What the Avignon Off teaches you about selling your Edinburgh Fringe show

LR: Faith Liddell, Kath Mainland and Rupert Thomson

I’M JUST back from a lightning visit to the Avignon Festival courtesy of the Institut francais d’Ecosse and Festivals Edinburgh. In addition to catching It’s So Nice, a delightfully deadpan tribute to Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, my main purpose was to participate in a presentation about the Edinburgh festivals to would-be participants.

In the panel discussion, Jonathan Mills, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival, talked about his prestigious cross-artform programme; Kath Mainland, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, laid out the open access principles that underpin her work; Faith Liddell of Festivals Edinburgh gave an overview of the city’s 12 major festivals; Rupert Thomson of Summerhall and Vincent Guérin of the Institut francais d’Ecosse gave an insight into the way their programmes work; and I conducted an interview with recent and imminent French visitors to the Fringe.

Knowing I’d be there for little more than 24 hours and wouldn’t have the time to see more than one show, I had made no attempt to find out what else was on. That meant it was only while sitting in a pavement restaurant in Avignon that I first laid eyes on the programme for the three-week Avignon Off, the Francophone answer to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Was this, I wondered, what it felt like for a newcomer to be confronted by the Fringe Programme for the first time? For here was a 396-page guide that was stuffed with plays I’d never heard of, performed by companies I didn’t recognise, taking place in venues that could have been anywhere in this unfamiliar town.

Such a profusion of artistic activity was both tremendously exciting and utterly bewildering. The Avignon Off – “le plus grand theatre du monde” – is not as big as the Edinburgh Fringe, but even at 10am, you have your pick of over 30 shows. That’s more than enough to overwhelm anyone.

I realised straight away that, if I had been able to see a show, I would have been highly susceptible to the twin factors that drive audiences in Edinburgh: flyering and word of mouth.

It would have taken me far too long to study the programme and make guesses about how good the shows were likely to be. What would have made all the difference is a conversation with an actor promoting their show (flyering exists in Avignon much as it does in Edinburgh) or a recommendation from someone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about.

With a few more hours in Avignon, this is almost certainly how I would have decided what to see.

My conversations with the performers I interviewed for The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide confirm this to be the case. Of course, there are people who make a serious analysis of the Fringe Programme and select their shows on the basis of what they know to be good. You need only do a quick search on Twitter to see comedy fans announcing what tickets they’ve been buying for their favourite stand-ups. Those people may be persuaded to see more shows, but much of their time and money is already committed.

Most people, by contrast, are not arts specialists and are likely to be as bewildered by the 376-page Fringe Programme as I was by its Avignon equivalent. If they are in Edinburgh in August, they will most likely be willing to see something; they just don’t know what. This is a great opportunity. Unless your show is aimed at a specialist niche market – like my own Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: Live! – these people are your potential audience.

And the exciting thing about the Edinburgh Fringe is you have the same chance of attracting them as every other company. Here in mid-July, everything is still to play for. That’s a valuable lesson from Avignon.