How to get spotted at Edinburgh, theatre’s transfer window
This August, there will be 3,269 shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Of these, 1,731 will be premieres. The fringe might well be a bubble – but it’s a vast one. And companies both new and old will be crossing their fingers in the hope that their show – if it’s not already on the cards – will be picked up by a promoter or artistic director for a UK tour or a London transfer.
How do visiting venues find the transfer-worthy shows among those clamouring for their attention at the biggest arts festival of the year?
For Steve Marmion, Soho Theatre’s artistic director, it’s “the industry equivalent of a big expo, or one of those fairs where they get six months’ business done in one day”.
The fringe plays a major role in the artistic landscape of many theatres, as a place to debut new work and in terms of post-Edinburgh programming. In this vein, Soho Theatre (along with venues such as Leicester Square Theatre) has established itself as a home for Edinburgh-transferring theatre, comedy and cabaret.
“No one here really takes a holiday in August,” says Marmion. “We saw more than 400 shows [in Edinburgh] last year. And across a year we might see 1,000 shows. That gives you an idea of how much coverage is focused in one window.” In addition, Soho Theatre is taking 17 shows up to this year’s fringe.
When it comes to deciding what to see, the internet is a great research tool, while venues often have existing relationships with companies with work at the fringe. Reviews can also be important in helping to narrow the focus. But even if a theatre’s entire staff is able to decamp to Edinburgh, it’s still a major task.
For Marmion, tapping into the informal networks of longstanding fringe-goers, the word-of-mouth “at 2am in Abattoir [Underbelly’s performers’ bar]”, is important. His team is as hands-on as possible, but, he says: “We also empower the artists we’ve taken up there, to go and see shows under our banner – to let us know when they see work that does it for them.”
Such theatre scouts can be extremely useful – particularly for identifying work that might be off the established radar.
Amber Massie-Blomfield, joint chief executive and executive director of Islington-based Camden People’s Theatre, says: “It’s about trying to extend our reach in terms of finding those companies that don’t automatically cross our doorstep or come into our inbox.”
“We have quite a young audience here,” she continues. “I’m in my 30s, [artistic director] Brian Logan is in his 40s. As most of our scouts are in their early 20s, they might have slightly different tastes from us,” she says. “An open dialogue is important.”
Theatre scouting can be a good opportunity for a drama student – or anyone considering a theatre career – to explore what is out there. While CPT is not currently able to remunerate its scouts, Massie-Blomfield says that they get free tickets to shows and events at CPT.
CPT has about 20 scouts, selected as part of “a big call-out” this January, with a focus on university drama departments. “We try to make sure at least 20% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds,” Massie-Blomfield emphasises. “That’s about us diversifying the input to our programming conversations. They’re keeping their eyes peeled for us.”
Questions about diversity and access at the Edinburgh Fringe – where the cost of taking part can preclude many – are acute. While he calls August an “incredibly fruitful time of year” and the fringe an “exciting, valuable place”, David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, is especially aware of this.
For 2016, BAC is collaborating with Total Theatre. Jubb explains: “We’re looking to pay for a couple of young people from Battersea – who would never think of going to Edinburgh or who wouldn’t be able to afford to get up there – to go and work and see loads of shows.”
Salaried, with their accommodation paid for, these individuals will act as theatre scouts alongside BAC’s staff, enabling them to take advantage of what Jubb calls the fringe’s opportunity for an “incredible, high-octane, networking experience”.
Using theatre scouts can be a valuable way of not only covering a greater number of shows, but also of broadening a venue’s artistic outlook in terms of new companies for programming.
If you are a theatremaker taking a show to Edinburgh, how can (and should) you go about attracting a venue’s interest?
Producer Anna Haigh says: “What may happen post-Edinburgh usually goes hand-in-hand with the pre-production stages.” But, she adds: “When it comes to venues or promoters, since people – as a rule – won’t even be thinking about going to Edinburgh until June or July, that’s when I’ll contact people.”
If you are contacting theatres ahead of Edinburgh, do your research. Make sure you approach the right place for your show. Does it reflect a particular venue’s interests? CPT, for example, holds a yearly festival of work on feminist themes; BAC, meanwhile, rarely works with scripts and playwrights, preferring physical or experimental theatre.
CPT, like BAC, welcomes theatremakers getting in touch. “But make sure that your work is a good fit,” says Massie-Blomfield. “It’s frustrating when you get hassled to see a show that has no resemblance to your programme, where the person contacting you hasn’t familiarised themselves with what you’re all about.”
The personal element makes a big difference, Jubb says: “I’m much more likely to respond to a five-line email that says why a show might be specifically interesting to me than to a three-page press release, with pictures and quotes – something that feels like it’s gone out to everybody.”
Richard Jordan has been producing at the fringe since 1998, winning 11 Fringe First Awards. His transfers include 2013’s co-production of Ontroerend Goed’s Fight Night.
“You’ve got to be both strategic and sensible,” he explains, not only in terms of the theatres you’re targeting, but your choice of Edinburgh venue. “It’s about placing the work properly – and bringing your best work.”
Don’t just take a show to the fringe because you feel you should. If you get a theatre in to see a sub-standard production, it’s likely to make it much harder to persuade them to see your work next time. “Sheer enthusiasm is fantastic,” he adds. “That energy makes the theatre business tick over. But some people can forget the ‘business’ part of showbusiness.”
And, argues Jordan, “it’s good to be a flirt, not a stalker” when it comes to corresponding with venues: “That’s an important line.” The key is to leverage your connections prudently.
Fellow commercial producer and fringe stalwart James Seabright has produced 30 shows that have transferred to London, including Eric and Little Ern. He says: “Networking in Edinburgh is important as well. A lot of the time, I will manage to get people in by meeting or recognising them up there.”
Seabright recommends face-to-face follow-ups to emails, as well as “being as organised as possible about the specific targets for your show”. This includes remembering that promoters are also looking for the right show to sell tickets. Critical acclaim isn’t always the sole criterion for a venue with a specific audience.
However, he continues: “Remember to share good reviews and appraisals with people you’re still trying to get in. That can encourage them to fit your show into their schedule.” Even if you can’t get national press coverage, other reviews “still generate noise”.
There’s no way of guaranteeing a transfer. Logistically, even if there’s interest from venues, it can still take time to happen. However, forward planning, strategic networking and making it as easy as possible for the theatres you are targeting to understand where your work is coming from can pay dividends.
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