyn Stutter does have one)

Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Alan Carr, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay; you referred to all this lot, do you think they each have something distinctive?

I should start a new thread about my next question.


Last edited by imac hunt on Wed Aug 30, 2006 11:09 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:53 am 
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imac hunt wrote:
I'd like to ask Stephen Grant a question, if you're still here Sir...

Do you think you have a stong brand?

Does Stephen Grant have a gimmick?
(I quite understand that Mervyn Stutter does have one)

Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Alan Carr, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay; you referred to all this lot, do you think they each have something distinctive?

I should start a new thread about my next question.

It's a good question. I had an interesting chat with John Lloyd about this very thing back in May, about when comedians have a 'defining characteristic' - or a unique selling point. The short answer is no I don't.

It's not really Edinburgh specific, so please do start a new thread!

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 12:34 pm 
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What Stephen has written here is astonishingly acute. I never got to see his show because it clashed with my own. That's on my actually relatively short list of this year's Festival regrets.

The Fringe was definitely tougher - but also better and more real - than I expected it to be. As a Finge first-timer with no obvious gimmick, theme or hook to his show, I struggled for audiences and to get reviews (and the ones I did get weren't the sort I'd want to project large-scale on the sides of buildings, but this isn't a gripe-fest).

I had to cancel three shows but the rest that went ahead went well, and I picked up some great late-night spots and other gigs - PBH and Some Comedians at the Free Fringe, the Hive, the Comedy Club for Kids, Spank & Talk of the Fest.

I averaged 12 people per night over the whole run but to my knowledge pretty much everyone that came laughed and left happy. And according to Festival lore, that's actually above the mean. :shock:

Most importantly, for me, I did more stage time in 25 days than I'd done in the previous five months, I got sharper and tougher, happier and more confident as a performer, more able and willing to take risks, ad lib etc.

It was a great, emotionally all-over-the-place learning experience - and spurred me on to do it better next year.

Thanks for posting your account, Stephen - kinda sums up everything my first Fringe was. And good luck for whatever comes next.

Neil

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 1:05 pm 
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Thank you for your comprehensive post. Usually when I see words going on for that long I baulk and skim read but I was genuinly gripped.

I've had a strange (yet wonderful) Edinburgh. It was my first but I was amazingly lucky to be in a show with a very established performer in a very prestigious venue. Initially I took this for granted as it was my first experience of the festival and I just assumed this is what it was all about.
I was socializing with people who's comedy careers have spanned multiple decades/countries and who've seen and done everything. It wasn't until about half way through that I understood the gulf and that I will almost certainly NEVER have as easy or privileged a time again. But I am very grateful for the experience and am inspired and galvanized to keep at it.

And just on the subject of money, I know someone whose losses were upwards of £45,000!


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