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.