What I’ve learned from the Buxton Fringe

So, with the Fringe season over for another year, it’s time for a long look back on the season just gone. And for me, the difference this time is that I have been a participant. Now, this is a blog about everyone’s work and not my own, but where I can use my own experiences as help for others, it goes here. So this is a good time to say what I’ve learned from participating in a fringe.

Firstly, a repeat of the obvious. If you fancy organising any kind of fringe theatre, for heaven’s sake go to a fringe festival first and see how other people go about it. In fact, go to several. The more you can learn what works and what doesn’t work from other people, the less you have to rely on your own trial and error. Obvious points include learning to work on a minimal production budget, the importance of top-notch publicity, and doing something that is original without being pretentious – plus, of course, actually producing a decent bit of theatre. I might go over those in more detail another day, but to any fringe regular it would be stating the obvious.

However, this article isn’t about stating the obvious. This is about the little things I learnt from taking part myself, from the niggling to the important. Some of these tips are unique to Buxton, but others are also applicable to other fringes. Since catch-all advice is probably more useful, I’ll start with that.

1: It’s bloody hot on stage

This isn’t so much a tip as a warning what to expect. Anyone who’s a fringe regular will notice that many spaces have fans whirring away throughout the performance, but in spite of that the venue remains quite warm. Okay, now try imagining the same, but with stage lights blaring on you as well. And remember that most of the spaces are quite small and the lights are probably just a few metres away. You get the idea.

I admit I didn’t do myself any favours by choosing a fringe that happened to take place during the biggest heatwave in years, nor did it help that I ended up playing a part that involved sitting still on stage for 30 minutes, powerless to stop the sweat dripping off my forehead. Not much you can do about this though. Except maybe thinking twice before you decide to star in Scott of the Antarctic.

2: Assemble the most loyal team you can

If you direct plays, it’s a good idea to avoid sticking with the same cast in play after play. You should periodically try out new people and see how they do, and hopefully build up a long list of people you can call upon. But don’t do this for your fringe début unless you have to. Bring a cast of the most reliable, most supportive, most loyal people you have at your disposal. (Same goes for crew if you have any – but it’s more likely you’ll share that work amongst the cast.) It’s partly because when the stakes are this high, you want to create the best impression you can, but there is much more important reason than this.

The main reason you need a loyal team is that the psychological pressure you will be under is probably going to be worse than anything you’ve done before. If they play goes wrong, you can lose hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. You will have moments of self-doubt. But as director, your cast will look to you to know you know what you’re doing. So work with people who you know have confidence in your abilities, and avoid like the plague anyone liable to back-seat drive or start a mutiny. When it’s only 24 hours until you’re on and you’re convinced something is bound to go wrong that you haven’t thought of, you will be thankful for a supportive cast telling you to keep calm and carry on.

Speaking of things going wrong …

3: Something is bound to go wrong that you haven’t thought of

Unless you are lucky enough to have a fringe on your doorstep, you have the complication of organising a play in completely different town, in a venue you’ve probably never used before, probably publicising a play to a very different kind of audience, with cast and props to transport and only a short time in the venue for a technical rehearsal. If you’re organised, you will have taken all of this into account and planned accordingly. But sod’s law will dictate that the one thing you didn’t think about will happen.

In my case, my key prop disappeared. The centrepiece of my play was a bench, and without the means to transport large props from Durham to Buxton, I get in touch with the friends of Buxton Fringe and someone kindly lent me theirs. I knew storage would be a problem, but I eventually managed to negotiate leaving it outside on an access ramp. So far, so good. And then, on the final day, it disappeared. Turned out some removal men came for a completely different bench and picked up ours instead. Luckily, we were allowed to borrow the one they were supposed to take until it could be changed over, but there’s no way I’d have thought of that one.

Not sure how helpful a tip that is, apart from trying to keep things as simple as possible. Just a warning to expect the unexpected. Speaking of expecting the unexpected …

4: Organisers make mistakes

Now, one obvious tip is that you want to keep on good terms with fringe organisers and especially venue managers and staff. You depend on them to do a lot of things for you, such as displaying you posters and flyers, getting you in and out of the space on time, a technical rehearsal, and so on. But no matter how good your relations are, don’t assume they’ll do everything perfectly. If it’s important, check that they’ve dome what they say they’ve done. Remember, they have dozens, if not hundreds, of plays on the go, and what might be clearly wrong to you could slip them by completely if you don’t tell them.

For me, the mistakes were pretty minor. I was overall perfectly happy with both the Buxton Fringe committee and Underground Venues. However, I’ve heard some horror stories from venues at other fringes, the most shocking one being a venue that changed their technician on the performance all the reviewers came to, who refused to run through the cues beforehand, tried to do it on the fly, and buggered up the whole production. My advice – apart from not pissing off venue staff – is that whenever fringe or venue staff are supposed to do something that matters, check they’ve done it. (And if you’ve got a complicated lighting or sound plot, don’t risk it, bring your own technician.)

If you’re wondering, there were three mistakes I spotted with support for my play. My poster wasn’t on a prominent poster-board where it should have been, and one of the blackboards incorrectly advertised my play as 5.30 instead of 5.00. I spotted both of these in time, and no harm was done. The other more annoying one was that the fringe organisers forgot to post my review on their website, and it came up 24 hours late, too late to help sell my 2nd performance and not great for the 3rd either. Mind you, I’m not sure if it made that much different. Speaking of ticket sales …

5: If you can, do a split run

This doesn’t apply in Edinburgh, where you pretty much have to run the full three weeks, but it does apply elsewhere. In Buxton, a run of three days is ideal for most performances. Three days is also common in Brighton, but it can run up to a week. Either way, you would think that it’s always best to bunch your performances into consecutive days – but you’d be wrong. In fact, venues prefer it if you do the opposite. It partly suits them because it makes it easier to timetable everyone in, but the biggest reason it suits both of you is ticket sales.

It’s all down to word-of-mouth publicity. It’s all very well telling everyone how good people said your previous plays were, but nothing beats word-of-mouth publicity. In order to do that, word needs to get round how good your play is – and this is where there’s a problem. Because no matter how good your play is, other people have got to hear how good it is – and two days is not a long time for word to get round. That is why the split run is a good tactic; it gives time for word to get around, so that by the time you return you get a good audience.

Of course, this isn’t an option for everyone, and this is the area where I think areas like north-east England are done a great disservice by the absence of a fringe. It’s not too difficult for groups from Manchester or Liverpool to make two trips to Buxton. It’s not too difficult for Londoners to take two trips to Brighton. Most of southern England is in easy reach of some sort of fringe, but in the north-east: nothing. Unless you’re on a tour, it’s not practical to make two visits. So you’ll have to forget word-of-mouth publicity and try your best by other means. Speaking of publicity …

6: Don’t flyer indiscriminately, flyer intelligently

Lots of discarded flyers. This isn't actually a fringe festival, but you get the idea.

This is also a tip more relevant to Brighton or Buxton than Edinburgh. Having observed how people have got on with flyering – both my own efforts and other plays – I’ve come to the opinion that it doesn’t pay to flyer indiscriminately. At the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a safe bet that anyone on the Royal Mile is a prospective customer. In Brighton or Buxton, however, most people aren’t interested in this and want to get on with their shopping. Going round indiscriminately handing flyers pisses people off, and isn’t worth your time. My advice is to concentrate on posters in shop windows. A flyer will only be seen by one person; however, lots of people will see your posters. Flyering stops when you get tired of flyering; posters stay up after you’ve stopped going round the shops.

There are ways of making flyering worthwhile. Anyone who you catch looking at fringe posters is probably a good bet. If you have something in your play that can grab attention, like puppets for music, by all means give flyers to people who take notice. But the tactic I swear by is to target your efforts on the events where fringe regulars are present in large numbers. So at Buxton that’s the launch party, Fringe Sunday, and the carnival. At Brighton, you probably want to look at Fringe City. A few hours flyering at the right time and place is much better than a few days flyering at any old time and place.

Incidentally, I’m not saying it’s OK to flyer indiscriminately at Edinburgh. That’s a different game completely, but for now I’ll leave that advice to those who have been there and done that.

So, those are my observations that I think apply to more than Buxton. There are, however, some peculiarities unique to Buxton, so here are my Buxton-specific tips:

7: Buxton isn’t great for exposure

One obvious piece of advice for anyone thinking of taking their play to a fringe is to first consider what you hope to achieve. And one reason is to be noticed by the reviewing publications. Get some good coverage from ThreeWeeks, Broadway Baby or any of the other publications and you can be taken a lot more seriously. However, if that’s what you hope to achieve, Buxton isn’t a good choice. Even though it is the third largest fringe in the country, there is only minimal interest. By the time Buxton Fringe is underway, the fringe media is already concentrating on the build-up to the big one north of the border.

This year and last year, only one publication, FringeGuru, sent anyone to Buxton, and that was basically the editor, Richard Stamp, reviewing the whole lot single-handed as his week’s holiday. Even the smaller Bedford and Barnstaple sometimes get more attention than Buxton – this is because, I suspect, the vast majority of Edinburgh Fringe people are based down south the rest of the year. If you want to get reviews without the expense of Edinburgh, Brighton is probably a better bet than Buxton.

On the plus side, if you don’t want the pressure of worrying about what reviewers think, Buxton is an ideal choice. It’s also ideal for getting familiar with the fringe environment before facing the tougher climes of Brighton or Edinburgh. But if you’re after some 4- or 5-star reviews to stick on future publicity, forget it. Speaking of reviews …

8: Buxton locals are possibly the most powerful audience in the country

The lack of reviews (apart from the internal reviews done by the fringe organisers) shifts the balance of power a lot in Buxton. In Edinburgh or Brighton, you can quickly pick out the winners by looking for the ones with multiple four- or five-star reviews, but in Buxton, it comes a lot down to word of mouth. And in Buxton, the bulk of the audience are Buxton locals. Not all Buxton locals are fringe addicts through and through, but those who go are fiercely supportive.

And this leads to an interesting paradox: the few hundred locals who are thinking of buying tickets have a huge amount of power. Pandering the reviewers at the expense of your audience is never advisable, but there’s no more important audience to please than those at Buxton. A financially successful run at Buxton is taken very seriously in the world of theatre, and you need their thumbs up to do that. The Fringe Committee are listened to way beyond Buxton, and they in turn listen to friends and neighbours to might tell them how wonderful your play was. Speaking of the Fringe Committee …

9: The Fringe organisers are very helpful

The other observation I have about the Fringe Committee, and friends of the fringe, is just how supportive they are. As I’ve already mentioned, I was relying on someone in Buxton to lend me a bench. I knew Buxton locals are enthusiastic about their Fringe and I guessed that Buxton is the sort of place where people are likely to have garden benches. So I calculated this was a safe bet to ask. (I admit some removal men mistaking the bench I’d borrowed for another bench they were supposed to pick up wasn’t a great turn of events, but the lovely people who lent the bench were very understanding.)

What I hadn’t realised was how supportive the Fringe organisers were over this. They got back in touch with me to check everything was going fine even after I said I’d made arrangements. And when you think about it, this makes sense. At Edinburgh or even Brighton, they can afford for 30% of their shows to bomb, but the Buxton, where the festival is much smaller, it is in their interests to make sure as many shows as possible succeed. For this reason, if you are looking for a festival without a “sink or swim” mentality, Buxton is an ideal choice.

It’s also in Buxton’s interests to for performers to return year and year and build a reputation. Speaking of reputations …

10: Publicity is more important than reputation

This came as a bit of a surprise to me. As I’ve already touched upon, I put a lot of thought into publicity. I knew that it would be a tough job selling tickets – I had a week one slot, when the fringe is still getting into swing, I had off-peak time slots, I couldn’t do a split run, and my play was shorter than anyone else’s. But the biggest problem, so I thought, was that I was a newcomer. It doesn’t matter how good your play is if no-one has seen it. Other groups had past successes to their name. I didn’t.

But I was wrong. A good reputation isn’t as important as I thought. There were at least two established groups similar days to me who I assumed would have no problem shifting tickets. To my surprise, some of their early performances filled less seats than mine. It looks like my efforts to pitch my play to every man and his dog on launch night counted more than I thought.

Now, the other groups I mentioned were on spread runs, which I believe did better later on. But the moral of the story is that in Buxton, no-one should take ticket sales for granted. Apart from Three’s Company, of course, but Tom Crawshaw is has a huge following and is practically a national treasure of Buxton. And yes, I know that Buxton isn’t a nation and therefore the term “national treasure” isn’t accurate, but I’m running out of contrived ways to get from one point to the next. Speaking of national treasures …

11: You have two enemies: sunshine and Andy Murray

In Buxton, you’re considered to be doing reasonably well if you manage to recoup your venue fee and registration fee. In the end, I nearly made it, but I fell 41p short. Annoyingly, I could have done substantially better than that if I’d kept up Thursday’s sales into Friday and Saturday. In spite of a good review and good audience feedback, it went down.

You can never know for certain what causes ticket sales to rise or fall, but I’d say in this case the prime suspect was the biggest heatwave in years. There’s nothing more frustrating than playing to an audience smaller than day 1 and then going outside into blazing sunshine and a heaving Pavillion Gardens. A hugely popular addition is the music on the pump house roof, which is great for everyone except the cast of the play that’s on at the time. Not much you can do about this, just a risk you have to take if you’re on in the afternoon.

Andy Murray holding the Wimbledon trophyAnd it probably didn’t help help that a certain gentleman from Dunblane was busy winning the UK a certain history-making tennis title. I was able to see the final and I am of course delighted Murray won, but I would appreciate it if in future he could make his mind up one way or the other. Either dominate Wimbledon and make the whole tournament boring and predictable, or revert to crashing out every quarter final.

Speaking of crashing somewhere (oh dear, this is getting really tenuous now) …

12: Use the Entrants’ Accommodation if at all possible

There is one final advantage of a small locally-supported fringe – a lot of locals are only too eager to help provide accommodation for entrants. Pull all the stops to get this. Even two months in advance, finding bed and breakfast accommodation that isn’t double rooms is a nightmare. Unless your entire cast is happy to share double beds. In which case, what sort of theatre company are you? I mean, we’ve all heard stories about what actors get up to with other actors, but that’s taking it a bit far.

Anyway, assuming you’re not that sort of company, entrants’ accommodation is great for all sorts of reasons. It’s dirt cheap compared to other accommodation, the people who provide it are all too eager to help you out, and they are far more interesting places to stay than most bed and breakfasts. (I got a room that looked very much like a 11 year-old’s bedroom from the 1950s.) It’s a sharp contrast to Edinburgh where renting out flats for a month is an obvious money-making exercise. One word of warning though – the people who kindly rent out accommodation in Buxton aren’t the biggest tech-enthusiasts. Has your e-mail about availability not been answered for several days? They probably haven’t checked their e-mail yet. I panicked and booked snap B&B accommodation for some of my cast when I wasn’t getting replies – had I waited, I would have saved a lot on expenses.

As you can see, these tips range from the useful-to-know to the obscure. If this is helpful to anyone else, great. But the main point of this is to give you an idea of what to expect. No matter how much you learn about doing a fringe from reading about it and talking to people who have already done it, you will always discover more things when you do it yourself. This is a list of what I learned; your list will probably be different.

What I can tell you, however, is that in spite of all of the stress that a fringe production entails, it is one of the most exciting experiences you can have. Provided you reasonably know what you’re doing, you can come out of the end of it with great memories of what you’ve done. So I can understand why people come back year after year, in spite of the cost. I can also understand why  people willingly throw away thousands to take part in the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s worth it.

So enjoy it – you probably won’t recoup your expenses, but you’ll still be glad you took part.

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