How to survive the Edinburgh Fringe

We are now a little over two months away from the Edinburgh Fringe.  Its odd we refer to anything going on there as “The Fringe” when its only one – albeit the largest- of many festivals taking place.  There are plenty of guides for people, giving advice and suggestions about how to make the Fringe work, and being a local I thought I’d join those ranks and maybe add some local knowledge too.

So this will mainly be for people who are coming in from out of town, and also first timers.  Don’t be discouraged by any negative points- for all its problems, the Fringe is an experience I believe every performer needs to have at least once.  If you can survive the Fringe you can get through almost anything.  It is the hardest work you will do, but likely the most fun and if the bug bites you, then you’ll be planning next year on your train home.

WHAT TO EXPECT?

If you’ve never been to the Fringe before then you need to prepare yourself for a level of crowds and business that makes New York look like a deserted post apocalyptic city.  In 2015 there were over 3000 different productions over the three weeks, 50,000 individual performances and over £2 million in ticket sales.  And that is just those registered with the actual Fringe.  That number could easily double when you account for those not in the programme, free productions such as PBH Free Fringe or Laughing Horse, the International Festival, those who just come up to do guest slots and street artists.  And all of that is also on top of the usual productions and theatrical walking tours that happen.

And the above only accounts for performers.  Add in audiences and visitors and you are looking at the city, at any one time, doubling in population.  Some estimates suggest almost 4 million extra people will come through Edinburgh over the month of August.  Not bad for a city with less than 400,000 residents.

You will see so many weird and wonderful sights as performers try to drum up business on the Royal Mile.  You’ll likely meet Elaine, the world’s most pierced woman, or the chap on Princes Street who stands on his head in a bucket, or the Big Issue seller usually on the corner of South Bridge as a surreal frozen human statue.  There is a game to play- try and get from George IV Bridge to South Bridge without getting flyered! If you manage it then I believe you get the keys to the city.

If you can, get some Public Liability insurence.  Equity give a decent amount upon membership and student membership is less than £20.  Also, do not forget about PRS licenses.  If you use copyrighted music in your show you could be hit with a fine or even shut down.  The licenses are not expensive and will save you hassle in the long run.

Depending on your venue and who you are with, you might simply have a small pub back room with a mic and a bedside lamp for lighting.  Or you might find yourself with a proper stage and full backstage crew.  And everything in between.  First things first, when you see your venue for the first time do not be disheartened if it looks a little small, or ramshackle.  You make it work.  If you can perform in a pop up Fringe venue you can perform anywhere.  The Fringe is the best learning curve in the arts world.

VENUES

To build on that- especially if you are with one of the Free groups- get to know the staff by name.  Say hi to them, drink there.  Many of these venues are giving their space for free and put in a hell of a lot of work on your behalf.  Respect them.  Most of the Free groups will have some sort of intermediary such as a Venue captain with PBH.  These are the people you take your problems to, don’t hassle the staff or your company.

In nearly all situations you will have a short amount of time between the previous act ending and yours starting (and the same at the end).  Sometimes this might be 15 minutes but rarely will you find anything more than half an hour.  In that 15 minute window the previous act has to get out and you have to get in.  If you can travel light, with not too many props then do so.

I once had an experience where the act before me had been a play and had a rather too large set for what they were doing.  This resulted in my own show starting late on numerous occasions- something that should not ever happen.  But when the act before you doesn’t finish until five minutes before you go on and they STILL have to do their get out it creates all manner of problems.  By mid week two they had got their act together, but these timings need to be factored in.  The Fringe is a collaborative endeavour regardless of where you are performing and under which company.  Respect the acts in your venue.

Do not expect a full AV set up or intricate lighting rig or sound design.  Unless you are lucky enough to have the funds to get one of the big venues you are likely to be performing in a pub back room or similar.  You will have only the most basic of set ups- find out who else is in your venue, ask if they’d be willing to contribute to hiring a simple lighting set up (checking with your venue first of course).  But many years we simply pop to Argos and buy a couple of cheap halogen lamps.  It gets a bit warm but really you don’t need anything intricate.  Just enough so the audience can see you.

Don’t automatically reject the use of a mic.  Many people think they can project well- but in a larger venue that’s filled with bodies you might find your deep and powerful voice gets lost after the first few rows.  There is no shame in using a mic.

Finally, make sure you leave the space clean and neat and tidy.  I’ve known some acts use glitter- don’t if you can avoid it.  It just means you have less time to do your get out and it might piss off the venue, especially if it’s a bar that will be operating after the shows finish.

MARKETING

This is the big one here.  Lots of people have advice.  Lots of it is good, and lots of it is bad.  First things first, if you are getting fliers then you wont want more than 5000, and even then I always end up with loads left over.  This will be my eighth Fringe and I have to say, fliers are very over rated.  Absolutely you must have them, but don’t rely on them.  I’ve heard it said that for every 1000 people you flier, maybe 100 will take them.  Of those only 10 will give coming to your show any real consideration.  And of those 10 you might get one or two who actually do come along.  Unless your show is well known, features a celebrity or is incredibly unique don’t expect fliers to do a great deal for you.  For all but one Fringe I have been with PBH and found that the wee blue book they produce is my main source of audiences.  In reality you could probably get audiences just with that alone.  I have when one year I was unable to flier for a couple of days  due to personal issues, and still had almost full houses.

Remember too that fliering on the Royal Mile might seem like a good idea but the other 3000 acts are doing the same thing.  Pop down to the Grassmarket or Princes Street, or work the lower half of the mile.  Another thing I found useful was to flier outside your venue for 15 minutes before the show starts.  This is the most effective fliering I have ever done and is now pretty much the only fliering I do specifically for my own show – I still flier at other times but mostly that is giving out the wee blue book with my flier as a bookmark for my page.

Don’t think flyering will be the main way you get people in.  It is a useful “and also” thing to do but this is the Fringe where everyone and their mother is flyering.  Don’t not do it, but don’t also think it will be a huge help.  I know only one show that did well with fliers- and that was a unique show.

It might be tempting to get a Facebook ad.  Having known people do this, I’d suggest it isn’t worth the money.  But be active on social media, tweet reviews, have conversations.  Don’t just tweet a reviewer and say come to my show, engage with them as if you aren’t marketing.  Reviewers will get bombarded with requests and many will simply ignore them.  On the topic of reviewers, unless you are getting five stars in the Scotsman reviews are unlikely to get you bums on seats.  Almost any act can get a three or even four star review quite easily, and find a good tag line even in the most damning review.  Audiences wont really pay much attention- and as the Edinburgh Evening News now use a seven star system, getting a five star review is even easier.

Network as much as you can, go to the events put on by the Fringe Society.  Do send press releases but use a more appealing subject heading than just “David’s Show Press release”.  Marketing at the Fringe is difficult to really say what is best to do, and far easier to say what to avoid.  If you are signed up with the actual Fringe take advantage of their street spots they will offer you, so potential audiences can see bits of your show.

So to sum up- yes have fliers (and posters, but really only in your venue) but you don’t need to go overboard with flyering as you will throw away so many.  Flier near your venue, flier just before the show and find other similar acts and ask to exit flier THEIR shows.  And if with something like PBH Free Fringe, use that wee blue book.  It will do you more good than 100,000 of your own fliers.  Now a bit of advice for those with more money- if you can find a couple of street flierers to hire then that won’t hurt, but really you’d need to be either a quirky show or be well known to really justify that outlay.  There really is little good advice to offer on marketing- try a few things, who knows, maybe fliering on the mile on your tod MIGHT sell your show out.  Eight years experience however tells me that is not guaranteed.

Oh, one other thing- do not go with an A5 flyer.  Go A6.  People hate taking A5 as they are too big.  An A6 fits nicely in the pocket.  Also saves a little money!

GETTING AROUND

It is likely you will be staying within walking distance of your venue.  Edinburgh is not a big city- thanks to spending much of its life enclosed in a one mile by quarter mile area (to find out why, go on one of the history tours).  It is worth getting a bus pass for the month.  These can be bought from any Lothian Buses shop and means you will always have travel.  We have night busses so there is travel to pretty much everywhere 24 hours a day.  This also means you can go out on day trips quite easily.

Taxis are not overly expensive, but unless you’re pissed at 5am (lots of places have a 5am license!) avoid taxis.  We also have a decent rail network to get further out.

ACCOMMODATION

This is the suckiest part of the Fringe.  Locals will rent out their space sometimes for over a grand a week.  You’ll likely have to share.  And you want to book it NOW if you haven’t already.  The later you leave it the less chance you’ll find a good deal.

Go on to Fringe groups on Facebook, find other people who are coming up.  Have a look on Gumtree- there are already numerous flats being advertised.  Hell, even consider camping out in Seton Sans!  It’s a bit of a journey but you’ll be away from the busy noise for when you want to relax and there is a nightbus that drops you off at the camp site.

MONEY

This adventure will cost you.  Even if you find somewhere for just £300 a week, that’s nearly a grand already.  Add on food, travel and general living expenses and you are looking at several thousands of pounds.  It is not uncommon for people even running a sell out show to leave in huge amounts of debt.  It is very unlikely you will make a profit.  That’s just the way it is.  If it were not for living locally, I’d probably only break even at best.

Now people will tell you not to expect to make money.  To expect to go home in debt.  But I believe with correct management you can avoid that.  Treat the Fringe like a job not a jolly.  Be resigned to the real possibility you may go home without turning a profit, but do set out with the goal to make some.  Budget appropriately.  Think of the Fringe like any other job you do and you will be much more likely to come out at least breaking even.

But do not be disheartened if (more likely when) you go away making a loss- what you will gain in experience far outweighs any financial hit.  You cannot pay for this type of experience (well I guess technically you are!) and doing it will make you a better performer.

WHAT TO DO

When you are not performing there are all sorts of things to do.  Obviously, go and see shows!  But aside from that here are some suggestions:

  • Go to Edinburgh Castle. Its in the middle of the city and can take a full day to really experience every part.  Also, there are many castles in the surrounding area just a bus ride away such as Craigmillar.
  • Hop on a train to North Berwick for a sea side day out. Its only about 25 minutes and you would have a chance to visit Tantallon castle, where for you ghost geeks, the worlds most convincing ghost photograph was taken (it was probably a tourist)
  • Take a walk in Princes Street gardens and have an ice cream whilst listening to music on the bandstand.
  • We have a wealth of museums. Obviously the big museum on Chambers Street is a must (they have a motorolla flip phone on display to make you feel old) but also take in the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile and the Peoples Story next to Canongait Kirk.
  • The Royal Yatch Britannia is a short bus ride away, maybe end it with a meal at one of the many bars on the shore.
  • Portobello is only a short bus ride away too and is Edinburgh’s Seaside
  • Cemeteries… stick with me… there are many, all open 24 hours, so you can pop along. Maybe go to Dean cemetery where Joseph Bell is buried (the real life Sherlock Holmes whom Doyle based the character on).  We have David Hume up on Calton Cemetery, Adam Smith and a few poets in Canonsgait, and for magic fans The Great Lafayette is buried in Piershill which is on the bus route to Portobello.
  • Camera Obscurer is a great afternoon out, just by the castle, but don’t go hungover!
  • If you can afford it, eat at the Witchery restaurant. They do a two course offer in the afternoon for £17 a person.  But if you splash out you could easily reach several hundreds for two people!
  • Take in some of the tours of the city. If you want to see the best looking vaults go with Mercat.  You want absolute terror hit up Auld Reekie.  A theatrical flair and access to a locked off open air prison in Grayfriars Cemetery you want City of the Dead.  And there are numerous free tours on offer too (but tip your guide- they usually have to pay their employers £1 per head before they actually take any earnings)
  • Mary Kings Close is a street that was sealed over several hundred years ago so you get to see the city as it was during the plague years up to the Victorian era.
  • There are plenty of pubs but I’d recommend Banshee Labyrinth on Niddry Street- its part of the Vaults and has a reputation as most haunted pub in Scotland. Also, I’m quite a fan of the Tron.  It’s a bit chain-pubby but they do good food.
  • And of course, just wander around the city. There is so much to just take in on a wander.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Edinburgh Fringe is an experience I believe all people working in the arts must have.  You will meet lifelong friends, get to try out new work, see shows ranging from the greatest thing ever all the way down to ones that make you want to remove your own head as it’s the easiest way to stop the pain.  Don’t come into the Fringe thinking you will make it big and be discovered.  You won’t.  You will get a nice addition to a CV and a great learning experience but the Fringe is a means to an end, not the end.  A successful show at Edinburgh might get you bookings and tours.  Or it might just be a fun adventure.  Your five star review might sound great, but after August no one is really going to care- in fact there has been much discussion about doing away with star ratings altogether.  What you get out of the Fringe is dependent on what you put in.  It is one of the hardest jobs in the arts industry and I promise you, by mid week two you will be wondering why you even bothered.  I’ve known acts do a runner because they simply couldn’t hack it.  But by the last few days of week three you’ll be emotional and weepy as you realise it is nearly over.  The Fringe is one of the best things you will do, but it will swallow your soul and spit it out either broken or far, far stronger and more confident than when you went in.

And my last bit of advice is this- everything I said above?  Could well be bullshit.  Many people will have different views and opinions.  Listen to them all and decide what works best for you.

Enjoy the Fringe, at worst you get to spend a few weeks in one of the most energetic places in the world, surrounded by people all doing the same thing.  At best it will be the greatest thing you ever do.

USEFUL LINKS

I use the following place for my flyers.  5000 A6, full colour front and back 135gsm for less than £30 (as long as you check the right options on checking out).  You will not find a better deal.  You don’t need heavy weighted flyers- in fact if someone offers me one I tend to reject it.  – https://www.printcarrier.com/

Visiting Edinburgh: http://www.visitingedinburgh.com/

Lothian Buses http://lothianbuses.com/

Edinburgh Castle http://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk/

The Fringe https://www.edfringe.com/

And this is a great website for royalty free music, you just need to credit the guy https://incompetech.com/

 

 

 

 

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