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Backstage: Lyn Gardner on what theatremakers need to go to Edinburgh next year

Festivalgoers throng the Royal Mile at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Lou Armor/Shutterstock Festivalgoers throng the Royal Mile at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Lou Armor/Shutterstock
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After being intoxicated by the creativity on display at the world’s largest arts festival, many theatremakers will fancy a go themselves. Lyn Gardner lifts the lid on what you need to make a success of the fringe next year.


Last week, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the biggest party on earth. This week it’s time to clear up, as venues all over the city are dismantled and put away until next year. All over the country, theatremakers who went to the festival this year to support friends or catch a hyped production will be plotting their return next year with a show of their own. But first, there are things worth considering.

Why are you going?

Think about this very carefully, because it could save you a lot of heartache and money. Everyone planning to go to the fringe fantasises about having a sell-out show that sweeps all the awards and goes on a world tour. Of the more than 3,000 shows at Edinburgh this year, that probably happened to fewer than half a dozen.

So manage your expectations and keep managing them all the way through the process by thinking about what could go wrong and how you will react. Can your ego and your bank balance cope if your show is a flop or an also-ran? Most prove to be the latter: neither a disaster nor a huge hit. If that happens to you, are there other things you will be able to take away from your fringe experience that will make it seem worth the money and the hard work?

What show will you take?

Funny how in the excitement of planning to go to Edinburgh, few prioritise what show they are actually going to take. The canniest artists wait until they have a show that they reckon will do well at the festival because they’ve sussed out the marketplace.

There is no such thing as a dead cert in Edinburgh, but you can maximise your chances by bringing work that is more likely to find an audience and grab the attention of producers and programmers. In the rush to get to Edinburgh, make sure you bring your very best work. Younger companies are so eager to get to the fringe that they often pitch up with unfinished or half-baked work. They might just as well sit around burning £20 notes.

Size matters

James Mackenzie of Zoo venues is right when he says “the shows that break even are the ones that are cheap in terms of cast and crew. If you have seven in the cast and a crew of three you are going to struggle financially.” Even if the show is a sell-out.

Venue

It’s important to find a venue the right size for your show – this year Pleasance operated 23 venues, including the 101-seat Upstairs. Photo: heather Pasfield/Pleasance Theatre Trust
It’s important to find a venue the right size for your show – this year Pleasance operated 23 venues, including the 101-seat Upstairs. Photo: heather Pasfield/Pleasance Theatre Trust

Depending what you want to get out of the fringe, it’s horses for courses. Most venues provide clear information on their websites about the costs including fringe registration, the upfront guarantee you will need to pay and the box-office split – normally 60/40 in your favour.

If you have a potentially strong show that a venue really wants, it is worth trying to negotiate a slightly better split. Guarantees are due in the spring but some venues will let you negotiate a staggered payment. It’s worth asking.

If you can’t handle the risk that involves, look at venues offering a fixed rental deal where you keep all the box office. As Darren Neale of one of those venues, Greenside, says: “There were 138 companies we were right for this year and 3,000 we weren’t right for. That’s the beauty of the fringe.”

Spaces at Greenside will set you back between £800 and £1,500 depending on the size and time slot. They are sold on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. But while a fixed-cost venue helps you keep control of spending, audiences may be smaller and you’ll attract less press or producer attention, which is why it predominantly – but not exclusively – hosts student groups.

The fringe may be open-access, but many venues are curated to a greater or lesser extent. This year Zoo Venues had 400 unsolicited applications for 65 slots, Summerhall 340 applications for 73 slots and the Pleasance 1,500 applications for 240 slots. So it’s competitive. It’s not too early to be starting a conversation with the venue of your choice this autumn.

The more information you can provide about your show, the better. When it comes to capacity, venues really do know best. You may think your one-woman King Lear will fill the Pleasance Grand but if they reckon you will be better in the 50-seat Bunker, heed them.

How long should we go for?

The obvious answer to this is for as long as you can afford. But it’s more complicated than that. If your show is a disaster then doing the first half of the festival may be a blessing. But it takes time for word of mouth to kick in, reviews to be published and programmers to work through their list of shows that are creating a buzz. You may well find yourself departing Edinburgh just when your show is on the brink of becoming a sell-out. If you really can only do half the festival, go for the second half. Better still, some venues will let you share a slot with another company doing alternate dates.

Budget

Though many employ a PR agency to raise their profile, some performers resort to unusual tactics to ensure their publicity is seen by the public. Photo: Stephen Finn/Shutterstock

Plan for the best and the worse scenarios, and assume the latter. You can’t get funding from Arts Council England to take a show to Edinburgh, but you can get it to do a few preview dates at venues across the country. But don’t do so many that you are no longer eligible for a Fringe First: only six previews are allowed and the work cannot have been reviewed.

Accommodation

This is the moment to repair your relationship with that second-aunt-once-removed with a house in Edinburgh that nobody in the family has spoken to since 2008. Failing that, start looking at student accommodation before all the overseas companies snap it up.

Press

You don’t have to employ a PR agency. But if the reasons you are going to the fringe is to raise your profile and get reviews then a good PR company can help you do just that. It’s perfectly possible to do it yourself, but when you are busy flyering and performing will you have the time and energy?

If you are thinking of employing a PR agency, look back at who they represented this year and whether any of their clients were making similar work to you. How much preview coverage did they get for those companies and which journalists from which publications did they get to review it? But remember: the PR can get the critics in, but only you can deliver the show that wows them.

Is Edinburgh worth it?

It all depends on the reason why you wanted to go in the first place. Yes, it is mind-bogglingly expensive, but Anthony Alderson of the Pleasance has a point when he says “you can’t get the same results for the same money anywhere in the world”. That’s true if it all goes well for you.

What to do if it all goes wrong?

Put it down to experience and console yourself that in 30 years’ time you will still be boring your grandchildren with tales about the year you went to Edinburgh. Think about all the things that you would do differently next year and then do it again and fail better. When 1927 first came to the fringe it had a horrible time but it did just that. The next year it came back with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The rest is history.

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