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No laughing matter: Doubt cast on Edinburgh Comedy Festival

Two years ago it was launched as a “festival within a festival” amid fears that it would ultimately break away from the biggest arts event in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Now one of the key members of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival has cast doubt on its purpose and original ambitions.

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Karen Koren, founder of the Gilded Balloon, said she does not agree with the idea of a separate Edinburgh Comedy Festival and says it has not fulfilled its original purpose of attracting a big-name sponsor.

Two years ago, the Gilded Balloon, along with three other major venues -- the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance and Underbelly -- pooled their publicity into a separate brochure from The Fringe.

At the time of the launch in 2008, the hope was that the four venues in unison would be able to attract sponsorship worth up to £1 million.

The launch document said any sponsor would have an “unprecedented opportunity to benefit from an association with a world-class event from inception”.

However, although each venue has individual sponsors, the package has not attracted a title sponsor and yesterday Ms Koren said she was still in the group mainly for “noticeability”.

She told The Herald: “The fact is we are the smallest of the big four. In the 1990s it was the big three: the Assembly, Pleasance and I hooked up in 1993, and that certainly gave the Gilded Balloon a step up, from the bowels of the Cowgate to being recognised as a place that discovers good comics and so on.

“Since then, times have changed and the whole commerciality of it [has changed] -- I am nowhere near as commercial as Assembly and Underbelly for example. However if you can’t beat them, join them.

“To keep my level of noticeability -- people seeing that we are there -- I kind of have to be with them.

“I am personally not in agreement with the Edinburgh Comedy Festival and the other three know that. I think we could have a comic Fringe but the comic fringe should still be part of that Fringe. But that’s maybe not how the others want to do it.”

She added: “We have not managed to get that big sponsorship so, in a way, it has defeated its own purpose. And, whether we like it or not, we are in competition … when it comes to the acts it’s each for its own.”

William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly, which is celebrating 30 years of Fringe shows this year, said he believed the union still worked well.

“From our point of view it works because this is the Fringe, there is a lot of information out there, and we can put ours out very efficiently,” he said.

“At this minute, the sponsorship world is the hardest I have ever known it. But I have little doubt that in a few years we will bring people in.”

He said that problems remain with trying to get noticed on the Fringe, which this year is bigger than ever, with more than 2500 shows.

It has now been eight years since a massive fire destroyed much of the Cowgate area of the city and the original Gilded Balloon venue. It is now based at Teviot, part of the Edinburgh University complex.

A Fringe spokesman said: “All the shows that are in the Comedy Festival brochure are also in the Fringe. There has never been a split and no one has suggested one. Everyone appreciates that comedy is a big part of the programme of the Fringe and we can all appreciate that promoters want as many people to know about their shows as possible.”

  Karen Koren

   Born and raised in Edinburgh, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Ms Koren started the Gilded Balloon 25 years ago in a 150 seater studio theatre in the Cowgate area of the city.

   Early performers at the venue included Arnold Brown, Liz Lochhead and Roland Rivron.

   Late’n’Live became a staple of the Fringe experience.  Perrier Award winners at the Gilded Balloon include Steve Coogan, John Thomson and Sean Hughes.

   In 1988, it began So You Think You’re Funny? which has been won by notable comics including Rhona Cameron and Peter Kay.

   In 2002, a fire destroyed its original base, although it had expanded to Teviot in 2001.



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