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Careers Clinic: How do I prep a ‘topical’ show in advance?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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A friend and I started a sketch group last year, which has now grown to five people and started to build a following on the pub circuit. A few months ago we were approached by a promoter who suggested we take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. The wage won’t be huge but he is covering travel and accommodation and has found us a venue, so we all felt it was a good next move and could be a great showcase for us.

We had to do the poster and show description in advance so the publicity could start, and there seems to be a lot of interest already. The only problem is we’re finding it hard to get our script done, never mind rehearsals. We’ve promised audiences (and our backer) a ‘hilarious topical show’ but with so much uncertainty around the news at the moment, how do we know what we write now will still be current by the time we get to Edinburgh?

John Byrne’s advice

Creating a fringe show – topical or otherwise – is always a messy process. If I were you, I would let go of any fixation around making your show perfect and get on with the more mundane task of simply making it. The sooner you get that process started, the more leeway you will have to hone and improve your finished product before press night. It’s worth pointing out that unhelpful perfectionism seems to be a condition that particularly affects ‘up and coming’ performers such as yourself.

Complete beginners are often braver and more experimental because they don’t feel they have a reputation to lose. As for established acts, it doesn’t take many years in the business before you learn that very few single shows can permanently make or break your reputation. In that tantalising in-between period, it feels like every move and decision will either take us closer to, or further away from, our big break. This can leave us feeling just as stressed and under pressure as we would feel if we had chosen a more mundane career.

I agree that given the speed at which the current news agenda changes, a topical story that might be all over social media today may be forgotten or superseded by events a month or two from now. However, the bigger themes that inform topical humour – such as hypocrisy, greed, power and privilege – haven’t changed in centuries and are always ripe for fresh comic interpretation.

While uncertainty over the realities of Brexit isn’t great for our industry, or anyone else’s, uncertainty in itself is always a fertile source of comic ideas. It is also often a good basis to create the kind of material that derives from how you see things playing out, however fanciful those predictions may be.

That said, if over the last year or two you have material you know works, don’t be afraid to explore whether or not there are sections that can be updated for your upcoming show. Just as a singer preparing a set would do, start with an hour or so of material that combines ‘greatest hits’ with new material. This can give you the confidence to get your rough version to the point where you can start performing it in front of preview audiences. It is often the interactive part of the process that tells you honestly what works and what doesn’t.

Focus less on trying to predict the future, and more on having fun in the moment.
That really is the best chance you can give yourself to be one of the topical successes of this year’s fringe.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

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