“We are having time to reinvent ourselves”: An interview with Gilded Balloon directors Karen and Katy Koren
This summer, Gilded Balloon brings Edinburgh Festival Fringe to your screen at home. Karen and Katy Koren, the mother-daughter team behind the venue, have delved into the archives to introduce viewers to some of the best moments of Fringe past while also allowing them to discover some exciting new performances. We caught up with Karen and Katy to discuss new treasures to look out for, changes with lockdown, and the highlights and challenges of Gilded Balloon Retro Fringe.
Thank you, Karen and Katy, for giving me your time for this interview. Gilded Balloon Retro Fringe is really something to look forward to. I can’t wait to see it. Can I begin by asking you to speak a bit about the history of the Gilded Balloon? What have you identified as the essential reasons for its success?
This would have been Gilded Balloon’s 35th year before it was cancelled. Gilded Balloon started in a small studio space in the Cowgate with seven shows per day for the duration of the Fringe. It now has 22 spaces and over 200 shows per day. We started more with comedy – though it developed into theatre, children’s shows, cabaret and circus. Many of the biggest comedians working in the industry started at the Gilded Balloon, from Dara O’Briain to Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Bill Bailey and Jo Brand, to name a few.
What are your best Fringe disasters and triumphs?
The biggest triumph has got to be bringing Tim Minchin over from Australia in 2005 and him winning Best Newcomer and it changing his life forever. The biggest disaster has been the big fire in December 2002 which destroyed our Cowgate building – it was the biggest Edinburgh fire which burned for four days and destroyed 11 businesses.
What can audiences expect from Gilded Balloon Retro Fringe?
The Retro Fringe will look at footage from past shows and Late’n’Live – Gilded Balloon’s flagship show which starts at 1 am and finishes at 5 am (so many different comedians and antics that happened) – it’s well worth a watch. Also the finals of So You Think You’re Funny?. Many, now household names, filmed doing their very first ever seven minutes, from Sarah Millican to Aisling Bea, Zoe Lyons, Tom Allen, Hannah Gadsby and many more. Fred MacAulay in Conversation with guests, Jo Brand, Jackie Clune, Greg Hemphill and more, live on Zoom, is going to be great, and the front row will be able to talk to Fred and his guests.
There is also The Fringe Search Party which is a new live interactive game – outdoors for one to five players – which can be done on your phone. It starts at Gilded Balloon’s Teviot building and takes you on a tour around the Old Town to some of the Fringe’s best loved places. It’s being tested at the moment and it’s looking good. We’re really excited about it.
What are the main differences going online as a performer, in terms of what you miss and what you gain?
There is the obvious thing of not being in the room live with an audience – which is a shame, but it is how it is at the moment. However, looking back on some of the comedians and performers who have taken part in our online shows – it makes me feel very proud of what we have achieved over the years. Also, people can watch from anywhere in the world, so people who wouldn’t normally be able to get here in August can have a taster of what a real Fringe is like. Online will never replace the live medium, though at the moment it will give the viewer the feel of what it is like to be there and hopefully they will decide to come to Edinburgh and experience the real thing in the future.
What would you say are the creative opportunities presented by adapting to lockdown?
We are having time to think about things and reinvent ourselves. The human spirit will not give up and Katy and I definitely want to keep the Gilded Balloon going at the Fringe and also do as much as we can to keep supporting live work.
Search Party is a great idea. Can you please tell us a little about what inspired the idea and what audiences can expect?
The idea came from thinking how do we could create something that is social distanced and yet feels live. We have friends who run an escape room called Padlox and we discussed what we could possibly do that would be a good and fun experience. The aim of the game is to find the Spirit of the Fringe – who is lost due to the Fringe being cancelled in 2020. It is something that families can get involved with and get problem solving. We have some well-known Fringe faces giving clues as well.
The Online Lockdown Loft Bar bringing together the industry’s amazing female talent is something I think will be very gratifying. Who are you most looking forward to sharing a virtual drink with?
We are looking forward very much to have a drink with our friend Maisie Adam who was about to do her third show at the Gilded Balloon this year. It’s sad that she isn’t able to do that – so we will have a chat about what she is up to during this time instead.
So You Think You’re Funny? Locked Down is an opportunity for applicants to be mentored by industry experts, which I think is a commendable effort to develop and encourage talent. Can you tell us about the role Gilded Balloon has played in developing talent in the past and the successes of its efforts?
The So You Think You’re Funny? competition has been going for 33 years and some of the best talent in the UK have either won or been a finalist. Peter Kay, Dylan Moran, Lee Mack, Sarah Millican, Jason Manford, John Bishop, Zoe Lyons – the list goes on and on. We support and mentor the comics in their first year in comedy and they win money and the opportunity to go to Just for Laughs in Montreal, and we provide footage from the final that they can use on their website. We are committed to helping new talent and Locked Down will help the contestants that are not able to perform in their first year.
What advice would you give for artists who would like to take part at the Fringe in the future?
Have a strong, good, professional and complete show. Most shows are one hour – if you are only able to do 40 minutes, you are not ready. Make sure you have a good image for your poster. Coming to Edinburgh is expensive and you do not want to go home having lost your investment. Make sure you have some good support with you and go out and talk to people during the Fringe. Flyer and be committed to what you want to achieve – it’s the only way.
What plans do you have in store after lockdown?
We are going to plan to develop Search Party and other live experiences – we will be working hard to bring a good strong programme for 2021.
Photo: Steve Ullathorne