Every morning in Edinburgh I pass through a courtyard where gaggles of students take it in turns to warm up for their shows. “How’s it going?” I asked one as I passed by. “We already have seven people booked in for today,” he beamed. I asked the size of the auditorium. Still beaming, he replied: “100 seats.”
Of course, for many shows on the fringe, seven ticket sales would feel like a catastrophe. But for these students who are spending their summer holiday at the festival, the whole thing is an adventure – they see flyering as fun, not a chore – and one they will probably always remember.
It’s a reminder that success at the Edinburgh Fringe is relative depending on who you are and why you are there. But it is also worth noting that appearances can be deceptive at the festival. Look on social media and it sometimes seems as if every Edinburgh production other than your own is a huge hit, with companies and their friends talking up every ticket sale or positive comment.
You can win a Fringe First near the end of the festival and still go home broke because the accolade has come too late
Even the trappings of apparent success or failure can be deceptive. You can win a Fringe First on the third Friday of the festival and still go home broke because the accolade has come too late to really boost ticket sales, or get promoters in to see it. Or it can turn out that your show that failed to attract audiences and critics just happens to have been seen by a Brazilian promoter who wants it for a festival in South America, for a week’s gig that will pay everyone in the company more than they have earned in the past year.
The truth for most people is somewhere in between. Last year, This Egg brought the family show Me and My Bee to the fringe. People kept congratulating director Josie Dale-Jones on its success. But as she says: “It wasn’t an easy sell and only one performance sold out during the entire run.”
So does that count as a failure? No, because the show went on to tour more than 100 venues and connected the company to a number of promoters. It was the right show, just perhaps not the right show for Edinburgh. This year the company returns with two shows: Unconditional at the Pleasance and Dressed at Underbelly.
Even an outright hit can come with a sting in the tale. Two Destination Language will be familiar to fringe-goers for the hugely emotional 2014 hit Near Gone. It put the company on the map, but co-founder Katherina Radeva says: “We didn’t know how to manage the success, and as a company of two people we didn’t have the capacity to build on it. We definitely missed out on opportunities because of it.”
It’s a real problem for small, self-producing companies. Do you carry on trying to grow your show on your own or do you entrust it to a producer who has expressed interest, but may not have the same commitment? This year, Two Destination Language’s Fallen Fruit at Summerhall – a delicate show about tearing down walls and living with the past, inspired by Radeva’s pre-1989 Bulgarian childhood – is a solo show, designed to allow Radeva to perform and not worry about selling tickets.
At this point in week one of the fringe, the first hits are beginning to emerge. The downside is it can make those whose shows have yet to find an audience, or attract a single reviewer or programmer, feel as if they are failing. But just keep going, because as Luke Wright told me when I was researching my Long Read on how Edinburgh can supercharge careers (see below): “It’s not over until it’s over.”