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Festival Countdown: Gilded Balloon Founder Karen Koren’s Edinburgh

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Karen Koren is undoubtedly one of the Fringe Festival's grande dames. In 1986, she founded the Gilded Balloon on Cowgate, which has helped launch the careers of comics including Bill Bailey, Rhona Cameron, Eddie Izzard, Peter Kay, Dylan Moran, Tim Minchin and Sean Hughes. When the Cowgate venue burned down in 2002 she relocated to the Teviot building, where she continues to build the venue's reputation as one of the largest and most well-loved destinations on the Fringe - not least for its notorious Late 'n' Live sessions.

When was your first Edinburgh Fringe and what brought you here?
I was born and brought up in Edinburgh - my parents were first generation Norwegian immigrants. What started me with the Fringe was a group of friends who were at theatre school in London who knew a bunch of alternative comics and persuaded me to start a venue for them. I started in '85 at a little place called McNallys, and in '86 I created the Gilded Balloon in a little studio theatre on the Cowgate, upstairs from a gallery. It was 150-seater and we programmed seven shows a day.

The alternative comedy scene in the '80s was big in London but not so big up here at the time. People who were working at the Comedy Store were all looking for a Fringe venue that was much more comedy based. The first year we had Roland Rivron and Simon Brin, who were absolutely hilarious, and we had a late night show called An Oblivion Boy Has Raw Sex with Fluffy Girlies! Then the next year we set up the infamous Late 'n' Live - it was a wonderful time.

What’s been your most memorable Fringe experience since then?
I greatly enjoyed 2005 when I found Tim Minchin. We've had loads of stars through the Gilded Balloon, from Eddie Izzard to Steve Coogan, but when I found Tim in Australia he was completely unknown. He had a great show which was absolutely ready for Edinburgh and we worked very hard to push him and find him an agent. It changed his life, and he's now moved to London – he's a huge talent and I think it won't be long before he conquers America.

Aside from that, I could tell you hundreds of stories from Late 'n' Live - I remember poor old Mark Lamarr when he first started out challenging a group of lager louts to “come up here and say that”, and we had to get the bouncers to carry them out; then there was Russell Brand who faked getting injured by a flying bottle; and Johnny Vegas threw up everywhere before doing a crowd-surf, which nearly killed the poor audience.

How has the Fringe changed since you first attended?
Well in the mid-80s, like I said, it was a great laugh and I used to stay up all night drinking with the comics. I'd probably die if I did that now! But inevitably now it's become more of a business. It actually changed very quickly in the 80s - at my peak I was running 14 venues, and now I'm back to about nine since the 2002 fire.

The fire was obviously devastating, and trying to get the venue back on its feet was a struggle, but fortunately I'd already moved part of the operation up the Teviot for the 2002 Fringe. Then just before Christmas, the Cowgate venue burned down - it burned for four days and was the biggest Edinburgh old town fire in living memory. Shows how much paper I had in there!

What’s the biggest challenge for the 2009 Fringe?
The Festival has become very competitive, which makes programming difficult because a lot of places are interested in the big performers. Plus the competition during the Festival, for audiences, is really high. Every year it's a challenge to get people through the door, but I have a good feeling about 2009. I think in many ways the credit crunch will help as more people stay in the country as opposed to going abroad. That's what we're hoping anyway!

What are you most looking forward to about the 2009 Fringe?
Well, we've gone retro with The Chippendales! Some people have said “how could you?!”, but they're coming over specially from Vegas and have been selling like hot-cakes. They're good, clean American boys who just happen to be gorgeous, and they'll be a great headline act. Another of our big sellers has been Hardeep Singh Kohli who's cooking a meal on stage, and we've got Janeane Garofalo, Sean Hughes and some brilliant new Australian comics. And of course that's just the tip of the iceberg!

What’s your top tip for surviving - and getting the most out of - the festival?
The rule of thumb is  see a good children's shows in the morning (we've got a great new version of The Wind in the Willows), some theatre in the afternoon (such as Dillie Keane's The Hour of the Lynx) and then some comedy at night. With a wee bit of dinner in between!

Generally, I would say pick a few shows in advance but then come and listen to the buzz. You'll meet lots of lovely people in the Gilded Balloon Library bar – which also has an outside section for the smokers. Believe it not we used to give away free packs of cigarettes at the old venue! And definitely come to Late 'n' Live, it's unlike anything else.

And, beyond the festival, what’s your top Edinburgh city tip?
Crammond is a lovely part of Edinburgh to go and relax – it's down by the sea and has lovely walks and cafes. Restaurant-wise I always go to The Outsider, though be warned it can be very popular during the Festival.

The 63rd annual Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, runs this year from 7 to 31 August 2009 Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009. For further details about the Gilded Balloon programme, visit www.gildedballoon.co.uk .

For full coverage of Edinburgh 2009, including more countdown interviews as well as news, gossip, reviews, blogs, features and video throughout the festival, go to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009.


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