“Why did it take me to get this started?” | Siân Davies on the importance of Best in Class for working class comedians

Tell us about the concept behind Best in Class.

Best in Class is a crowd funded, profit sharing show that champions working class comedians.

What inspired you to start Best in Class?

It was born out of necessity. In 2018 I was asked to audition for a compilation show at that was taking place at the Edinburgh Fringe. I was told if I was successful, I would have to put up £1800 by the end of the week to secure my place.

There was the potential to earn that money back through ticket sales, but I don’t live in a world where I can just pull that kind of money out of my back pocket. My friend set up an online fundraiser to try to help with my costs. It mentioned the show and the fees involved and that as a working class person it was difficult to access the arts. Within an hour of the fundraiser going up, I was called by the promoter and dropped from the audition. He said he didn’t think this sort of thing was for me.

I was so upset. I was being stopped from achieving my dreams, not because I wasn’t good enough, but because of who I was and where I was from. It made me realise that there is a big issue with access for working class people within the arts, it’s systemic.

I decided I could try to do something to change that. I decided I would take my own showcase to Edinburgh, a showcase of working class comedians. I wouldn’t charge them to take part and if we made a profit, we would share it equally.

At that stage it was more about performing with people that understood where I was coming from. I had no idea that Best In Class would grow into the project it is today. Now in our third year, we’ve supported 16 comedians to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe and have another eight ready to step up this year. 

Tell us about the show Best in Class is taking to Leicester Comedy Festival.

Our Leicester show will feature a selection of our fresh 2020 line up. This is the first time they will have performed alongside each other under the Best in Class name and the acts are really excited to get cracking. It’s an hour long show, on Monday 10th February 19:45 at Cosy Club.

Chris Copestake, Lovdev Barpaga, Tamsyn Kelly and Nathan Eagle will all be doing short sets and the show will be MC’d and held together by Siân Davies, Best in Class founder/Glorious Dictator.

The great thing about a showcase is the audience get bitesize chunks from each of the comics. It can be tough as an audience member at a festival, you may not want to take a chance on a whole hour show from a comedian you haven’t heard of.

With Best in Class, our audience know they will get several acts with plenty of variety in the line ups, that way they can relax and enjoy a great comedy show.

What kind of challenges do working class comedians face?

The main issues working class comedians face are down to money, time and connections.

As a new comedian you have to do a minimum of two years of unpaid gigs while you craft your material and develop your stage presence. It is a necessary apprenticeship, but much more difficult for people on a lower income to achieve. Working class people are less likely to have flexibility in their jobs and might need to cancel gigs in order to take shifts in zero hours work.

The cost of travel to gigs is also prohibitive at the start of your career when you are working class. Arts festivals, like Edinburgh, are really important for emerging talent to be seen by agents and bookers for venues, TV and Radio.

However the cost of taking a show to Edinburgh in a paid venue with PR and production is a minimum of £5000. Yes, it can be done more cheaply, but in order to have a level playing field with other acts and catch the right attention, it is money you need to spend. If you are from a working class family, that sort of money could be the difference between having some form of financial security or not.

In lower paid jobs, you are less likely to have the option to take a month off work to go to Edinburgh. Sabbaticals or working from home are rarely an option in the sort of jobs that most working class people have, which is another barrier they face.

Like with any industry, comedy has it’s fair share of back scratching and nepotism. As a working class person you are much less likely to have any industry contacts, or people that can open doors for you. Networking can be another all important area to master for working class comedians.

We aren’t necessarily taught about this when we are growing up. I went to a comprehensive school where that taught me to know my place, not the art of an elevator pitch.

How are shows like Best in Class are tackling these?

We create our own networks. Our stable of acts become a family, supporting each other and helping each other out. Whether that’s introducing someone to a promoter they think will book them, or giving another act a sofa to sleep on when they are in town. 

Our acts only need to commit to a short stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, each of them do around a week. This means it is easier for them to get time off from any day job and the cost of accommodation won’t break the bank.

None of our acts have to pay to be part of the show; this is a really important part of our ethos. We cover all of the fees involved by selling show tickets and having an online campaign. All the acts need to do is arrange their travel and accommodation. They all get paid an equal share of the profits.

This means working class comedians can perform at the Edinburgh Fringe without breaking the bank alongside a supportive team who understand the challenges they may face. 

How do you feel comedy as in industry can do more to support working class comedians?

We have support from several big name comedians, lots of comedy festivals have waived our fees to support us and the Free Fringe in Edinburgh have been a really supportive host for Best in Class. However there is a lot more the industry should be doing.

Why did it take me to get this started? I’d like to see more bursaries for working class performers, particularly where Edinburgh is concerned. I’d like to see acts that can afford to investing in helping other acts to get a foot in the door.

I view class as the ugly sister of diversity, being working class can be as prohibitive as having a protected characteristic, but it is almost impossible to quantify.

I don’t have all the answers to fixing the problems. The key thing is we start having the conversations around class to open up the debate. The comedy industry is dominated by the middle classes, the best way of shaking things up is by opening the door to people from more diverse backgrounds.

Best in Class has a dedicated following. What do you think makes people respond so passionately to this kind of show?

I think people just get what it’s about. We’re championing the underdogs of society and trying to level the field. People know that’s got to be a good thing.

We also have a reputation for working with some fantastic acts. Best In Class alumni have gone on to achieve fantastic successes within their comedy careers. Our acts have signed for agents, gained TV work, created sell out shows and had critically acclaimed work. Best In Class has been represented in the finals of some of the biggest comedy competitions in the UK, including the BBC New Comedy Award, Funny Women Awards, Leicester Mercury Comedian of the year and So You Think You’re Funny? Our acts have also provided tour support for industry legends Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Fern Brady and Jason Manford.

The audience knows that they will get a quality line up, full of future stars, and that their ticket money will go towards supporting the journey of those acts to the top. It’s a feel good, win win situation, entertainment and spending money on helping others!

Best in Class has a crowd-funded, profit-sharing approach to financing. How different do shows like this feel to shows with a more typical structure?

We’re open and honest with our finances with all the acts involved, but no one gets paid until the end of the project. This can be tricky as it feels a bit like working for free sometimes. But it’s also like being part of a great community project with everyone mucking in to help. We’re all really driven to raise as much as we can to help with our costs as ultimately, the more costs we cover, the more pay we get.

What do you hope the impact of shows like Best in Class will be going forward?

I’d love for the project to continue growing and for the acts we’ve worked with to all continue their success within the industry. Hopefully this will lead to more working class acts being able access arts festivals and their working more audiences. We’ve claimed a space in Edinburgh and people are really engaging in what we’re doing.

This year for the first time we are bringing Best in Class to other regional festivals like Leicester, VAULT Festival, Brighton and Manchester. It’s a risk as there might not be as much interest as there is in Edinburgh.

But we want to bring our show to more audiences and regional festivals seems like the best way. We hope people will get behind us and come out and support our shows.

In the future, I’d love for us to be able to work with individual acts to produce their Edinburgh shows to support working class comedians even further.

The comedians performing at Best in Class 2020 are Tamsyn Kelly, Jed Salisbury, Laura Smyth, Lovdev Barpaga, Anna Thomas, Chris Copestake, Sam Mayes and Nathan Eagle.

Best in Class is at Leicester Comedy Festival on Monday 10th February. Book your ticket here.

Best in Class is at Vault Festival on Friday 20th March. Book your ticket here.

You can find future tour dates and locations on the Best in Class website.

You can help support Best in Class by backing their GoFundMe page here or supporting them regularly on Patreon.