Edinburgh Festival Fringe: telling it like it is

THE only thing bigger than the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the internet, which top scientists estimate is now 7.6 times bigger than the universe. This means, despite doing loads of research for The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, I have only now come across two blogs that would have fed into the book very nicely.

The first of these is In the Name of the Flesh, a record of Ernesto Sarezale’s time on the Fringe of 2010. Sarezale describes himself as “a Basque cognitive scientist, published poet, performer, stand-up and cabaret act, and video artist living in London” and performed his show, In the Name of the Flesh, at the Banshee Labyrinth on Niddry Street as part of the PBH Free Fringe.

If you dig back to his earliest posts, you’ll find standard publicity info about the show, but then from this post about the first performance, you start to get a flavour of what the whole wild experience is really like. This remark is typical:

It was nerve wracking to have to get the bar staff to assist me with the video connections. Especially when I left briefly for the toilet and found a queue of punters waiting outside to see my show!

From then on, mixed in with his comments on other shows that he’s been seeing – themselves revelatory about the eclectic mix the Fringe offers – he gives updates on the show’s progress and its variations from performance to performance: one post is even called “Every night is different“. 

Sarezaleis honest about lessons learned along the way, such as the realisation that it might have been better to list the show as theatre and not comedy in the Fringe Programme. Anyone thinking of appearing on the Fringe for the first time would do well to cast their eye over his“15 (or so) lessons learnt at the Edinburgh Fringe 2010” (he gets extra points for linking to an article I wrote). 

His post-Fringe comments are particularly good, being frank but not cynical, and giving a clear sense of the battering and the exhilaration you can get from a run in Edinburgh. Rather charmingly, in “Was it worth it?” he puts the lows in a tiny point size and the highs nice and big. 

Still in reflective mode, his very latest post, from just the other day, looks back on what he wanted from his Fringe run and what has happened to him since; as the penultimate chapter of my book suggests, the Fringe stays with you long after the final curtain.

Then last year, Sophie Caswell blogged about her experience bringingto Edinburgh a show calledI Know What You’re Thinking by her mind-reading partner Doug Segal. Her Fringe Trimmings blog starts with details of the earliest marketing campaign, then after a couple of updates, pauses for a few days because the pace, in her own words, is “f**king frantic“. 

As withSarezale’s blog, it’s the reflective posts that give much of the flavour, whether it’s “My top 10 Ed Fringe moments“, capturing the craziness of it all, or “Farewell Edinburgh, you sexy sexy beast” admitting how hard it is to say goodbye.

Then in “Come to Edinburgh where the streets are paved with opportunity“, she reveals how the show was spotted by a comedy promoter, leading to a return trip in 2012:

Edfringe is like playing SuperMario you have to leap over a lot of barrels to get to the boss fight at the end, by which time you’re exhausted – but if you win, you get to the next level…. and that next level has totally different challenges … and
comes under the category of ‘uber-exciting-scary and even harder work’.

Naturally, as every good social networker knows, this can only mean one thing: a new blog, this one called Further Up the Fringe. Watch that space.

I’m sure there are many similar blogs out there – do tell me if you know of any good ones. There’s also one promised by magician Ian Kendall who told me when I met him the other day that he had a 21-year track record on the Edinburgh Fringe and had never lost money. If he really “can’t get [his] bahookie in gear,”  as he said in a recent tweet, that’d be a great place to start.

Should you join the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society?

Author Mark Fisher outside the Fringe Office

THERE was an interesting exchange of Twitter messages this week between me and comedians Elise Harris and Andrew J Lederer. The 140 characters of Twitter are not ideal for expressing the subtleties of a complex debate, so I hope Elise and Andrew will add their own comments at the end of this post – in the meantime, I’ll try and do justice to what they said, the approximate order in which they said it and what I was thinking at the time.

It started with this tweet from Elise:

Wondering whether it’s worth going in the main book with my Edinburgh show this year. Advice from anyone who’s done the Fringe without it?

By “book”, she was referring to the 280-page Fringe Programme, traditionally regarded as the bible for fringegoers and the index of everything that’s on in the world’s biggest arts festival. Eying my chance to gain a reader of  The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide(yes, dear reader, I’m that shameless), I replied:

@eliseharris All advice is not to go it alone unless you have a very particular reason. See my book: edinburghfringesurvivalguide.com #edfringe #edfest

To which Elise said:

@MarkFFisher well the book is expensive and no longer seems worth it at all. Doesn’t seem to bring people in, even.

And I said:

@eliseharris It’s your choice, but signing up for @edfringe gives you more than just programme entry. It’s discussed quite a lot in my book.

What I had in mind were two stories related in my book about performers who had gone ahead without being in the Fringe Programme. One told me he’d had a disastrous time and had returned for a second year determined to do things right; the other  managed to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat, but only with considerable professional support and a great show (and even he said he wouldn’t do it the same way again). My general feeling is you have competition enough without making yourself invisible by avoiding the Fringe Programme.

I was also thinking about what else you get for your payment to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. The entry in the Fringe Programme is the most visible benefit – online as well as in print – but what you’re paying for is also a way to sell your tickets through a central box office as well as an extensive set of support services in areas such as press and marketing and post-Fringe planning.
Elise said:

@MarkFFisher if I had the spare funds I would but it’s looking increasingly tight and I won’t ever see that money again.

At this point, Andrew joined in with these three tweets:

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher Don’t know what it says in your book Mark, but I do know for many, the cost of “official” entry is a useless waste

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher The Fringe Society “extras” amount in a practical sense to nothing unless you are a neophyte.

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher Last note: U gotta be in SOME book & it’s gotta be one people use, either the main, the free or the big venue one.

My comment about this was:

@ajlondemand @eliseharris Andrew = old hand so take him seriously, but 2500 companies choose @edfringe programme so he’s in a minority

Being in a minority doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, but anyone contemplating going it alone would be sensible to consider the possibility that there is wisdom in this particular crowd. To this, Andrew replied:

@MarkFFisher @eliseharris @edfringe And many/most of those 2500 should be. I agree.

I added:

@eliseharris @ajlondemand Do you need reviewers, agents, promoters, judges and auds to see your show? If so, how will they know it’s on?

What I hadn’t realised at this point was that Elise is planning to perform in one of the free festivals. This does put a different perspective on things. For a start, if your show is free (and unticketed), you have no need of a box office. I’m guessing that’s what Elise means when says she “won’t ever see that money again” – she would be paying for a box office that would not pay her anything in return.

The question then is how valuable the Fringe Society’s other services are to her. There is no fixed answer to this question: it depends on what she wants to get out of her run on the Fringe. Only she can answer that.

But for a free show, it’s quite possible that the most effective use of funds is to do as Andrew suggests: make sure your show is listed in your venue’s programme and concentrate on flyering audiences on the street. Andrew said this:

@MarkFFisher @eliseharris She’s in the Free Fringe. Audiences come directly from the FF programme. & Flyering. A press release may get press

@MarkFFisher @eliseharris Likewise, a listing in the Society programme may not. Judges are irrelevant to most shows.

Equally, though, Elise herself then made the point that being in the Fringe Programme had the knock-on benefit of getting you included in, for example, newspaper listings:

@ajlondemand @MarkFFisher yes you need to be in a book of some sort. Though need to be in big book for most listings. Might have to think.

As for my point about all the various people – “reviewers, agents, promoters, judges” – who may be using the Fringe Programme in addition to regular audiences, she said:

@ajlondemand @MarkFFisher yes Free Fringe best for getting people in, and reviewers tend to be useless anyway. Official listings the problem

I’d be interested to know what she means by reviewers being useless – not because I am one (I know how useless I am), but because even in the past few days, I’ve been finding reviewers very useful as a way of promoting my book. Putting their nice comments on my website here strikes me as a very effective way of persuading people not only to buy the book but also to take me seriously in anything I might do in future. The value of reviews on the Fringe is partially to do with attracting audiences and partially, for those that want it, to do with raising your profile, persuading funders, getting gigs, or whatever, after the festival.

All of which brought us to a final volley of comments from Andrew (and one from Elise) which, I think, are worthy of further discussion:

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher Over time, as the Free becomes an ever larger component, the press will b forced to list its shows wout Fringe reg

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher In the short term, I’ve found that if you’re in a good free venue at a good time, you’ll get an audience.

@eliseharris @MarkFFisher And it helps if you have a good show. ‘Specially now, w/Twitter, etc, people spread word quickly if you do.

@ajlondemand @MarkFFisher though a bad venue at a bad time and nothing will help!

You know what? I think my comments to @eliseharris & @markffisher re @edfringe would be helpful to people. So, look. #edfringe

I’m interested to hear what other people have to say about this. One thing I would emphasise, however, is that Andrew’s perspective is likely to make most sense a) if you are performing in the PBH Free Fringe or the Laughing Horse Free Festival and b) if your only concern is getting audiences. The picture changes quite dramatically if you are performing anywhere else or if you have any additional reason for appearing on the Fringe, such as being spotted by an agent, getting post-Fringe gigs and other professional concerns.  The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guidegoes into this in much more detail.

Miriam Attwood’s tips for surviving the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

MIRIAM Attwood, former media manager in the Fringe Office, gives her tips for a successful run on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Come to the Fringe for the right reasons: “They’re all completely different reasons, but they are the right reasons for them.”

Keep your marketing image consistent: “If you’re going to have council poster boards, it needs to be the same image and exactly the same theme as in the programme, so that people who flick through the programme and think it is interesting will see it again.”

Have faith in your ability to go it alone: “If from the moment you do your programme entry, you plan, you are meticulous about everything you do and bring in extra people to help, you can do it all yourself.”

Avoid hype: “Being honest in your marketing about what you’re doing is exactly the right approach.”

Get a plan and stick to it: “Be organised, do a good show, be prepared for exhaustion and heartbreak, think about what you want, be open about your aims, make sure your whole company is engaged, plan, read any bit of supporting information you can, talk to companies that have done the Fringe before and come and talk to the media team in the Fringe Office. The majority of people I speak to at the end of the festival who have made a plan and fulfilled it are happy.”

Don’t feel obliged to over-do it: “The view that a lot of Fringe comedians present on television is to do with crazy stories of wild nights out. But you know that 18 nights of their festival, they went home at midnight, having had a couple of drinks after the show and maybe they had two nights when they ended up in the Penny Black [a pub with very late licensing hours]. People come and work hard – and sandwich in some craziness within that.”

Support your fellow performers and get them to support you: “They feedback criticism and comments and they’ll say, ‘Do you realise you’ve got this amazing vision? Do you realise this show is about a massive news story at the moment and have you emailed The Scotsman arts diary?'”

Find more words of advice in The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide.

Launch of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide

A celebrated author, yesterday

AND we’re off. A lovely launch yesterday at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (aka Venue 150) where we sneaked in after the Fringe Society roadshow to declare The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide well and truly open. 

I was struck not just by the physical manifestation of so many books laid out on the table – all real – but also the people in the room who, whether they were quoted in the book or not (and many of them were), were a cross-section of the Fringe community.

Among the crowd were Tomek Borkowy, director of the New Town Theatre; Laura Mackenzie Stuart of Creative Scotland; Judith Doherty and Debroah Crew of Grid Iron; Keith Bruce, arts editor of the Herald; Joyce McMillan, theatre critic on the Scotsman; Kath Mainland and her team from the Fringe Office; Claire Wood from Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group; Andrew Dixon, chief executive of Creative Scotland; Neil Cooper, theatre critic on the Herald; Thom Dibdin, theatre critic for the Stage; Trish McGuinness, arts publicist; Laura Cameron Lewis, producer and theatre-maker; Dani Rae, theatre producer; Mhari Hetherington, arts administrator; Dana MacLeod of the British Council; Shona Craven of onstagescotland.com; Malcolm Kennedy, in charge of public entertainment licensing at the City of Edinburgh Council; Sam Gough of the EICC; Trisha Emblem, former deputy administrator of the Fringe Society; Amy Taylor of TV Bomb and . . . well, you get the picture.

First, Anna Brewer, my editor from Methuen Drama, gave a very generous speech. She described how she’d come up with the idea of a book about how to do a show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and sent her proposal to an unknown theatre critic (me) to comment on. One of her questions was about who should write the book, whether it should be a Fringe insider, a collection of specialists or a single author. This she remembered, was my reply: “As a freelance
journalist, I am biased. Not only do I think there should be a single author,
but I think it should be me.”

It did the trick.

In my speech, I described how my favourite section of the book was the index. This, I explained, was partly because, as the son of two librarians, I had a weird thing about alphabeticalisation. It was also because the juxtaposition of entries in the index summed up the endlessly fascinating, multifarious nature of the Fringe. 

To give an example, I asked the assembled group for a letter of the alphabet. Someone shouted out “P”. I began reading from the book:

  • Palace of Holyroodhouse – the Edinburgh residence of the queen
  • Palin, Michael – a sometime Fringe performer
  • Paradise is Closing Down – a play by Pieter-Dirk Uys which was the first ever show brought to Edinburgh by William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly
  • Parks, Brian – the New York playwright whose work was brought to Edinburgh by John Clancy
  • Parsons, Nicholas – BBC entertainer and regular visitor to the city
  • Passion Flower – a cabaret show by jazz singer Becc Sanderson
  • PBH Free Fringe – Peter Buckley Hill’s innovative way of keeping costs down
  • Pearson, Debbie – co-director of the similarly innovative Forest Fringe 
  • Penelope – a play by Enda Walsh

The selection was chosen at random but, as I suspected, it gave a sense of the mix you find in every hour of the Edinburgh Fringe: highbrow and lowbrow, comic and serious, local and international, musical and dramatic, esoteric and mainstream, high-profile and underground.

My point, in a speech designed to thank people and say “it couldn’t have happened without . . .”, was that the book, like the Fringe itself, couldn’t have happened without this amazing collision of disparate elements. That’s one of the things that made it a joy to write and that, year after year, makes the Edinburgh Festival Fringe the most exciting place on the planet.

If you’ve had anything to do with it at all – thank you. 

How big should your venue be?

Keith Fleming and Gail Watson in Barflies

EDINBURGH’S Grid Iron is back in action from tonight, this time with a tour of Barflies. This was the show, based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, that the theatre company performed in its own local – the Barony Bar on Broughton Street – during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe of 2009.

The show was one of that year’s hits. Tickets were like gold dust and would-be audiences were so desperate to see it they had the kind of wild-eyed look you only ever see on the Fringe.

There were many reasons for this. Grid Iron has a formidable reputation on the Fringe, with a 15-year track record of site-specific shows that have got the festival talking. Choosing to perform Barflies in a real pub sounded like a novelty worth checking out. And fans of Bukowski liked the sound of it.

People were also interested in the creative team, including producer Judith Doherty (who has lots of wise things to say in The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide), director Ben Harrison, composer David Paul Jones and actors Keith Fleming and Gail Watson (in a part now being played byCharlene Boyd). It also had the full weight of the Traverse Theatre’s marketing department behind it. 

Added to that, it was a good show, so it’s not hard to understand its success. 

But one other factor contributed to the particular fervour the show generated. That factor is scarcity. The Barony Bar is an average-sized pub, not a fully kitted-out theatre. Any show there will have a limited audience capacity. Driving the buzz around Barflies was a feeling that tickets were rare. Getting to see it took some effort. Scarcity made the show seem more valuable.

If you can achieve something similar, it is great for a show’s reputation outside the theatre and it’s also great for the atmosphere inside. Whatever size room you’re in, your performers will almost always prefer to play to a packed house than a half-empty one. 

That’s a point made by Martyn Jacques in The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide. With his band the Tiger Lillies, he’s had the experience of having a nominally successful run on the Edinburgh Fringe that he didn’t enjoy as much because the room was rarely sold out. He finds it much more enjoyable to play to a sell-out crowd in a smaller-capacity space. It’s more exciting for audiences and for performers.

Of course, it is very difficult to guess how many people you are likely to attract to your Fringe show, but given the choice, you might find it better to go for a smaller venue than a larger one. It sounds counter-intuitive, but you might have a better time – and so might your audience.

Mark Fisher on The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (from The List)

Mark Fisher with a backdrop of Edinburgh Castle pic: Lotte Fisher

Published in The List

The theatre critic’s new book delivers some essential advice to aspiring Fringe performers


1 Choosing a title takes ages

It’s as straightforward as they come, yet The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide was a title born of months of discussion. The subtitle, How to Make Your Show a Success, was arrived at no quicker. My editor couldn’t believe it.

2 The Edinburgh Fringe is the most exciting place on Earth

Actually, I knew this already, but the process of researching the book really brought it home. Not only were all the actors, comedians, directors, producers and publicists I spoke to passionate about the Fringe, but they reinforced the sense of it being unique. No festival on the planet has such a combination of scale, discovery, opportunity, unpredictability and exhilaration. That’s why it’s addictive.

3 You don’t have to mortgage your house

No question the Fringe is costly and no question it’s only the elite few TV-name comedians who make money, but I heard relatively few stories of financial ruin. Whether you treat it as an expensive holiday or a long-term investment in your career, you should be able to come up with a manageable budget. If you have a clear grasp of costs and a realistic projection of income – plus a bit of fund raising – you should be able to break even.

4 Flyering works

To you, it looks like a load of waste paper, but time and again, performers told me how much difference well-targeted face-to-face marketing made to their audience numbers.

5 Overdoing it the night before can do more than ruin your show

Among the book’s horror stories is the time comedian Ed Byrne stayed up all night, nodded off at Edinburgh Airport and missed his flight to the Reading Festival.

The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Methuen) is published Thu 16 Feb.

© Mark Fisher, 2012

Good timing or Fringe box-office arms race?

ROUND about now is when many companies are deciding whether they really should perform on this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, applying to venues and making all those decisions that’ll affect them for the rest of the year.

As long as they stay focused, there’s plenty of time to make the decisions that will suit them best. The other day, someone on Twitter was wondering if it was too early to start looking into accommodation for August. The answer, according to The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, is that although some people book as early as the autumn, you should still be in good time if you wait until March – and even July is not impossible if you’re prepared to accept a more limited choice.

The answers to this kind of question are related to the timing of the Fringe Office as a whole. The Fringe Programme is published in June, which means the final programme deadline is mid-April, which means you should ideally have sorted out your venue and dates by some time in March. Everyone follows much the same pattern which is why, until recently, it has been generally accepted that nobody talks about their Fringe shows until the programme is published.

In recent years, however, there has been pressure from the more commercial end of the market to announce headline acts much earlier. If you’re a top-name comedian, you’re used to launching a UK tour anything from six months to 18 months in advance. With a lot of tickets to sell, such people are nervous about giving only a couple of months’ notice.

Today’s Scotsman reports that not only have a number of big-name shows gone on sale already for 2012 (as I noted in this blog about Alan Davies here), but also the Fringe Society is including them on its edfringe.com website. Neil Mackinnon, the Fringe Society’s head of external affairs, is quoted saying:

“As soon as a company knows they are coming to the Fringe and venues are
ready to put tickets on sale, we can put a show on the website.”

This is a significant change in policy and opens up the possibility of a competitive festival getting more competitive still. Will it encourage participants to show their hand ever earlier just to gain an advantage at the box office? And will it be the smaller companies that suffer as a result? 

The evidence from the past couple of years suggests that need not be the case. In fact, it may even be beneficial. If someone buys tickets for a Rhod Gilbert, Jimeon or Jason Byrne today, it’s likely they’ll have money in their pockets again for a less mainstream act by the time August comes around. If, on the other hand, they do all their spending after June, there’s less chance of them having the money to spread around.

If the trend continued beyond a handful of TV names playing 1200-seat rooms, it could diminish the impact of the Fringe Programme launch in June. But this is the world’s biggest arts festival and there are many hundreds of companies still to commit, let alone announce their dates, so we’re still a long way off any kind of box-office arms race taking place.

Watch this space all the same.