Karen Koren: Out on their year

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SEVERAL Fringe venues have announced plans to establish permanent entertainment venues in the Capital, but Karen Koren isn’t holding her breath.

The Fringe is over for another year and all the actors, comics, promoters and people who have come to enjoy or work in venues are winding their weary way homeward, mostly to London.

But what of the ones who want to stay? William Burdett-Coutts of Assembly George Square has joined up with local restaurateur Malcolm Innes to buy the Forest Café and The Roxy. They intend to open both all year round. Underbelly and the city council are talking with The Bongo Club to open its underground space all year. Summerhall, which is the old Dick Vet by the Meadows, is also running its operation 12 months a year. The question is, can Edinburgh sustain new venues successfully the rest of the year?

It has been said, by many, that there are too many theatre spaces already in Edinburgh, all of varying sizes. The King’s and Festival theatres have had to rely on subsidy over the last few years due to diminishing ticket sales. It is true that since the recession theatres have not been selling seats the way they used to. They have had to rely on the popularity of shows they are presenting.

I have had experience of what it is like to have all-year venues in Edinburgh. It was always difficult, and in the 1980s and 1990s it was hard to get people out at any time of year that was not August.

Edinburgh is a conservative city and its people have always been proud of the fact they have a Festival in August, the Tattoo and the best New Year celebrations in the world. This means that they will support these events and not necessarily come and support anything else the rest of the year. This may be a huge generalisation but, in my experience, this is a true reflection of the attitude of the residents of Edinburgh.

I have tried and failed to have all-year-round venues in Edinburgh. First there was McNally’s in Palmerston Place in the 1980s where I presented Victor and Barrie before they were anywhere else (Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson), then the Gilded 
Balloon in the Cowgate which I operated all year with special licences and opened the bar with the title The Gilded Saloon. There I put on the poetry society, new bands, new comedians and games and quiz nights.

Before this I started The Counting House in West Nicolson Street, which operates as a Free Fringe venue now. It is a beautiful little venue above Pear Tree House, where I presented Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans and Phill Jupitus to name just a few. I put on flamenco nights, folk nights and whatever-would-work nights, because that is what one has to do to make an all-year-round venue work. You have to offer the best nights for people young, old and middle-aged – try to persuade them that they are going to enjoy a night out in your establishment and that it is different to anywhere else. Ultimately, in Edinburgh, it is like drawing teeth. Unfortunately, people will not come out every day of the week to be entertained.

My strongly held belief is still that there is a market for the smaller venue throughout the year, as I have been trying to prove for the last 30-odd years. The Old Town and students will take a chance and venture out. However, that means it has to be affordable. Edinburgh audiences, in the main, are not interested, unless you can prove there is something that you can present that is worth seeing and different.

As has been said by so many smug Edinburghers “We have a Festival”, and whether it is the Free Fringe or the paid-for Fringe – or even the International Festival and the Tattoo – that is all the residents of Edinburgh need and perhaps all they want. What I try and do is present the best work which I produce during the Festival Fringe, get it praised and applauded, then tour it, either just in Scotland, or all over the UK. That is the best way of enjoying and presenting the work, much better than trying to present it all year at venues in Edinburgh and then maybe not have an audience as it may have already been seen and reviewed during the Festival.

I love Edinburgh and the big and small venues that are already established. There is possibly room for a couple more, but they have to be exciting, diverse and all encompassing, and not elitist.

• Karen Koren is founder and artistic director of the Gilded Balloon