Monday, 22 February 2016

How to...Edinburgh Fringe: A Retrospective


  Lizzie Roper, actor, had the following to say in 2001, when she produced our two-hander Ballet Who?! Some of the advice is obsolete. There's now the Free Fringe. Some of the venues Lizzie mentioned are no longer there.

  There’s a bit of a mentality that Edinburgh is going to find the diamond in the shit. No – you have to be enormously well prepared!
  Not going when you’re eighteen, please. We don’t want you up there before you’ve been getting changed in the toilets and ignored in grotty pubs for at least three or four years. You’ll be pissing money away and lowering the tone. What’s the latest calculation?  It would take something like twelve years, six months and two days to watch all the shows back to back. So the less eighteen year olds wasting everyone’s time with cack, the better.

  Why should you do it? Because it’s trade fair visited by people trying to make TV for less and less every year. 
  So, right, if you can afford it, and they can be bothered with you, you could pay a producer serious money to take you up there. 

  I did this in 2002, for Madame Galina Ballet Star Galactica. What Lizzie had taken care of the previous year, Fat Bloke Productions took care of this: entry into the Fringe brochure, venue hire, box office deal, PR, accommodation, travel to Edinburgh.  And charged me six thousand pounds. Aside from the prospect of not being able to eat, drink or be merry for the following three years at least, I also missed the hands on feel of going up to Edinburgh with Lizzie in 2001. And I’m not talking if you want something done do it yourself here. Fat Bloke were terrific. Mostly. But if I saw a poster for my show anywhere, I was aware that neither Lizzie or I had stuck it up there with blue-tac. 
  And I definitely preferred doing my own PR. If getting bums on seats depends on your flyering then you will flyer. Specifically, performing at showcases is a gift in this respect. The audience has seen you, and can now take your flyer away with them. When I performed at a showcase and none of the forewarned Fat Bloke street team turned up to flyer, it really annoyed me. 
  Another drawback to going up with a production company is other performers wasting pooled admin resources. In 2002 one fellow Fat Bloke performer complained to the office every day in three thousand word e-mails. Another accused Paul in PR of neglecting him - even after Paul had seen Guardian and Time Out critic Brian Logan at a loose end in The Pleasance Courtyard and press-ganged him into The Cellar, getting this Edinburgh virgin performer a national review eleven days earlier than he could justifiably have hoped. 

  So, if going with a producer is not for you, work out a budget and cut your cloth. Without letting it get to you, find out what your twenty-grand would have got you. Now, what of that is vital to getting bums – including influential arses – on seats? Take heart, Frederick - so much of it is word of mouth getting back to critics, theatre programmers and TV executives. And that costs nothing but your own hot air. Okay, if your show’s shit it won’t happen, but that buzz is what you need to create.
  Get them talking before you’ve even done anything. You are always, always on duty. As soon as you decide on doing Edinburgh, you have to see every situation as potential to get bums on seats from there on in. This is, of course, if you’re not going up there for an adventure holiday of showing off plus alcohol, barbecue crisps and kebabs. And by kebabs, Iestyn, I mean you. What was all that shit you promised yourself? When in Edinburgh I will eat five fruits and vegetables a day, I will flyer, I will rest before the show, I will drink sparingly and get hours sleep a night.  You did one of those things: you flyered. Oh, and you lumbered us with that Canadian because you were so pissed you thought he said he worked a lot in TV whereas he’d actually said he worked a lot as a TV.

  You have to get onto the previewing quick smart. At least once every two weeks from the beginning of June. Get your material as tight as you can. Forty minutes of tight is always going to be better than an hour and a bit of loose. Don’t be the twat who takes stuff up there that’s practically prolapsed.

  Go to the opening event at your venue. Make sure you meet everyone, ask what they’re in, tell them what you’re in. If at all possible go and see all the shows at your venue, and make sure the performers know you went. If they come to see you, then you are duty-bound to return the compliment. 
 Bollocks, I remember saying to Lizzie before we started our show one night, the cast from that new highlands writing play with the lead character that only speaks through her violin are out front…
  Could have been worse…Supergirlie were in our venue.
  Everywhere you go talk about shows you’ve enjoyed. Where possible big up a person’s show within earshot of them. Make them feel duty bound…
  
 Be up for everything. 
 The PR girl at our venue threw a free drink and finger-food bash as a thank you to a shop keeper who had thrown money at her. All the performers in the venue were asked along. The Brat Pack Kiwi stand up foursome went in their suits, and Lizzie and I went in our frocks. No-one else could be arsed. The PR girl was peeved.
  'Thank you so much, guys - doesn’t look like it was worth all your efforts, though, does it?'
  What she didn’t know, but found out, was that Lizzie Roper can turn a mormon undergraduate returning his civil engineering text books to a Seattle library into a party.
  'Do a ballet solo,' she said. I danced Giselle in two square feet. 
  'I’ll sing a song”, she said. I accompanied her in "Fever".
  'Cameras,' she said. I grabbed the truly scrumptious one of the Brat Pack boys for a photo call.
  It made our PR girl love us, word went round the local press that we were up for a laugh, and we ended up getting a spread in the Scottish equivalent of Woman’s Realm. Now that, when the Scots tend to see the Festival as something for outsiders, did us a huge favour.
  
  Contact the researchers on the showcases. 
  Nicholas Parsons and Mervyn Stutter were the things to be seen on when Lizzie and I were up there. We got four spots in all. You do your ten minutes to a full room and you hand out your flyers at the end.
  Never underestimate them, either. That second year that I went up with Fat Bloke, I allowed them to schedule my show at the same time as the Nicholas Parsons Show. I still wish I hadn’t.

   Accommodation is phenomenally expensive, while taxis are cheap. So, the further out from the centre you are, the better.
  If possible, do a house-swap.
  E-mail everyone you know, have known or might know and get them onto reccying round for somewhere you might stay for free. You never know, Charlie Bucket found the Golden Ticket.
  For rentals, check the Fringe website, accommodation services, estate agents, halls of residence; and get phone numbers for anywhere that might have a noticeboard: supermarkets, libraries, colleges, stage doors, brothels, church porches, etc. Best is a tame Edinburghite to go and look for you. It’s the least they can do if, for whatever reason (and it had better be a good one) they’re not putting you up for free. 

  Flyer for a minimum of two hours a day, at a time when you can suggest: 'So go and have a stroll, a cup of coffee – have you tried that fabulous new place in the Cowgate? – chill out, come and see us, buy us a drink afterward!' Put the idea in their head. Engage with them. See flyering as a warm-up for the performance. Don’t go up to people and ask them if they might like one of these? Or worse: just hand the flyer out. All right, don’t embarrass them by singing at them or trying to dance with them, but a bit of a 'Wahey' or a 'Fancy a bit of this?' or 'Here’s what you lovely people want to be doing at ten fifteen in the Billiard Room tonight.' And it’s not personal. You’re a salesman. They don’t have to buy. Do it in costume if it will help, don’t if it won’t. And always ask permission before you flyer at shows that could be classed as if you liked that, you’ll like this.

  If you can get at broadcasters and journalists that will in all likelihood go to Edinburgh, then get. They are always on the look out for stories. Ring and sell them yours. Hang out every day with the PR person at your venue and see what leads they might have to follow up. Suss out (or invent) angles that you think a journo might be able to use and send them a flyer for your show. Write the article for them, highlighting the six points they have to get over. Nothing more, nothing less. Too much and the selling potential is weakened, too much and they may have to fall back on invention. Never think something isn’t worth following up. You never know who will be interested in who, or what.

  Which brings us neatly to reviews. If you get a good one, in a worthy rag, with lots of stars, then thank your lucky ones. Photocopy it with your finger firmly on the enlarger button and blue-tac copies to your posters. (You ought to have done your own poster run, by the way. Besides keeping costs down, you will have a good idea where they are when you need to go round again with your look how marvellous I am review). Staple a tiny copy to your flyer. If and when you get a better review, do the same. 
  If you get a bad review – ouch! It’s like spraining your ankle. It’s a pain, but you’ll get over it.  
  Only bother with constructive reviews; those that say what they show was about, what the reviewer thought about it, what worked, what needs work, and how the audience reacted. Ignore both rave and rank reviews. The Kipling quote engraved above the players entrance at Wimbledon nails it: to meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters both the same. These Edinburgh reviews are good for one thing only: quotes for the future. Yes, even the poor ones if you can bear to look. 
  Bless the comedian who got a review saying: 'If you have nothing better to do, if there is no paint to watch drying, no grass to watch grow…If you’ve tired of trying to de-drop your own testicles with a table tennis bat, gouging out your own eyes with a desert spoon, disembowelling yourself with a rusty kitchen knife...then go and see…' - and used only the last three words 'Go and see...' on his next print run. 
   And I was blue-tac'ing the quote 'Frankly, who gives a shit?' from my List review to flyers in 2002 until my director Neale Simpson saw one, rang me, and in his trying not to smack a toddler voice told me: 'The arts centres you’ll be going to have mailing lists with the emphasis on Mail, as in Daily, so take that quote off your flyer, thanks.'

  Your Show.
  Keep the production values simple and the costs down. You want the minimum number of performers performing something that is very much content over packaging. In Edinburgh, one person is a cast - and anything above two is pure Cecil B. DeMille, so stop it. Don’t have more props than you can fit in a plastic bucket while still leaving room for the spade. If you talk of being in a lighting state, you’re asking for it; and don’t kid yourself that using video, graphics and the rest of it will make up for material that’s like meanly sliced Emmental.

  Your print.
  If you can’t translate your comic idea into a two dimensional image to sell your show, then don’t. Beg a favour – steal, if you must – from a friend that can.
  And check the standard. Your poster mustn’t look cack, whoever’s designed it. It’s to sell your wares at an International Festival of ginormous kudos, not for mummy to put on the fridge.'

   Venue.
  For comedy, try for one of the big three: The Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon or The Pleasance. C Venue and The Underbelly are great, too. All the above have an established reputation which makes both performers and punters want to go to them.
  Otherwise, make sure your venue is central and that it has a good walk-by. And don’t believe all the shit a programmer may tell you about a new venue having crowds of the curious in and out from the off. Maybe go to Edinburgh for a week as a punter before you take your first show up there, to watch anything and everything going on onstage and off.
  Be unutterably lovely to the venue manager, the front of house staff and your technician. They see all the shows and will recommend stuff they like. Front of house tend to be wannabe performers themselves, so you have to be extra careful. Technicians, bless them, unless you’re being a total bellend, tend not to give a shit. Which is great. It’s a comfort being round someone who has seen it all and hardly blinked in the smoke from his rollie. Seen countless performers die yet live to tell the tale.

  PR.
  Do it yourself. It’s all little steps and odd connections. Otherwise you can pay a PR bod two thousand pounds and he can’t guarantee to do anything for you. Would you buy a £30 DVD player on that premise?

  Lizzie knew Copstick, so we got a preview article in The Scotsman. Her mate Wendy Llloyd had a show on LBC so we got an interview. And she worked one day a week at Turns who printed out flyers and posters in return and sent their mate Time Out critic Macolm Hay to review us.

  Yes, Iestyn, but all this came from those five years I spent getting changed in loos and ignored in grotty pubs. You build up a network of mates doing the same thing, and pass favours round.

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