THE WRONG SHOES GUIDE TO THE EDINBURGH FRINGE
Performing at Edinburgh Fringe had always been on our theatrical bucket list but, had always felt too great a challenge… we’d heard too many stories of low audience numbers (an average of 6 members of audience I seem to remember being told) and guaranteed loss of money. If that wasn’t enough to put us off, it just seemed too much to organise, we had no idea where to start. Until that is, Clara - a friend who does some amazing Youth Theatre work in Scotland, gave me the blueprints for a successful run at Edinburgh Fringe. Suddenly, it felt possible. A few years later, and we have two EdFringe performances under our belt, and some amazing experiences.
So, it’s our turn to share our guide to Edinburgh Fringe, which I hope will help others take their work to the world’s largest and most vibrant theatre festival… so here goes!
BUY THIS BOOK!
This was a present that became my EdFringe bible. It’s very easy to use, and breaks down everything you need to do, month by month. Read this before you start your journey to the Fringe:
IMPORTANT DECISIONS ABOUT YOUR SHOW
First things first. No matter when you decide to book a venue, you’ll need a show to pitch. Many of the venues curate their programme of performances, and therefore, require you to apply for a space. So, before you get to this stage, you need to have made some key decisions about your show. This may be easier if you’re performing a written piece, but a little more challenging for any devising companies or new writing, to make these creative decisions so early on in the process. Nevertheless, this is what you’ll need to know:
The name of your show
A short synopsis – this doesn’t have to be set in stone, but should give a flavour for what the end product will be.
How many cast and crew you are likely to take with you
Your preferred run dates – venues prefer longer runs and if you chose to do week 1, will often require you to do the preview days (referred to as week 0)
Preferred performance time (see below)
The length of your show – make it an hour show, trust us, no more than an hour!
Your genre(s) and your target audience
You will also need to provide a description of your company, as well as previous experience of cast and crew.
When it comes to deciding what your show is about, or what play you’re taking up there… try to be original. There will be pages of Hamlets’ and Faustus’ in the fringe programme. Check the previous fringe programmes to get a sense of shows to avoid.
Cast size should be kept to a minimum. Not only is this good financial sense, but unless you already have a substantial budget, you are likely to be looking at small performance spaces. Our venue for Account of a Savage was around 5x6 meters for performers and 30 members of the audience. So, a large cast simply wouldn't fit in the space.
Selecting a preferred performance time is a bit of lottery, and you’ll often find the venue changing your slot time at the last minute as they juggle around the programme. That said, there are some general rules that help here. The peak time for plays is roughly between 1pm and 5pm. Anything before this is generally performance for children, which probably isn’t your target audience. The big name comedians and large scale theatre companies usually start at around 6pm and unless you are confident that you can compete with these for audiences, it’s a time to avoid.
FINDING A VENUE
The best way to do this is to go to Edinburgh Fringe and see them for yourself. We didn’t, but we got lucky. Now, if like us, you’re too impatient to wait yet another year, I can recommend 2 venues, both very central and both incredibly helpful.
The first is C Venues. Now these are a large venue provider, with many years’ experience at the fringe. They have buildings all through the city, which host an array of performance spaces from large proscenium stages to attic rooms in an old Victorian building. This was perfect for us, as we were looking for a found space, rather than a classic performance setup and they were more than ready to rise to that challenge.
Now, they are not the cheapest but, the large number of venues also means your flyers go further and get seen by more potential audiences. As a little bonus, all members of cast and crew with a CVenues badge, are entitled to ask for comp tickets for shows in their many venues. We have always managed to get comps, and see some very exciting theatre for free, as a result.
Hartley and his team are very friendly. Despite being busy for most of the year, they have always been happy to take calls and offer advice. You can see most of the available spaces on their website, along with helpful floor plans, but if you need something a little different, give them a call.
Then next recommendation would be Sweet Venues, on Grassmarket (just a 2 minute walk from the Royal Mile and overlooked by the stunning Edinburgh castle). Based in the Apex hotel, Sweet venues are able to offer a great selection of black box performance spaces, in varying sizes and cost.
This is a really friendly venue, and you’re made to feel part of the Sweet Venues family right from the outset. If you call them for advice, you’re likely to get the lovely Annie, who managed to calmly talk me through even my most panicked moments, and offered helpful, practical advice throughout the entire process.
Performers and companies come back to Sweet year after year, and all of the companies are incredibly supportive of one another. www.sweetvenues.com/edinburgh/
MARKETING YOUR SHOW
Image is everything! Of course, you need a good show to sell, but once you’re in the brochure and fighting for poster space on the Royal Mile, what really stands out is a good image. As a general rule, go for a striking image that draws the eye. Don’t overload the poster and flyer images with text, keep to just the essential information.
Along with your flyer and poster, you’ll also be asked to write a press release, as well as some web copy and brochure copy (limited to around 50 and 100 words). Be careful when writing your press release, to present your show in as honest a way as possible. Don’t make claims about your show, in terms of the impact it will have on the audience or its artistic merits, stick only to the facts, as reviewers will read your press release and marketing materials before seeing the show. If you don't live up to your own claims, you're likely to see a bad review.
When it comes to copy and poster design, keep it simple and focus on those things that make your show unique. Many of the venues will offer support, and in some cases will want to sign off on your final poster, flyer and web copy. This is because they want to create consistency across their marketing, but they also want your show to sound and look as good as possible. You may not always agree with their changes, but it’s part of working with the venue to sell your show… so just swallow your pride and make those edits!
The Fringe brochure is a huge tome packed with shows, music, comedy and everything else you’re likely to enjoy during the festival. It’s so packed in fact that it becomes a case of having too much choice, and makes it very difficult to stand out. So here again, your simple but striking image is going to help you stand out on the page.
Some venues will include flyering and poster placement in your fee however, in most cases you’ll need to do this yourself. You can pay someone to do this for you, and while we didn’t try this ourselves, we heard mixed feedback. So I would suggest you do some research here and look for feedback on fringe flyering companies. For us however, flyering on the Royal Mile was an essential part of the whole experience of performing at the Fringe. Like any sales role, this is difficult. If you’re there during the preview days, this is the time to perfect your technique. It will be busy, but not too busy and those people who are there to see shows, are just starting out, fresh faced, friendly and eager to find out about your show… although, do remember, not everyone is there for the festival!
We’ve seen loads of successful techniques, and you will find what works for you. Sometimes making a sceptical, being quirky or funny can work but, after a few days, thousands of performers descend on the royal mile, people tend to get a bit tired of the tried and tested approaches. Here are a few tips that have worked for us:
Start with a question, ‘are you here to see theatre?’. After-all there is no point spending time chasing people who have no interest in seeing shows. Be friendly, and show interest in them, and in return they will probably show interest in you and your show. You are no longer just another flyer in their bag.
Draw a crowd with performance. Nothing says ‘must have ticket’ like a gathering crowd! We’re all pretty predictable when we’re around lots of other. We see a crowd forming and we want to know what we’re missing out on. Use this to your advantage, in order to filter out those people who have no interest in what you’re doing. The crowd left watching you are all interested in what you’re doing – so get the rest of the cast or crew chatting to them about the show, give out flyers but don’t be too intrusive. They want to think they picked you!
Be friendly to other companies. If you say you’re going to see another company’s show, go and see it, and then tweet about it and tell them how much you loved it. While you’re at the Fringe, I don’t doubt that all your spare time will be spent seeing theatre, and that’s exactly what every other company is doing too. So a friendly encounter with other performers can go a long way to filling seats, and nobody will be more sympathetic than other shows trying to sell tickets.
Twitter is also a powerful tool here, and you can start using the #EdFringe hashtags pretty early on in the process to share your journey. During the run, try to tweet as often as possible. Talk about the great shows you’ve seen too, it's really helpful for companies to get positive feedback, which they can also share.
Lastly, the dreaded reviews. You can usually indicate when or if you want press to turn up and on which performances however, they are likely to turn up anyway whether you want them to or not. So just expect them to be there. Remember, the reviewer should be your friend – a helpful critic, offering an audiences view on the show, picking out key successes and moments for improvement.
Now, I’d like to say that they are all kind and want you to succeed but, the truth is, the system for reviewing at EdFringe is very open, and invites some very inexperienced reviewers, as well as some very seasoned ones. But don’t let that put you off. Reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt, and you should cherish the bad reviews along with the good ones. You probably don’t want everyone to love your show… the odd bad review mixed in with the good, makes your show more exclusive, not for everyone, and that can be a powerful tool for selling tickets.
It’s almost impossible not to focus on the star system used in reviews (there are some very strong arguments for removing the star system entirely) however, do try to look past that. This is an opportunity to get an impartial view on how successfully you have met your aims. There are some great reviewers at the Fringe, who tend to write full and detailed accounts of their experience. It is these that we are looking for when we flick through the reviews online and in print. Some of the most helpful reviews for us have come from BroadwayBaby, EdFringeReview and The Scotsman.
OK, I should probably start this by saying you probably shouldn’t be going to EdFringe if you’re interested in making money… that will almost certainly not happen. Unless you’re already a well-known name on the festivals circuit - in which case, why are you reading this? It probably won’t be as bad as you think, but if you make your money back give yourself high five!
For a 10 day run (that’s week 1 plus the previews), you may be looking at venue and marketing costs in the region of:
£1,200 fee for a small scale venue (30-50 seats)
£300 fringe fees
£100-£150 insurance for your fringe run
Tickets for theatre are usually priced around £10 on average. But there will also be promotions and discounts to consider, so you may find some people are paying as little as £4 to see your show. The majority of people however, do pay around the full price. So if we assume that the average ticket price is £8, and you have a capacity of 30, it would mean you’re aiming to sell around 75% of capacity in order to cover these costs. It’s not impossible, after all you’re in a city full of people who want to see theatre, but getting the word out there and selling those tickets takes some work. It’s all worth it in the end though.
Accommodation obviously varies depending on your personal preferences. You can camp for very little, and catch the bus in to the centre however, our shows are usually quite physical and the performers were also spending a lot of time flyering, and walking to shows. So I wanted them to be close and to get a good nights sleep! So, we like to stay around Marchmont, in the vacated student flats. These are lovely, spacious Victorian buildings only a 10 minute walk from Grassmarket.
For a 10 day run, this will cost you in the region of £1,800 for a 3 double bedroom apartment for 6 people (that’s £30 each per night).
We use www.nestival.co.uk to find and book our accommodation. They are absolutely lovely – Becki is in charge of Festival bookings, and has the patience of a saint! They book accommodation for companies from all over the world, and put in long hours to accommodate everyone.
If you are booking for the full month, you will be able to confirm your booking earlier in the year. Part Fringe bookings are a little more complicated, so you might not get anything confirmed until June/July.
These costs are based on our previous experience and costs will vary depending on your show, your run and accommodation choices. You will also need to consider your transport costs.
WHAT TO PACK
OK… this is more important than you might imagine. Scotland is beautiful. The people of Edinburgh are incredibly friendly. That said, it will rain. It will rain most of the time. One minute it’s stunning summer weather and the next you’re drenched, and you’ll be walking everywhere. So there are a few practical considerations:
Comfy shoes – You are going to be walking for miles every day, and there are lots of hills and cobbled streets. Take shoes you can walk in for long periods of time, or expect sore feet!
Clothes for all weather – OK, it’s summer, so it won’t really be cold but, it can get windy and wet very quickly.
A Pac-a-mac is essential! Rain… I already mentioned rain a few times. It’s going to rain. I cannot suggest strongly enough that you invest in a pac-a-mac. Don’t take an umbrella, it’s probably too windy and too crowded for you to use it.
OUT AND ABOUT IN EDINBURGH
Edinburgh is a big city, with an abundance of amazing places to eat, drink and visit, but here are a few of our favourites:
Koyama – Japanese/Sushi. Stunning food, but get there early… it’s always busy!
Earl of Marchmont Pub – Great selection of beers, wines, cocktails and the staff are very friendly and welcoming.
FriskyFroyo – After all that walking in the rain, what could be more appealing than a tub of frozen yoghurt? No seriously, you need this in your life. http://friskyfroyo.com/
Artisan Cheesecakes – The name speaks for itself. They do not disappoint.
Oink – Meat. So much meat!
Assembly Gardens – Located in George Square (conveniently close to Marchmont), from the outside it’s a fenced off area amid office buildings, but this is a fantastic place to spend an evening. Outside you’ll find all kinds of street food – all very good eats! As you enter the gardens, you step into something of a theatrical wonderland. Astroturf and trees drenched in fairy lights, are surrounded by pop up bars, more street food and temporary (but very well equipped) performance spaces.
And once you’ve filled up on food and ale, why not do a bit of vintage shopping at Armstrong’s. They have an amazing selection, which seems to include abandoned costumes from previous festivals. www.armstrongsvintage.co.uk