Edinburgh: What We Learned

Now that the Fringe is over and the dust (of shredded flyers) has settled, I wanted to share some of the things I learned as a writer and co-director of a company bringing a show to the festival. Though I wasn’t formally a producer for Free for All, as part of a small production team alongside Eilis and Bec I found myself taking on a lot of roles I’d never previously been particularly involved with and didn’t really know much about, including a lot of the financial aspects of our production and some of the promotional side. Looking back on the run, there’s a few things that I now would have done differently had I known more when we started putting our bid together, so I thought it might be helpful to put these into a post, both for myself and for new companies planning to do something similar in the future. In no particular order, this is what I’ll be taking away from the 2015 festival.

    • There is a definite hierarchy of venues, and this hierarchy influences the potential audiences to whom you’re trying to sell your show. People like to describe the Fringe as a democracy – even a free-for-all – and while that’s true, like any democracy, money and high-profile backers make a massive difference to the visibility and credibility of your campaign. If Free for All was the Bernie Sanders of the 2015 Fringe – and I didn’t say that, you did – who was its Donald Trump? Being in the fold with a known, respected, professional venue like Pleasance or Assembly helps you leap over the entry barrier for audience attention. While well-reviewed and -respected shows, including theSpace’s The Beanfield and Zoo’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (both so well-reviewed and -respected I didn’t get to see them) took place in smaller venues, the big hitters of 2015’s paid Fringe were attached to venues with name recognition. Next time, I’m going to spend a lot more time before applying researching how to get our work seen by programmers at these kinds of spaces, and if anyone reading has any tips on that, they’d be very much appreciated.
The Pleasance, which this year hosted some of my favourite shows, including ‘Run’ and ‘Spillikin’.
    • Other factors which raise the profile and, more importantly, the assumed professionalism of your show in people’s minds are, sadly, financial. Paid flyerers are very good at their jobs, and I think make it easier for harassed punters to take your work seriously, and being on those ubiquitous corrugated posters also gives the sense that your show isn’t just any old piece of theatre to take a gamble on, unfair as that might seem.
    • For a theatre show, even one with enough jokes in it that we tried to sell it as a comic satire, we were probably on far too late. Most of the very successful straight plays this year, including Ross & Rachel, Spillikin, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Jurassic Park, Lungs, and The Solid Life of Sugar Water,  were on in the afternoon. I saw, and loved, the first four of these; I missed the others in part because we were often flyering between 3 and 5, which might not have been the ideal time either. The point being, after about 7, comedy and variety seem to be the order of day – I didn’t go to any theatre after that time, and I barely heard of any being advertised, though there are probably some notable exceptions which I’ve missed. I’d strongly recommend aiming for an afternoon slot for anything aiming to attract mainstream theatre audiences.
The brilliant ‘Jurassic Park’ from Superbolt Plays, on at around 6:50 I think…
    • Previews are important. The first show at Edinburgh is usually your first time in the space, and any number of things can go wrong on the first night, from technical hitches to flustered blocking. If we’d given this more thought, we almost definitely would have set our first night or even two as a preview performance – charged less money, tried to fill more seats, and most importantly, not allowed reviewers in. The first-night review we did receive, noting the play’s promise but critiquing its messier, more unfocused aspects, was in a lot of ways accurate to what first nights are like in general, and we should have accounted for that by only allowing press from day 2 or 3 onwards.
    • Ticket pricing is hard to get right – a lot of the best work I saw this year ended up being slightly cheaper than our show, for companies further along the track. We didn’t want to undersell our work, because we planned to deliver a professional production, but we ended up giving away a lot of free and half-price tickets to boost audiences, and it’s possible those numbers made a difference. Since other professional productions charged £8 and £6 rather than £10 and £8, I’d consider doing the same next time.
    • It’s never too early to start publicity and PR. We were certainly ahead of the curve in a lot of respects, as we had to hit the ground running with articles and interviews back in May for our Kickstarter. But I should have written and sent out our press release earlier, and we probably needed a concerted strategy for getting media attention months in advance. At one point I considered writing to the nationals with an outraged letter signed from a distant relative of Anthony Crosland, if only to generate a bit of buzz, Joe Orton-style. But there are probably better hooks, and better ways to aim them, and I’d seek advice on that very early on in the process next time.
One of Joe Orton’s infamous Edna Welthorpe letters
    • We didn’t list ‘Poetry’ as one of the show’s categories, mostly because we didn’t want it to be defined entirely by its status as a verse play – though we weren’t trying to hide it. We wanted to bring theatre audiences to a show in verse and have it surprise them, but in doing so we might have missed an opportunity to market to the growing poetry crowd, many of whom I spoke to didn’t know that the play was running. That could be a whole twenty people.
    • Ours was a difficult show to pitch: we tried various tacks, including ‘modern verse play’, ‘satirical poetry’, ‘political satire about free schools’ and my personal favourite, ‘Socialist ghost destroys school open day.’ None of these was an outright winner in terms of luring in the punters, and being the sort of person who can strike up proper conversations might have been more effective, but it was apparent that we hadn’t settled on one clear, easy way to sell the production. There were a lot of different strands to the show, and though I don’t think it should have been simpler, other successful shows had definitely worked out a tagline or selling point that would hook the attention in a sentence or less. Shouting at people in the street isn’t the best way to get people on board with potentially complex work, but that’s the Edinburgh way and it’s obviously a skill we’d like to perfect. Sometimes shouting ‘Five stars!’ does seem to help, but the depressing fact is I saw a number of people doing this still being ignored, because the amount of choice is just so overwhelming. There’s only so many times you can say ‘Prize-winning poetry?’ and hear back ‘No thanks’ before you start to ask yourself some searching questions.
    • And finally, it’s probably not a good idea to have the word ‘Free’ in the title of a show that isn’t. We could have saved ourselves a lot of conversations with bemused potential spectators that way.
Charlotte Watson and Joseph Sentance in the pacy, wonderfully-characterised and well-acted ‘Run’, a show from a relatively new company, Engineer Theatre Collective, who also used crowdfunding to get to the Fringe this year.

On a positive note, one of the best things I think you can do at the Fringe is see work by other emerging companies, also made up of recent graduates a couple of years ahead of you on the professional track. Engineer Theatre’s Run and Dawn State’s The Wonderful Discovery of Witches were two of my favourite shows of the year, and it was really heartening to see such brilliant work being done by people not much older or more ‘qualified’ than us, and with financial resources that I imagine weren’t far beyond our own. I didn’t get to talk in depth with anyone involved in these companies, but those are the kinds of connections that I think can make the Festival feel worthwhile, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they both do next.

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