The Edinburgh Festival Fringe officially opens today, but lots of shows have been up and running since Wednesday. I love the first few days of the fringe, which often have something of a carnival atmosphere about them, even though companies will have spent the previous couple of days on get-ins and techs.
They may be tired, but at this point in the festival every show is a potential winner, one that could pick up a Fringe First, a Herald Angel or The Stage Edinburgh Award before heading off on a world tour.
Those first few performances, sold at reduced ticket prices, are crucial for any show because it is a chance to get the work in front of an audience, often for the very first time, and spread the word by all means necessary – especially on social media.
As fringe veteran Bryony Kimmings has observed in her fringe overview, the company that is prepared to give away tickets to fill seats over those first few previews is a wise one. She is right too about being nice to box office staff – they are at the frontline of recommending shows to those who turn up at the box office with no clue what to see – and those working in the press office. You and I may think we are working hard during the fringe, but they are working harder.
This coming weekend is really crucial, particularly as it’s when lots of locals dip their toes in the fringe’s vast pool of shows and then make recommendations to friends and family. This is when flyering can really work, done with care and proper engagement (both of which reduce the environmental impact too). By Monday some shows will already be building up a head of steam, while others will still be holding off on giving critics and producers a peep.
I understand that it’s a real conundrum for companies about when they let press and promoters in. Do you risk inviting press into your first preview and potentially steal a march with an early review that you hope will be positive? Do you trust that the reviewer has a sufficient eye to be able to spot the craft going on beneath the glitches and the tiny mis-timings? Or do you hold off until you have got the show to a place where you feel completely happy and confident in it? Although lots of companies will only get the show to that point in the very final week of the festival.
In previous years I have certainly seen shows in the first few days that have been transformed by week three, and I have nothing but admiration for those companies who keep working on a piece over the entire festival despite the exhaustion and the disappointments.
In a theatre industry where most indie work plays for only a night here or a couple of days there, one of the enormous benefits for companies coming to the fringe is the opportunity to play a show over three full weeks and find out what works, what doesn’t and why.
The fringe may be a bear pit for many reasons, but it is one where companies can genuinely learn about craft through working on their own show and seeing other people’s. It’s worth the effort because the fringe isn’t over until it’s over and your show, which may have been a bit of a wallflower, might still get noticed in its final few days.
Stick rigidly to your preview schedule and you will find yourself in direct competition for attention from high-profile venues such as the Traverse and Paines Plough’s Roundabout at Summerhall.
The synchronising of fringe and Edinburgh International Festival dates makes a lot of sense (the final week of EIF used to feel like a dismal party where most of the guests had already departed) but it adds another layer of competition to the fringe at a time when mainstream press coverage of the festival is dwindling.
It’s why companies need to hit the ground running and why opening your doors early to reviewers is a gamble – but one that can pay off. Louise Chantal, the artistic director of Oxford Playhouse and a long-time producer on the fringe, has won 10 Fringe Firsts over a long career and reckons four or five came about through letting reviewers in early.
In 2016, an unknown company called Atticist let a reviewer from Broadway Baby into the very first performance of its production of Life According to Saki and the five-star review that followed was life-changing, with the production going on to win the Carol Tambor Award, a run in New York and a residency at the King’s Head in London.
These examples may be exceptions, but they also prove the rule that Edinburgh is very much about seizing the moment. It’s been a gamble to get here, and it’s worth one more throw of the dice.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every weekday throughout the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner