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How the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can supercharge careers: ‘You can go as a nobody and be Off Broadway a year later’

Natasha Marshall in Half Breed, which was a hit at Edinburgh in 2017. Photo: Richard Dvaenport
Natasha Marshall in Half Breed, which was a hit at Edinburgh in 2017. Photo: Richard Dvaenport

For many theatremakers, the festival is fraught with financial risk and competition for punters, but it can provide rocket fuel for an artist’s career. Lyn Gardner talks to those whose star has soared following a successful stint in Scotland’s capital and to the veterans who keep coming back.

When Yolanda Mercy stepped on to Cowgate at the start of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, she was confronted by a massive poster of herself advertising her Underbelly show, Quarter Life Crisis. She felt both thrilled and daunted. What she didn’t know, was quite what an impact those four weeks at the festival would have on her career. “Where to begin,” she says. “I got an agent, I got published, I’m working in TV and people are asking me to write and make work.” Mercy knows that some of those things may eventually have happened anyway, but being an Underbelly Untapped-supported artist at the fringe undoubtedly speeded things up.

Yolanda Mercy. Photo: Rebecca Pitt / The Other Richard
Yolanda Mercy. Photo: Rebecca Pitt / The Other Richard

The ability for the festival to provide rocket fuel for early-career artists is one of the reasons why so many pitch up in Edinburgh in August and continue to do so despite the ever-escalating financial risk. Taking a show to Edinburgh is high on the wish list of many starting out in theatre.

“You can go as a nobody, and a year later you find you are playing Off-Broadway,” says director Jessica Lazar of Atticist, who in 2016 took Life According to Saki to C Venues. The production won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award and transferred to New York the following year. Atticist is now an associate company at the King’s Head Theatre, where Lazar’s European premiere of Mart Crowley’s For Reasons That Remain Unclear is currently playing.

Read our interview with Jessica Lazar

Overcoming hurdles

Like Mercy, Lazar admits that the company’s Edinburgh success owes something to luck and not just good planning and great work. Life According to Saki was seen by a Broadway Baby reviewer on the very first day of the festival, when a hole opened up in his schedule. The five-star review he wrote created a buzz around the show in the first few days.

Mercy says she was helped not just by that hard-to-miss poster and the support from Underbelly but also the fact that some key artists saw the show and got behind it on Twitter, so piquing the interest of theatre and TV industry professionals. Then again, both Mercy and Lazar were already winners, to some degree, by the fact they managed to overcome the hurdles of getting their shows to Edinburgh in the first place.

“It has done a lot for me,” says theatremaker Kieran Hurley, whose successes at Edinburgh include Beats and Heads Up, and who has Square Go, a collaboration with Gary McNair, at the Roundabout at Summerhall this August. But he is also troubled by the fringe’s dominance in launching careers.

Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Square Go. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Square Go. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It can be massively enabling if you can get there, but it is a difficult paradox because the model is pay to play. The question we need to ask is: if this is the place which has, and which continues to enable so many careers, who is it that the model excludes? Who never gets to play?”

Some not only get to play but do so repeatedly. It’s not just early career artists who feel its lure, established companies and artists keep returning. This year, there are shows from the venerable People Show, now in its 50th year, which will be at Summerhall with People Show 130: The Last Straw.

Another veteran is Simon Callow, who is at the Assembly Rooms with his Oscar Wilde show De Profundis. Callow first came to Edinburgh in 1973, when he says that “the fringe was just that, a little peripheral straggle of random events; now the fringe wags the dog”.

Successes and failures

Jonathan Holloway and Liam Grundy in The Rockford File. Photo: Enda Madden
Jonathan Holloway and Liam Grundy in The Rockford File. Photo: Enda Madden

Jonathan Holloway beat Callow to Edinburgh by a year, first performing in 1972 as a 16-year-old. It was there he saw Steven Berkoff and Lindsay Kemp and had his eyes opened to what theatre might be.

Over the years, Holloway has had successes and failures, won Fringe First awards and lost money, but he still can’t keep away. This year, he is teaming up with Liam Grundy and bringing The Rockford File to the Pleasance. It’s a show with music that pays homage to the 1970s television series and has its eye on a growing demographic at the fringe: the silver pound.

After so much fringe experience, Holloway is pretty relaxed about what he wants the festival to do for him this year. It is a show, he remarks, that puts 120 years of theatre experience on stage. “It exists in the present and it might have a future and it might not.”

He continues: “The fringe has occupied me for more than 40 years,” adding that this year he and Grundy have “broken the golden rule and put our own money in”, and they would quite like not to lose it. But push him, and the possibility of another Edinburgh hit at this point in his career is still a seductive one.

As poet and playwright Luke Wright says: “There is nothing quite like coming home after the fringe thinking, ‘I smashed it’, and feeling that you’ve won Edinburgh.”

Winning a Fringe First and considerable attention for his one-person show What I Learned from Johnny Bevan in 2015, made him feel exactly that. But success one year does not guarantee it after.

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan

“Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t,” Wright says. “Of course, you want to be a hit, but if you are not doing well there is consolation in accepting that there is a lot to be learned over an Edinburgh run about yourself and your show.”

Risking reputations

Even those like Callow, who have big reputations, can founder on occasion. He says: “Edinburgh has been very warm to me. It really took to my Dickens and my Shakespeare; they really loved my transvestite Tuesday at Tescos and they loathed my Juvenalia. I’m still not totally sure why.”

If anyone knew exactly what fringe audiences wanted, they would clean up year after year. But even experienced producers and companies are at risk of coming a cropper.

Simon Callow
Simon Callow

Producer Suzanna Rosenthal, who has had huge success over the years with Showstoppers!, reckons that a successful Edinburgh Fringe show is one that has something to say, but also observes that sometimes producers must accept that “if Edinburgh isn’t interested, it just isn’t interested”.

This year, Rosenthal brings a number of shows including The Song of Lunch, with Robert Bathurst, and Harpy with Su Pollard. She will hope to replicate the success of Monica Dolan’s The B*easts at the Underbelly in 2017, which went on to a run at the Bush Theatre in London as well as receive an Olivier nomination. She says neither would have happened without the production’s fringe success.

Robert Bathurst in The Song of Lunch, produced by Suzanna Rosenthal. Photo: Alex Brenner
Robert Bathurst in The Song of Lunch, produced by Suzanna Rosenthal. Photo: Alex Brenner

George Mann co-artistic director of Ad Infinitum, a company that made its early reputation at the fringe, believes if the show has quality an audience will find it. But, he adds, sometimes it takes weeks of effort to find, even for a company as established as his. This year, Mann and his co-director and partner Nir Paldi, are going to the Pleasance with No Kids, a show exploring whether as a gay couple they should or should not have children. Despite years of fringe hits, he knows that it might fail but believes the festival remains the best environment to test a performer and their show.

There is no more honest audience than a fringe audience’ – George Mann, Ad Infinitum

“There is no more honest audience than a fringe audience,” he says. “You know immediately from them what is and isn’t working and you can do something about it. An Edinburgh audience is a tough audience, but they are also honest and that’s important. They are why we go.”

Producer Vicky Graham, who is taking Harry Blake’s musical Thor and Loki to Assembly Roxy, agrees. She thinks that bringing a musical to Edinburgh is a smart move, because the infrastructure and spaces don’t exist in British theatre “to fail with a musical – it has got to arrive fully formed and ready for commercial transfer”. But she says the fringe provides an opportunity to take a risk “and use the four weeks in front of an audience as part of the developmental journey”.

Harry Blake’s Thor and Loki, which is produced by Vicky Graham. Photo: Karla Gowlett
Harry Blake’s Thor and Loki, which is produced by Vicky Graham. Photo: Karla Gowlett

She adds: “You can meet the audience, every single night. The divide between artist and audience in Edinburgh is almost invisible. There is no need to hang around the stage door. Artists and audience are shoulder to shoulder at the bar and the audience members tell you what they think about the show, and that’s really useful.” Although, of course, sometimes it is chastening.

Meeting new audiences is also why more established companies go to Edinburgh. The People Show decided to go this year because the show is topical and they want to expose it to a younger audience, many of whom may never have heard of the company or its long history of making alternative theatre.

Cast members of The Fishermen Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. Photo: Robert Day
Cast members of The Fishermen Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga. Photo: Robert Day

New Perspectives is taking A Fortunate Man to Summerhall and The Fishermen to Assembly George Square. Its artistic director, Jack McNamara, says that while the company has never had the kind of rip-roaring success that can become “a meal ticket”, Edinburgh is a way to keep a company that does a lot of rural touring “in the cultural eye”.

Read our Q&A with Michael Ajao who makes his fringe debut in The Fisherman


Advice for debutant fringe companies

Luke Wright

Luke Wright, Poet Laureate – Bar Bados
“It’s not over until it’s over. Johnny Bevan sold just nine seats one night in the first week. By the final week, it had won a Fringe First and was sold out.”

Jack McNamara

A Fortunate Man – Summerhall; The Fishermen – Assembly George Square
“Be very active with marketing and press and make sure promoters know about your show and you have a strategy for getting them in.”

Jonathan Holloway

The Rockford File – Pleasance
“Never believe your own press release. Read the reviews that are critical of your show, not just the ones that admire it. You might learn something.”

Vicky Graham

Thor and Loki – Assembly Roxy
“Get some sleep and learn the art of being able to filter out all the noise and cope with other people’s success when you are still struggling.”

Francesca Moody

Square Go – Roundabout; Angry Alan – Underbelly
“Have a night off. Eat Salad.”

Gary McNair

After the Cuts – Summerhall; Square Go – Roundabout
“Get a bike so you can get across the city quickly. See everything you can, you will learn such a lot. Buy your falafel from Palmyra.”

George Mann

No Kids – Pleasance
“The fringe can feel like a very competitive environment. But there is enough space for everyone. Spend some time finding your support network for those times when it feels impossible to go on.”

Max Dickens

Kin – Underbelly
“Have a brilliant answer to the question: why should audiences want to see your show when there are so many to choose from?”

Simon Callow

De Profundis – Assembly Rooms
“Earmark £100 out of the budget for dinner one night at Martin Wishart’s restaurant in Leith. If your show’s a hit, there’s no better way to celebrate, and if it’s a flop, by the end of dinner, it won’t seem to matter so much.”

Getting noticed

Putting on work at the festival raises a company’s profile and builds relationships, and for a group like New Perspectives, brings in a different audience from the one they encounter while touring the rural areas of Britain.

“On the rural touring circuit, it can sometimes be hard to get the real critical measure of a show because promoters, audiences and local press are often invested in the work and so they like it,” McNamara says. “So, it’s very easy to tell ourselves that a piece of work is a success because everyone likes it. But the same piece of work can go either way in Edinburgh, which can be a shock but is good for us as a company and keeps us on our toes.”

Edinburgh can be transformative for early-career artists and companies. Individuals like Natasha Marshall, who had a big success last year with Half Breed, which has since toured the UK and gone to India, and companies such as 1927 whose international career took off after the success of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2007. Marshall says her Edinburgh stint “really did change my life”.

Read our interview with Natasha Marshall

In 2014, the learning-disabled company Hijinx went to Edinburgh for a week and made no real impact. But it saw what was doing well and realised that if the company came again it needed to be for the duration of the fringe to give press and promoters time to see the work.

Two years later, it returned with Meet Fred, a collaboration with puppeteers Blind Summit that garnered great reviews and which director Ben Pettitt-Wade says “changed our whole image as a company with audiences and programmers”. The show is still touring internationally and the company is back with a new production at Summerhall, made in collaboration with Spymonkey. Pettitt-Wade hopes they are not tempting fate by calling it The Flop.

Meet Fred review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘slick, smart puppetry’

What difference can a successful show in Edinburgh make? Before the festival in 2016, Hijinx struggled to book an autumn tour of Meet Fred, but after exposure at the fringe, perceptions changed. So much so that within two weeks of sending out an email saying The Flop would be available for touring after its Edinburgh run, the tour was fully booked. “That’s what Edinburgh did for us,” Pettitt-Wade says.

High point of the year

It’s not just about being seen by producers and getting to tour the world. For many artists, an Edinburgh run provides a way to plan their entire year and it puts a marker down. Comedian and theatremaker Mark Thomas, back at the Traverse this year with Check Up: Our NHS at 70, says the fringe “is our Stonehenge – part of the calendar”.

“My career would look very different if it wasn’t for the fringe. When I’m planning the future, August stares out in bold,” says McNair, whose After the Cuts and Square Go are both at the fringe this year. “If it goes well, it plans the next 12 months and maybe beyond for you.”

Mark Thomas. Photo: Steve Ullathorne
Mark Thomas. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

That’s true for a big success, but the vast majority of the hopefuls who head to Edinburgh every year leave disappointed with neither sold-out shows nor international tours booked. Most do not win awards, or even get press and industry professionals in to see their shows.

So, are such Edinburgh experiences a waste of time and hard earned cash? Many believe not, even if their August proved a less-than-glittering fringe.

Thomas says it is a place that “recalibrates you as a creative person”. He makes a point of seeing at least 40 shows every year so he can get a sense of what is happening and changing in theatre and performance.

Jo Crowley, 1927’s producer, who also runs the Total Theatre Awards, thinks that while the fringe is important in terms of opening doors, it is crucial that young artists also recognise its potential as a professional development opportunity. Even if their show is going less well than hoped, it can still bring rewards.

Read our interview with Jo Crowley

“You can go and see other people’s shows, see what they have done right, you can make friends and you can build your peer-to-peer networks,” Crowley says.

“It might all pay off down the line. You have to think long term, not short term. Remember that even if it is not turning out to be the opportunity you thought it might be, it might still be an opportunity. Putting a show on in Edinburgh is about more than putting a show on.”

Further details on this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe are available at edfringe.com. Catch up with our Edinburgh reviews: thestage.co.uk/edfringe

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