The Scout movement’s motto is “Be Prepared”, and it’s a good one to adopt for anyone performing at the Edinburgh Fringe where failing to prepare often means preparing to fail. It means putting in lots of research, long before committing to coming, to get the right venue at the right time for your show.
Oh yes! The show! Funny how that sometimes gets overlooked. It’s not getting to Edinburgh that matters, but getting to Edinburgh with a show you believe in and want to share with the world. I am often astonished at how many companies put in huge amounts of effort and money getting to Edinburgh, as if that is the end in itself, when it will only ever pay off if you are bringing your very best work.
You also need a strategy to ensure the show is widely seen, not just by audiences but by the industry. My inbox is stuffed with emails that begin: “We’ve been so busy we forgot…” or “I know this is a bit late in the day…” Now, that’s not to say it’s too late for me to arrange to see shows, as I am here for the entire festival and so far I’ve only scheduled the first seven days. But some programmers and journalists only come for a short period and will have booked the shows they want to see in advance.
Companies whose shows are running and open to reviewers before the first weekend, when the Traverse programme kicks in, are at a great advantage in getting that all-important critical coverage – at least if the show is ready. I have seen a couple of shows already that I wish had waited before inviting me in. It must always be the artist’s call about whether they have press in to previews, as the scrap between Paul Sinha and the Scotsman’s comedy critic Kate Copstick demonstrates.
Edinburgh presents particular technical challenges for any company, but while technical glitches will be forgiven, a half-baked script and poor storytelling will not. The fringe is definitely the place to test a show in front of an audience, and of course any show worth its salt will change and grow over those three weeks in response to the audience. But as Matthew Wells of Rhum and Clay – at Underbelly this year with a reimagining of Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo – says: “It is not a lab for experimentation.”
Rhum and Clay know that to their cost. After two good years in Edinburgh as an emerging company they came to the fringe in 2013 with The Man in the Moone. “It was half ready and it put our camaraderie to the test,” admits Wells, “because we knew we had failed to meet our own artistic standards.”
It can also be damaging for a company’s reputation with critics, programmers and audiences. One bad show can destroy a carefully cultivated and growing reputation and mean people are less likely to return to see future work that might be very good indeed.
The lure of winning a Fringe First can also turn out to be fool’s gold. To be eligible, shows must have had less than six previews, and be unreviewed prior to the festival. But shows need time to bed in and it is a wise company that weighs up the remote possibility of winning a Fringe First against having a show that lands firing on all cylinders.
New Perspectives have done that with The Fishermen, which they are bringing to Assembly George Square this year. The show had a run at Home in Manchester prior to the festival ensuring it arrives at its best and with some good reviews, and also allowing the company to forge a relationship with the Manchester venue.
Such a move can also help offset some Edinburgh costs. Arts Council England won’t fund taking a show to Edinburgh (although in both Wales and Scotland there are schemes to which you can apply) but it will fund the touring of that Edinburgh show both before and after.
In the end, Wells says, however painful Rhum and Clay’s experience of “making Man in the Moone and having it fail” was at the time, it learned a great deal from it, both about Edinburgh and themselves.
Like many companies that have come to Edinburgh and felt they hadn’t done themselves justice, they returned and have gone on to have audience and critical successes with shows including 64 Squares and Testosterone. It’s a reminder that fringe success often comes from bitter experience.