With high levels of investment required and wafer-thin margins between boom and bust, the Edinburgh Fringe is a microcosm of Wall Street, says Bryony Kimmings, who offers her tips for playing the fringe stockmarket
I’ve been making work for 10 years now and each time I create something new, I find myself packing my suitcase with wigs and boarding the train of dreams with my stomach firmly in my throat. I double-cross my fingers, drill my lines and dive in – in the hope the run goes well enough to keep my career going for another year.
For most professional theatre artists visiting Edinburgh, the aim is to be picked up for the small-scale touring circuit, or perhaps the mid-scale circuit.
One would hope to make such a splash in Edinburgh that you could call small-scale arts centres and theatres across the land on returning from the festival and they would a) take your call, and b) actually book you. A hit show equals a tour. And touring equals money, notoriety and new partners who might want to commission new works. It’s slow and laborious growing as a British artist.
I’ve only seen an instant hit thrice before. Not for me, I hasten to add. Once for Roadkill, once for Daniel Kitson and once for Fleabag. Although, I did sell out the Traverse by the first weekend once (something I will never not remind people of). By week two, you see the divide in the theatre bars. The haves and the have-nots. On the throw of a discarded flyer, shows go boom or bust in Edinburgh. It’s brutal.
It is nigh on impossible to win Edinburgh. I’ve had a good old bash and I’m pleased with my market position. I say ‘market position’ because this is what Edinburgh is: a market. A microcosm of Wall Street, if you will.
You have your traders (theatremakers) and your customers (audiences and promoters) and your competition (each other). You also have your debtors and that is scary as hell. For example, this year, my accommodation was £4,000 paid in May. That was before the first Portaloo had even hit the ground in George Square. Edinburgh is pure capitalism.
It is not humanly possible to have a good show and not have someone see it and spread the word. So, rule number one is: don’t make shit art
“But Kimmings, how do you get it right?” I hear you bellow. “I’ve sold my entire wardrobe and spare laptop cable to be there.” To go back to my Wall Street analogy, you simply have to have a good product. People who come home and cry about not breaking Edinburgh had imperfect shows. It is not humanly possible to have a good show and not have someone see it and spread the word. So, rule number one is: don’t make shit art.
But, taking that as a given, there are other things that can really help. So, among the many ways you can waste money or make mistakes in Edinburgh, here are my three top tips:
1. You need the killer of all show images. If it’s too late to create one, then the best production shots. Ten minutes into the fringe experience, most audiences go poster-blind. There are so many faces, so many cheeky winks and open mouths. You therefore need the most striking, weird, hilarious or terrifying image you can think of. The same goes for the title of your show – stop with the puns and think “What sounds like a good show?” or “ What would people like to say over the ticket desk?”.
2. You also need a killer PR. There are no two ways about it: you need to find a connected, trusted press person. Column inches are gold dust and you need to be constantly in the public eye. If you are doing it alone, go straight to the Fringe Office and ask for help or to your venue’s press office with chocolates. Daily.
3. Finally – and this is really boring – to get bums on seats, you should paper your first few shows. This means giving cool, influential people free tickets. And then flyer the living hell out of it (sorry, planet!). Be creative, so not the Royal Mile. Exit flyer shows you like, go into bars where your audiences hang out. And never flyer your own show; swap with someone. There’s nothing worse than watching a Tory dick bag jettison your life’s work on to the cobbles.
Now, all of this is how to survive this year. The Wall Street analogy and hard business talk is for now. That being said, I live in hope that I won’t have to talk like this much longer – and you won’t have to follow my advice.
This year, more than most, there has been a mutinous talk among theatremakers. People are saying Edinburgh Festival Fringe is broken. Sadly, in many ways, I agree. It is now not financially possible to do the fringe. I repeat: the fringe, so named because it was for people to show stuff that didn’t fit into mainstream arts festivals.
I was lucky enough to get my first three shows funded at Edinburgh by Escalator. Those were halcyon days. And not a day goes by without hearing of a person unable to afford to take their work to the fringe – excellent artists both mid-career and emerging. This means the marketplace is not full of those who deserve to be selling their wares, but rather those who can afford to. Edinburgh is basically becoming the Bullingdon Club.
The free fringe is great for comedy or more spit-and-sawdust theatre – artists have really welcomed its revolution. But, I really believe theatremakers will soon stop wanting to come. They will push back and refuse: boycott. With such a UK monopoly on both venue bookers and press yet such an inherent lack of access, the festival runs the real risk of losing its position as the litmus test for the independent British theatre scene. To return to my Wall Street analogy, the product won’t want to be sold.
Edinburgh needs lower venue fees, interest-free loans for all the top-loaded costs, and price caps on accommodation. That’s for starters. But there is so much more to fix.
So, as I pack my wigs once more, I think about what I can do to re-establish the balance between crazy capitalist marketplace and true fringe ethos. This year, I have committed to recommending one autobiographical work by an emerging femme or non-binary theatremaker at the end of each show.
What are you going to do, big and small players, to make the fringe great again and allow everyone a fair shot to win Edinburgh?
Bryony Kimmings will be performing I’m a Phoenix, Bitch at Pleasance One from July 31 to August 25. Details: bryonykimmings.com