The Fringe alone: what I’ve learned

Right, with my third of three consecutive plays finally finally finally out of the way, I can now look back at the first one. And although it may seem like a distant memory now, earlier this year I did the Buxton Fringe again. I’ve already written about my experiences last year at the Buxton Fringe, but, hey, what the hell, let’s do another post along these lines. And this year, it may not have been my first year taking part in a fringe environment, but it was the first year I went on my own.

Now, when I talk about doing the Fringe alone, I’m not talking about plays where you are bringing along an actor to do a solo play for you. That’s what I did last year (okay, it was a solo play plus one non-speaking and one cameo, but you get the idea), but I learnt this year the experience of producing a solo play is a very different to one where you’re also the actor. You might be doing someone else’s play, you might have a director back home refining your performance, but you’re the one dealing with the venue, publicising the play, and travelling to the fringe on your own.

I’ll start as frank as I mean to go on. Doing a solo performance at a fringe without support is a big challenge. The personal stakes are high: the play’s success or failure will be entirely attributed to you. Such are the challenges of a solo fringe that I would urge anyone considering doing this to think very carefully about whether you really want to do it, especially if your main reason for doing it is because you think it’s easier than a bigger play. But it can be done – provided you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

So to give you an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for, here’s a list of things I’ve learned. This is largely based on my experiences at Buxton, but as far as I can tell, the same ought to apply for other fringes too. I’ll start with some observations about solo theatre in general, and then move on to full-blown solo productions.

Solo performances in general:

Before going on to solo fringe proper, here’s a few observations I’ve had about solo plays in general. This applies to everyone, whether you have a director, producer, backstage team and groupies behind you, or if it’s just you on your tod:

1: Solo plays are unfairly maligned outside fringe festivals

One-person plays are commonplace in the Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton Fringes, but I’ve noticed that outside the fringe environment, they are frequently looked down on as a poor cousin to so-called proper plays, especially in amateur theatre. The All-England Theatre Festival, and many other drama events, even have rules than plays must have a minimum of two parts. No explanation for this rule, but I think it stems from an idea that, without dialogue between two or more people, it’s not a “real” play.

Well, anyone who thinks a solo play isn’t real play has fundamentally misunderstood what it’s about. There is far more to a solo play than delivering a speech; and anyone who has seen solo performances on the fringe scene will know how much goes into the best ones. Sure, a one-hander won’t make a decent play if you just stand there reciting a monologue, but then, neither do plays where actors just stand there reciting the dialogue. At the end of the day, the quality of any play will be decided by how well the play is written, directed and acted, when it’s a one-hander or twenty-hander. If you’re playing down your expectations and assuming a solo play cannot be as good as a play with dialogue, you may as well give up now.

Still, there is an advantage to this …

2: Outside the fringe, audiences are easily impressed

Lots of people in a standing ovation
Audience reaction to a monologue at a local preview, yesterday.

It’s not actually that difficult to learn the lines of most one-person plays. Any competently-written play, monologue or otherwise, is going to be structured into sections, each performing different functions in the story. As soon as you know the purpose of a paragraph in a script – why it’s there and what it contributes to the story – it’s not too hard to recall the content of the paragraph. (And if you’re reading out lines in a play without knowing their purpose – well, that’s not really acting, is it?) Once you’re familiar with the play and how you move and act and change emotions through the script, it’s quite easy to master 45+ minutes of a typical monologue. And if you fluff a sentence, it’s usually a simple matter to correct yourself and cover any facts you missed.

And yet, outside of the festival fringe scene, audiences seem to be wowed by this mythical line-learning ability. I’m not kidding, I endlessly got “Wow, you like, learned ALL those lines?”, with the awe and admiration you’d expect for someone who just recited the complete works of Shakespeare backwards. I’m not complaining as such – it’s nice to get support at workshops and previews – but local enthusiasm can be dangerous. There is certainly one reason why you shouldn’t expect this reaction at a fringe …

3: Within a fringe, there is nothing special about a solo performance

A few audience members, mostly asleep
Audience reaction to same monologue at a fringe performance, yesterday.

Solo plays might be shunned by many outside the fringe environment, but within a fringe it goes from one extreme to the other. The good news is that one-person shows are fully recognised as valid plays. The bad news is that there’s lots and lots and lots of one-person shows at a typical fringe. It’s not everyone leaping onto a solo bandwagon as such; it’s just that there’s a lot of practical reasons that make solo performances easier, such as the expense of accommodating multiple members of cast, and the number of aspiring actors wanting to make names for themselves.

So if you were hoping to get acclaim for remembering a whole hour of script or the innovation of doing a play on your own, you’re going to be disappointed – even if you got congratulated for that back home. You are going to have to work hard to make your solo play stand out from all of the other solo plays. It’s a tough job standing out with any kind of play at a fringe, but it’s a doubly tough job if it’s a solo play.

4: Try to make your solo piece into a play, not just a monologue

So, if there’s gazillions of other solo pieces out there, how do you make yourself a cut above the rest? Well, for a start, it helps if you can avoid an easy trap. Some solo scripts read very well as short stories, but once they’re acted out of stage, they’re quite unremarkable. Look for opportunities to do something more than a story read out in first person. Can your character act out other people mentioned in the story? Can you enhance the atmosphere with lighting, sound and music? Can you be creative with movement or props?

Better still, if it’s your own play, think about how the play will be acted whilst you’re writing it. I’ve seen decent stories fall short of their potential because they were seemingly written without thinking how well it can be acted, only how good it looked on paper. Good directors can find opportunities to make a play come to life on stage, but that can’t fully compensate for a static script. Books narrated in first person typically narrate the tale in a calm, articulate manner as if events that made up the story have come and gone. In a solo play, it’s usually better to have the first person closer to the event at hand. People don’t always tell their story calmly. They bluff, blurt, self-deceive, leave details out, recall events in the wrong order, struggle with painful memories. And stories told like that make the better plays.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule as such. Some solo plays are little more than spoken monologues (e.g. Talking Heads), but it doesn’t matter because the scripts are outstanding. But they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the time, it’s the same rule as any other play: there’s far more to it than reading out the lines.

5: Expect to lose your voice with no warning

Glass of water on a dark floor
A prudently-deployed glass of water, yesterday.

This is the one that caught me out. 45+ minutes is a long time to be talking. Sooner or later, your throat going to dry up. I was well aware of this, and I’d assumed I’d notice when is was coming and adjust my speaking accordingly. What actually happened, for me at any rate, is that I was whittering away one moment like there’s no tomorrow, and suddenly I couldn’t speak at all. And that happened twice.

Luckily for me, this only happened right before the bit in the play where I start drinking a can of beer. Throat re-lubricated, carried on, no harm done. That, however, was an extraordinarily lucky escape. Most of the time, there isn’t a convenient stage direction to take a drink immediately after the line you’re on. As such, I recommend that you keep a glass of water ready off-stage just in case. Even if you end up having to go into the wings for a drink. That might not look great, but it’s better than doing the second half of your play in mime.

Full-blown solo productions

So, those were the tips the apply to one-hander plays in general. Now I move on to the proper one-man productions. Just you, no support. These are mostly things I learnt the hard way this year – maybe this can give you a warning of what to expect.

6: Don’t expect a prompt

In local drama festivals, it’s pretty much a given that there will be a prompt on hand, regardless of the play. Even if the actors have never needed a prompt in late rehearsals, absolutely no chances are taken. And, to be fair, there are good reasons to be this paranoid. I do hear the occasional story of actors on stage alone, who dry up with no-one to save them. They can even leave the stage in tears.

Well, the bad news is that you will almost certainly not have a prompt at a festival fringe. It’s just too much expense to bring along an extra person to just sit in a corner. The good news is that if you are aiming at the standard you should be aspiring to at a fringe (i.e. a performance up to standard of professional actors), you will probably know the script inside out and a prompt will be obsolete. Unfortunately, if you are the sort of person who needs the reassurance of a prompt, I’m afraid the rest of these tips aren’t going to be any better for your nerves.

7: It’s A LOT of work for one person

Being a solo actor at a fringe is a big commitment, but it’s doable. Provided you allow a sensible amount of time to rehearse, you should have enough time to learn your lines and get your performance as good as can be. Being a director/producer is also a big commitment, but that too is doable. As well as directing, you will probably be responsible for getting together props and costumes, finding a way of getting everyone to the fringe, arranging accommodation, liaising with a venue, technical rehearsals and publicity. All of this adds up, but this is still manageable provided you know what you’re doing (at least it is manageable at smaller fringes).

But it’s a much tougher job if you’re taking on both roles. It’s one thing to organise a fringe performance as your only task; it’s another thing if you’re trying to squeeze that in on top of all the rehearsing and performing you’re going to do. It can still be done – the number of people who produce successful performances on their own is evidence of that – and it can even be done on top of a full-time job (I know I did). You must, however, be aware how much work it’s going to be. It’s always a good idea to consider how much work a play is going to involve and how much time you have at your disposal before you decide to produce a play, but it’s especially important if it’s just you. Get this wrong and it’ll be a nightmare.

8: You will need nerves of steel

Stressed Eric in his office
A solo performer trying to keep on top of the paperwork (and any resemblance to Stressed Eric is purely coincidental), yesterday.

Anyone who’s ever taken part in a festival fringe will know the stresses you go through. With a few exceptions, you do not have the security of a supportive local audience. You’re not even guaranteed any kind of audience -I’ve seen plays in fringes (never one I was in, thank God) where the audience has numbered two or three. It’s a struggle to get noticed by press (who you need on board if you want to be taken seriously), and if you do get their attention, they will be quite merciless if you disappoint them. You have a lot of things to keep track of at once, and without a theatre group behind you, one oversight could be a hell of a job to resolve.

It’s quite normal for a director to be on the verge of going to pieces in the final few days leading up to the performances (at least it is when it’s me). This is why I think it is so important to bring along the most loyal most reliable team you can – believe me, you will be grateful for them telling you keep calm and carry on. But even if the worst comes to the worst and you’re reduced to a gibbering wreck in the corner, your actors can finish your job for you. If you’re the actor, however, it’s a lot harder. It’s near-impossible to stop thinking about how the production’s going when you’re supposed to be playing a different character on stage – and if you’ve just had a poor review or some disappointing sales figures, that’s not going to help. Not much I can say to help here – only to warn you what to expect.

9: You needn’t worry about other people dropping out

So, now that I’ve been so off-putting about one-person productions, here’s a positive thing for a change. One of the few advantages of doing everything yourself is that it eliminates a big risk in small-scale theatre: the unreliability of other actors. Now, if you’re following my advice to the letter, you’ll have assembled a team of the most loyal, supportive, trustworthy actors you can find. You do not want unreliable actors dropping out on you because they can’t be bothered, or didn’t realise how much work was involved. (Nor do you want them changing lines for a laugh, getting too drunk to perform, or making inappropriate advances on other members of cast, but it’s mostly drop-outs you’ve got to worry about.)

Sadly, sometimes a dream team isn’t enough. Even if you trust all your actors 100%, it’s events, dear boy, events. Actors have lives outside of theatre, and sometimes things happen – horrible things that you can’t possibly avert – which make it difficult or impossible to continue with your play, however much they want to. Sometimes you might have had an inkling this might happen, but at other times it can come out of the blue. I’ve never had to pull a play completely because of this, but, boy, I’ve had a few near misses. So if you’re the sole participant in a fringe play, your consolation is that you needn’t worry about what happens to the rest of your team. Because you haven’t got one to worry about.

10: Treat other solo performers as your friends, not your competitors

Really, at a fringe, you should be doing this regardless, but it’s especially important when you’re on your own. Sure, at a festival fringe of any standing, you are kind of in competition with other – even if you’re not bothered about the awards up for grabs, only a finite number of plays can get attention and go on to better things – but you’ll do yourself no favours by getting competitive with them. Far better to look on this as a group effort to make your Fringe as good as can be.

This is good practice for any kind of fringe production, but it’s especially advisable if you’re doing a solo production. Even though solo performers are, to some extent, jostling for attention in a very crowded category, you’ve got a lot more in common than sets each other apart. You have largely the same aspirations, the same logistical challenges to find solutions to, the same things to moan about. And when you’re feeling particularly stressed, it’s good to have other people to hand who are in the same boat as you. Small cliques of fringe casts aren’t the best of ideas, but certainly don’t make yourself a clique of one.

In summary …

So, the overall message for solo productions: it’s tough, and it’s a challenge. Some aspects of a solo production are easier than a group productions, and other bits are harder. Overall, some people find it easier, some people find it harder. But the biggest mistake you can make is to assume that taking part in a fringe on your own is a doddle.

To be honest, my #1 tip is to avoid taking this route if possible. If you can recruit a “producer” – that is, someone who you can entrust all the tasks of registering, booking the venue, and so forth – do that, and free yourself up to concentrate on the performance. But that requires finding someone who a) knows the fringe scene well enough to do this, and b) you sufficiently trust with this much responsibility. What if you can’t? Well, I’d go ahead with it anyway – after all, plenty of people go it alone and get away with it – but, as with all fringe productions, you must be prepared for it. The more experience you have doing solo productions in the kinder climes of local previews, the better. And it certainly helps if you’ve taken part in a fringe before and know what to expect.

But the one area where a solo production wins hands down is how liberating it is. No matter how open a festival is, you can’t enter a two-hander if you can’t find someone to do the two-hander with. But as a one-hander, there’s nothing to stop you. So if you’ve got an idea you want to take to the fringe, and you’ve thought it through and you’re ready to take responsibility for the outcome, go for it and good luck. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.

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