The Fringe is upon us once more. For some, it has already started, for others it might be a couple of weeks away still, for me I am into my final pre-Fringe hours. As of writing I am 49 hours away from my first show. That’s not long, not when we take into account sleep, eating, meetings, get ins and other chores I have- such as sticking 2500 address labels to my fliers because I put the wrong date on them. 49 hours is two seasons of Star Trek TNG. Its several play throughs of Resident Evil 4. Its 49 rehearsals. Blimey, that does sound longer than it is.
The Fringe is an odd time, in fact the Fringe itself is an odd thing. As far as ticket sales go, it shifts more tickets than anything else save for the Olympics and the World Cup. And that obviously doesn’t include “tickets” for free shows. I would imagine, taking free shows and those not in the Big Book into account that the number of seats taken up by audiences could push the Fringe beyond or at least a rival the Olympics or World Cup.
I am staging – either as Director or performer- 58 performances this year. 39 of them are solo one man shows. I am performing in August, in Edinburgh, but am I performing at the “Fringe”?
In 1947 the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival was gate crashed by 8 uninvited acts and the Fringe was born. It is now seen as the “main” festival in August, despite there being many on the periphery. Are these separate festivals or are they part of the Fringe? Depends who you ask. This year I am not in the formal Fringe brochure, I have no “Fringe” logos on my marketing. I don’t consider myself to be at the “Fringe”. I am at the PBH Free Fringe. But others may disagree and say they are at “Fringe”. But, if I were on the International Festival lineup I wouldn’t say I was at the “Fringe”. The Fringe just happens to be taking place at the same time. Of course, you can be on any of the free fringes and be in the main Fringe book. It’s a bizarre and maybe not certain grey area. Does the idea of a formalised organisation you have to sign up to even go against the original ethos of the Fringe in 1947? Does paying a minimum of £300 to go in the book for a full run seem against that ethos? I don’t know, and in all honesty I don’t know if I am concerned enough to delve further. But as some food for thought, am I really at the “Fringe” if I am not signed up to their brochure? I HAVE paid my £10 to be part of the Fringe society (A condition of doing the Free Fringe) so does that mean I’m “Fringe”? Does it even matter? The word “Fringe” seems to be short hand for EVERYTHING taking place during August. Maybe all that is required to be at the “Fringe” is to say and believe you are. To be performing in Edinburgh in August.
Then there are the official dates of the Fringe- August 1st-August 25th. So is anything before those dates or after not Fringe? Are the shows starting tonight not Fringe shows until their second one tomorrow? Are they Fringe shows until the 25th, then after that any shows staged are just shows and not Fringe? Am I thinking too deeply about this?
The Fringe, and by that I mean all of the festivals and events going on in August under one umbrella, is a monster. Not in an evil way, but due to its sheer brute force and power. It is something you cannot avoid if you are here during August. I know people who leave the city for the three weeks of the Fringe, people who move into cheaper accommodation and rent their property out at the very least for one months rent per week. It is said the only certainties in life are death and taxes. If you live in Edinburgh that mantra should change to “The only certainties in life are death, taxes and the Fringe”.
As a performer it is hard work, for at times little or no return. I specifically avoid doing shows at paid venues- the cost of hire even for a week can stretch into the thousands, a fee alone that is nearly impossible to earn back. Then theres the issue of average audience sizes. With an average audience of 3 persons its not unlikely that one or more shows may not go ahead. I know several people who ended up with days off last year because of no audience.
With PBHs Free Fringe (And I assume, but cannot know for sure, the other Free festivals) the average audience is 14 and there is no venue hire costs- meaning you get to keep more of the bucket donation at the end than you likely would from ticket sales. You may find yourself a little more limited in terms of what tech and space you have with the free festivals, but even if they aren’t the Albert Hall they are usually appropriate for use
The Fringe is done for love, for experience and for flexing our creative muscles (And not, except for in a few minor special cases, for “Being discovered”). For many, the money doesn’t matter at all. I know acts that have come up and been surprised at making a massive loss, though making a loss shouldn’t be automatically expected, it shouldn’t be a surprise either. I have also known acts come up, expecting to make nothing and leave with a generous profit.
There’s also the flyer dilemma. I have heard it said that for every 100 flyers you give out, 90 will not even be looked at. Of the 10 that are looked at maybe one person will CONSIDER going to the show. It almost makes one wonder if flyering is even worthwhile? Of course it is. 5000 flyers, using our calculations above mean you may well get 50 people out of that 5000 considering coming, maybe half will actually go. 25 people may not sound much of a return for 5000 flyers, hours of design work and cost of printing, but with £10 tickets it is not wise to sniff at £250. In my experience most of the people that come to my shows come through seeing it in the Wee Blue Book produced by the PBH Free Fringe. One year I ran out of flyers quite early and still continued to get almost full houses every night thanks entirely to that blue book (It helped of course that I had a quirky show at a good time). If you are on the Free Fringe make sure you get that book out there- it’s a condition of participation anyway, but even if it wasn’t its so advisable I’d actually consider it more important to get that out than just your flyers. Maybe use your flyers to book mark your listing in it and hand out the book as your main marketing tool. That’s just my opinion of course, but its an opinion based on five consecutive Fringes. If you had no flyers, no posters and no advert in the Big Book, being in the PBH Wee Blue Book alone will likely bring crowds in. That’s not to say scrimp on your flyers- don’t. Just remember they aren’t the be all and end all of promoting your show. Other free festivals have similar types of brochures, I would imagine getting them out is equally as important as me getting the Wee Blue Book out being on the PBH lineup.
None of this is intended to put you off bringing a show to Edinburgh, but we also need to avoid the trap of thinking it is all sunshine and roses. You as a performer are a business and you need to remember that and look at the negatives as well as the positives- which overwhelmingly outshine those negatives. I am of the opinion that every performer, practitioner and artist should at least do a run at the Fringe once. Preferably a full run. It is the greatest learning curve you will ever have. You will learn fast what works and doesn’t for marketing, you will learn to work to a tight budget, to improvise when a cast member is sick but you still have to go on, you will develop the skills of doing super fast get ins and get out. You will meet people and make “Fringe Friends” you see each August and relax with as if you’d been hanging out the past 11 months. It is a truly amazing experience for a performer. If you’re doing a full run, pace yourself. Don’t go out and get blotto every night, as tempting as that may be. Do not put all your energies into the start and leave yourself running on fumes the last week or even two. Walk up and down the Royal Mile during week three- you’ll spot easily those who have been here since the start and not paced themselves and those who have paced themselves or just arrived.
Remember too that this is a living city, it is peoples home. People work in the city and want to spend leisure time in their city. Don’t be jaded if you offer someone a flyer and they walk straight by. As much as we love it, the Fringe isn’t for everyone. People with no interest in sport complain about the Olympics and Commonwealth games causing problems and obstructions, maybe you’re one of those people. Not everyone is a fan of the arts and some people just want to get home after a long day in a sweaty office. And be nice to the bar staff. Oh god be nice to the bar staff. They will be overworked and mostly working to the minimum wage. With late licenses in place they might not be finishing work till 6am having started mid afternoon. They do not want to have to deal with drunken drama people reciting the opening monologue from Faustus as they try to clear away a multitude of glasses and close the bar down in the hopes of getting maybe 5 hours sleep. Tip them when you can, tell them to “Take one for themselves” if you can. Be nice to the people slogging their guts out so you can get cheap or free venues and have a three week party.
If you’re with one of the free festivals you will likely be performing in a pub- don’t inundate them with questions and act in a demanding manner. And don’t look down on them- I’ve seen people doing that and it’s shitty.
But, above all. Regardless of any negatives that may be in place, regardless of the inevitable tech screw ups and tiny audiences, try to enjoy yourself. The Edinburgh fringe is what YOU make it, not anyone else. Make it a good one.
This post inspired by this by Kirsty Halliday.