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Lyn Gardner: Selling out a show is only one marker of success at the fringe – keep faith in your work

Poltergeists Art Heist
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Edinburgh Festival Fringe only officially started on Friday, but already you can see the shine rubbing off for some people. It’s hard to see other people’s shows selling out when yours isn’t. Maybe you’re hardly selling any tickets at all.

I admire the chutzpah of Emergency Chorus who over the weekend put out an SOS on Twitter to say that their show Landscape (1989) had only sold a single ticket for the following day and they would be grateful for some support. They will not be alone.

What sells and doesn’t sell is as much a mystery in Edinburgh as it is anywhere else in the theatre ecology. Last Friday I noticed that Art Heist, a new piece by Poltergeist, had practically sold out at Underbelly. It’s intriguing. Although the company had a hit last year with the lovely Lights Over Tesco Car Park, they are not widely known. So why the rush for tickets?

Even Poltergeist’s Jack Bradfield said it was a bit of a puzzle. The fact that Art Heist is one of this year’s recipients of the Underbelly and New Diorama Untapped award certainly helps. The downside of the Untapped award is that those at Underbelly who are not part of it can feel that their work is overlooked as a result.

Bradfield reckons the fact they never toured Tesco Car Park and that many couldn’t get in to see it in Edinburgh means that FOMO is kicking in. Then, of course, the fact that they have a PR also helps. The company also thought very carefully in advance about what they think Edinburgh audiences want, opting for a comedy caper with a very strong visual image for the poster. That is especially important in Edinburgh, as is the need to be able to pitch the show in a single sentence.

I also wonder whether Art Heist has been helped by the fact that there is an increasing presence in Edinburgh of a network of graduate companies who are very supportive of, and who help amplify, each other’s work. It helps only having 60 seats to sell; it only needs one or two performances to turn red on the fringe app and suddenly there is panic buying.

But maybe selling tickets hinges on the tiniest things. Perhaps if Poltergeist had gone with their original title Compo, which is apparently a component in gilt frames, they would have struggled. Being nearer the front of the brochure probably helps too.

The very first show in the theatre programme this year is Argonaut Theatre’s 00, written by Rory Horne, which is premiering at the Jack Dome, where Poltergeist was last year. Horne first came onto my radar after the terrifically promising Action at a Distance at Zoo a couple of years back, so he has form.

But nonetheless, without a PR, or lots of reviews, it is selling unexpectedly well. Maybe there are loads of fringe-goers who are so daunted by the sheer size of the programme that they never get past the first few pages of the theatre section? Or maybe it is the supportive graduate mafia who are doing their bit to push sales.

Of course, if anyone found the answer they would be rich. But it is crucial to remember that for many indie companies, the Edinburgh fringe is pretty well the only point in the year when they start measuring the success of their work by how many tickets it sells in exactly the same way that the West End does all the time. A kind of madness sets in.

It is understandable when so much is at stake financially that obsession with box office kicks in, but it is important to remember that there will be hundreds of really good shows at the fringe this year that will never sell out, may not get any reviews, or the reviews they deserve, but which are nonetheless very fine pieces of work.

When the sold-out boards go up and your show is struggling to attract an audience, it is all too easy to feel confidence and belief in your work start to slip away. But selling lots of tickets at the Edinburgh fringe is only one marker of success. You are the person who probably knows best whether you’ve made a good show or not. Keep faith in what you’ve made and feel pride in it.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her daily column from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

Lyn Gardner: At the fringe it pays to be brave, for audiences as well as artists


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