What I learnt about putting on a Fringe show

THE series of six chat shows I hosted during the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe could scarcely have been more simple. The format was straightforward: me and three or four guests sitting in front of an audience discussing the various challenges of putting on a Fringe show for an hour. I did not have to worry about building a set, remembering lines, keeping up company morale or sorting out accommodation.

The Butlers serving Tattie Shaw’s fruit

Despite this, it was remarkable to realise how much time and energy the show took up. Here are some of the things I discovered:

The responsibility of doing your own show

It is not unusual for me to appear on stage in front of an audience. I am quite often asked to chair a post-show discussion or a Book Festival Q&A session. Indeed, during the 2012 Fringe, I chaired four interviews in the Pleasance Bytes series – in the same room and at the same time of day as my own show.

I found it fascinating to realise how different my attitude was to doing this kind of event compared with running my own. Although what the audience saw was essentially the same kind of thing, I felt very differently about it. When I’m a guest on someone else’s show, I take it seriously and may even get a bit of an adrenaline buzz, but I don’t lose sleep over it. I do what I’ve been asked to do, then move on.

With my own face on the flyer, however, something changed. This was my show and its success was my responsibility. If no one turned up, it would be me who had to apologise to the guests and me who had to worry about attracting a bigger audience next time. I was confident the show itself would work (more on that in a moment), but I was much more conscious of the pressure to make sure the whole thing went smoothly and that guests and audience were happy.

The time it takes

One consequence of this was the show took up a lot of mental energy. Particularly before the first two shows, I found it difficult to think about anything else. The various tasks I had to complete were not difficult in themselves, but it was important I got them done. That, coupled with the initial sense of uncertainty about how the event would go, meant this simple show occupied a disproportionate amount of brain power at a time when I was also trying to focus on my job as a reviewer. I didn’t have to do any of the physical labour involved in many Fringe shows, but it was tiring just thinking about it.

In addition to these mental demands, the show took up a surprising amount of organisational time. The tasks were not onerous, but there were a lot of them. Things I had to do included: sending emails to the guests to remind them to turn up; watching the shows the guests were putting on; picking up fruit to give to the audience from my sponsor Tattie Shaw’s; carrying the fruit, flyers and copies of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide to the venue; getting unsold books back home again after the event; sending emails to the guests to thank them for their time; promoting the show by flyering outside Fringe Central or on the High Street . . .

That was just for starters. Additionally, I had to talk to friends and family about how to improve the show; find replacements for two guests who had to pull out at the last minute; ask the Pleasance press office to circulate information about the line-up to other performers; send emails about the show to Fringe companies who had emailed me about their shows; use Twitter and Facebook to tell people about press coverage and forthcoming guests; do interviews with an American documentary maker, a blogger, a Times journalist and a festival radio station; appear on a panel at an event run by the World Fringe Congress . . .

Cumulatively, all these things meant I was thinking about the show almost constantly. If that is true for this, the most simple of shows – and just six performances – how much more must it be true for a major production doing a daily run? I managed to continue seeing shows and do a fair bit of writing (though less than normal), but it’s easy to see how a bigger production would be all consuming.

The lesson: don’t underestimate the time and effort it takes to put on a Fringe show. It’s a lot more than the hour you are on stage.

The neediness of the performer

As a theatre critic and freelance writer, I’m used to being self-reliant and independent. It’s the sort of job that appeals to the lone wolf. I was surprised, therefore, to find myself quite unabashed about encouraging people to come to the show. It was like I needed their support and validation. In August, Edinburgh is a city full of fragile egos, exposing themselves to public scrutiny. In my own small way, I guess I was one of them. If you are planning to perform on the Fringe, it pays to remember how exposed you may feel and to have strategies for coping with that.

My face on the flyer = pressure

Belief in your show

The core message of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide is you should understand your motivation for performing. If you are clear about your purpose, you are more likely to believe in your show. And believing in your show makes all the difference when dealing with everything the Fringe throws at you.

Having written the book, I knew this in theory, but it was great to see how true it was in practice. Call it self-delusion, call it hype, but I never doubted my show was essential viewing. That meant I went out flyering with an evangelical zeal. I surprised myself with my enthusiasm.

Meeting my target audience, I genuinely believed they would enjoy the show. It was no effort for me to speak persuasively about it, because I was saying what I honestly felt. It would have been so much harder if I thought I was selling them a dud. In those circumstances, to go out flyering at all would have taken special reserves of energy, let alone talk to people.

The experience reinforced the importance of doing a show you believe in, remembering why you are doing it and  maintaining your enthusiasm and morale throughout the three weeks.