DONT. GO. TO. EDINBURGH
It’s that time of year again. When seemingly all the theatre world turns their eyes towards the flier clad behemoth that is the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also that time of year when the Edinburgh Fringe marketing machine goes into overdrive and it ramps up it’s pay-to-play recruitment drive to persuade people to take enormous, mostly personal, financial/emotional/physical risks in order be seen by all the good, bad and the ugly bods of the worldwide theatre industry.
The Fringe needs you to think that the streets of Edinburgh are lined with programmers and commissioners who are hurling money at anyone who hands them a press release or flier. It’s an organisation that will happily say it's the “greatest platform for freedom of expression” when people without money often can’t even take a show there. And if you’re disabled? You can have some freedom of expression, but only if your show gets picked by one of the handfuls of places that have any kind of accessible spaces. There’s a real lack of genuine diversity at the Fringe, both in terms of audiences and in the artists on our stages. There were fewer than 100 BAME shows at the 2017 Fringe. If you’re on a low income, and can’t get any financial support to go to Edinburgh then how do you access this great platform of freedom of expression without getting into debt?
I’ve been to the fringe six times now. I’ve had shows that really struggled, I’ve had shows that smashed it. Here’s my take on why you SHOULDN'T go to the fringe.
THERE ARE WAY TOO MANY SHOWS
53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues in 2017 alone - The Edinburgh Fringe loves to shout this number out loud. In fact, I went to three different #edfringe program launches where this number was lauded as a mark of success. While the economic boost to Edinburgh is something that is sung from the rooftops, they are much less inclined to talk about the financial impact on the people who make this whole thing tick, THE ARTISTS. 3398 shows is not something to be proud of because the chances of success are so slim at the Fringe that this figure means there are, at the very least, 100’s of shows and artists who will go home with empty pockets, bank accounts and hearts. Balance the 3398 along with the fact that people often say the average per show audience at the fringe is just 4 people. I tried to find evidence of this but the only study I could find states that shows that have an average of less than 20 people per show are “statistically insignificant”. Nothing could warm the hearts of people, who have faced empty seats night after night, than hearing that they are also “statistically insignificant”.
THE WORK STARTS NOW, AND IT DOESN’T STOP UNTIL WELL AFTER AUGUST
Some of you reading this may already be in talks with your venues, you might have spaces locked in already. Some of you are likely filling out all the forms you can find, to apply for a space to perform. This is the first part of the work. You will be working on making the month a success from now until August. Emails, invites, marketing, budgets, travel bookings, accommodation and on and on and on and on. It takes a huge amount of time. And then you are going to need to do even more, after Edinburgh, when you are likely tired, skint and dealing with all the other work you have to do. A lot of cost cutting “guides to the fringe” will tell you that you can do PR yourself, that you can do your marketing yourself. You absolutely can, but it’s going to add a lot more to your workload.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
One of the most beguiling things about the fringe is that it’s so hard to know how well your show will do. I’ve taken shows where I had an instinct that they would do well and they did. In my early years, I went with shows that I thought would fly and instead we had to fight tooth and nail for every single ticket we sold. Predicting how well a show will do at Edinburgh is almost as tricky as guessing this weeks lottery numbers. To a great extent, the spirit of the fringe decides what takes off. Word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing. There are plenty of guides on what you need to do to at least give yourself a fighting chance but none of them can offer a guarantee of success.
THERE ARE TOO MANY VENUES
There's a reason why there are similar venues that a lot of people want to go to. Summerhall, Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly, ZOO. It’s because being a part of these venues gives your show a certain kind of kudos and there’s an element of trust that comes from programmers who are coming to see your work. There’s some evidence that these programmers reach out beyond the most popular venues but they still tend to gravitate to these places as a norm. There are free fringe venues, and some venues who have no shame in charging even more than the top venues to host your show. But it's arguable that if you don't get into one of the big ones, you're setting yourself up for having to fight daily for audiences. In a reflection of my previous point, being at a bigger venue doesn't guarantee tickets either. See how frustrating that is?
IT’S A PLACE WHERE DREAMS GO TO DIE
When I did my first fringe, I worked on a show that did well. As an assistant producer. One of the performers on the show said something to me that I will remember forever. She said, “it’s great that we are doing really well, but we have to remember that this is a place where dreams come to die”. It kind of broke my heart a little bit but it’s been the most valuable piece of advice I’ve been given about the Fringe. Yes, there’s 3398 shows at the Fringe. But how many of those people will see this as the last time they come, the final straw on the camels back of being an artist in the UK. Performer Lucy Harrington wrote a tremendous piece about the realities of what happens when things don’t go right at the fringe. It’s a really sobering read.
To summarise, the #edfringe is a land of promise. There's no denying that. It's just a bit like trying to squeeze the whole of the UK and international performance scene through the tiniest of doorways. With strategy and clear thinking, you can stand a chance. But it's a huge risk.