5 tips for performing at a Fringe (which no-one ever follows)

The wait is nearly over, fringe season is nearly here, and if you are intending to take part, you are probably well underway getting your show ready. So this is the time of year when theatre bloggers like me give you some handy tips of what to do whether you want them or not.

But this time, I think I’m going to do something different. Plenty of people want to share with you their gems of wisdom that would make every show a success if only people listened to them. Instead, I’m going to give a series of uncontentious pieces of advice which I doubt anyone will dispute – except that I don’t expect anyone to actually do this. And if anyone claims they do any of these things, I refuse you believe you until I’ve strapped you to my high-voltage lie detector machine.

Remember folks, just because it’s sensible doesn’t mean you’ll do the sensible thing. Here are five sensible things I expect you to ignore.

1: Don’t obsess over your ticket sales

Screenshot of Performers' Area page of Underground Venues, showing Sales Reports section.
Damn you Underground Venues, this is all your fault

This is a recent phenomenon. In the old days, in order to find out how the ticket sales were doing, you had to turn up to the box office and ask. That safely limited you to two or three times a day, after which the box office staff would helpfully tell you to stop being this obsessive. Nowadays, however, many venues provide live online sales information to performers. And with the advent of smartphones, this now means you can check your ticket sales every five minutes if you want to. And yes, you want to check your ticket sales every five minutes, don’t you? Stop trying to deny it.

This isn’t unique to fringe theatre; the temptation exists in a lot of other theatres. But with most fringe spaces having a low capacity, every sale counts, and it’s near-impossible to not think when your next sale is coming through. It’s not really fair to blame venues on providing this information for us – I’m all in favour of knowledge over ignorance – but, damn you, now look what you’ve done! Maybe they need to build in a feature so that every fifth time you refresh the page, a message pops up to patronise you for your obsessive behaviour.

Really, there’s no reason why you need constant updates of your ticket sales. You should be performing the same show no matter what – indeed, there are many stories of people who’ve had dreadful turnouts and still put on great shows for the eight or so in the audience. So the sensible thing to do is not check your sales more than once a day. But that ain’t going to happen. If you have live access to your ticket sales, you’d better embrace your inner neurotic obsessive now.

2: Eat healthily

Basket of fruit and vegetables
Not sure what this is. Might be a kind of frisbee.

Putting on a fringe show is tiring business, so you should make you are eating properly to keep you energy up, so any health professional will tell you. The worst thing you can do is rely on takeaway food. What you should be doing is cooking from scratch and getting your five a day, the same as you should be doing at home. You’ll feel so much better when you do it that way.

Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. You are going to be super-busy during the run, acting, publicising, sorting out logistics. When you’re not doing that, you’ll be either socialising or obsessing. All of these things are exhausting business, so in the unlikely event that you’ve got the time to cook yourself a nutritious meal, you won’t have the energy. Overpriced street food it is. You’ve got next month to be made to feel guilty for what you’ve done to yourself. Bit like January after Christmas.

3: Don’t cast anyone who you fancy

To be fair, most fringe veterans have worked out somewhere along the line that this is a bad idea. You might think going away from a week or three together to do something you both love is a great chance for you and your unspoken flame, but really, having someone you fancy in any production is way more trouble than it’s worth. If you are responsible for the success of a production and you need to tell cast and crew whether they’re getting something right or wrong, you don’t want this to be compromised by wondering if She (or He) will like you more or less for what you say. And then there’s the matter of what happens if this all comes out in the open at the wrong moment and it goes the wrong way. Most performers realise this is something you can do without. Avoid it if you can.

Gets even more awkward if it’s this play.

Unfortunately, the”if” in “Avoid it if you can” is a very big “if”. Outside of the big festivals in Edinburgh and Brighton, fringe theatre is a small and incestuous world, where everybody knows everyone. Chances are you have a very limited pool of actors available, and if your theatre work is the most important thing in your life, it’s quite likely this same small pool of actors is also your social circle. So no matter how disciplined you are about not letting personal feelings get in the way of artistic judgement, it’s not unusual for your crush to be the best available person (or only available person) for a part you need. And then it gets complicated.

And if you avoid that complication, you’re not out of the woods yet. You’ve got several weeks weeks of rehearsing ahead of you, where’s you’re going to spending a getting to know people who you might not have known before, and if you’re directing, you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at them. If you’re single and there’s someone in the cast who is reasonably attractive, is difficult to avoiding fancying him or her just a little bit by the end.

In fringe theatre, there’s quite a lot of advantages to being single, but on this matter it helps to be in a serious long-term relationship, preferably one where your eyes met in double maths and you never looked back. Company incest is generally inadvisable, but not that easy to avoid. Sometimes, the best you can do is brace yourself.

4: Take no notice of what the reviews say

Don’t get me wrong: reviews matter – even if you’re more interested in the approval of your audience than the approval of reviewers, you need to get an audience in the first place, and good reviews will help that along. But there’s really no reason why you should take notice of reviews during your run. There’s little to gain and a lot to lose if it shatters your confidence at the wrong moment. By all means read them afterwards to get an idea of how your next show can be better, but during your stint at a fringe you’re stuck with what you’ve got. And besides, whatever audiences are coming to your plays are probably less fussy than reviewers. You should enjoy that and try to not to distract yourself with what the reviewers made of it. Ideally, disregard the review. Better still, until the run is over, don’t read the reviews at all.

But of course you do. There’s too much hinging on it, and when the stakes are this high, it’s near-impossible to not think about it. And the more your persist in trying not to look at your reviews, the more you’re going to wonder what they said. Sadly, the only known cure to wondering if your reviews are any good is to go ahead and read them. And if this really does shatter your confidence (or, almost as bad, makes you over-confident), it’s too late. You can’t un-read it.

Even if you are somehow disciplined enough to resist the urge to read your own reviews, you probably have no choice but to do it anyway. Reviews may have no bearing on how you perform your play, but it has substantial implications for your marketing. Whoever is responsible for your marketing is going to have to read all the reviews, good or bad, to find suitable quotes and star ratings to staple to your flyers and splash over social media. And if it’s a fringe performance, the aforementioned person responsible for marketing is probably you. No two ways about it: however sensible it may be to ignore reviews, that’s not going to happen. You’d better hope you’ve got nerves of steel when you read them.

5: Set yourself a budget and stick to it

An onimous-looking arrow going down
Your bank balance. Probably.

This one is a little less light-hearted than the others. Probably the worst thing about a festival fringe – especially Edinburgh – is that you can come out of the festival in serious financial difficulties. Anyone can come home with an amusing anecdote of some disaster, but thousands of pounds of debt is no laughing matter. Everybody who’s anybody gives dire warnings about keeping your finances under control. And I agree.

So in principle, you should set yourself an upper limit of what you’re prepared to spend, including contingencies. If you cannot stick to this budget, you will have to change plan. Switch to a cheaper idea if you can, abandon the idea entirely if you can’t. That’s a nice plan in theory, but it doesn’t work so well in practice. Here’s why.

The first problem is “optimism bias”. No, I didn’t invent those words, it’s a widely-recognised problem. Even governments routinely stick 60% on to the bill of major projects to allow for this, on top of the budget for contingencies. The basic problem is that if you want to do a festival fringe – and of course you do – you want to arrive at the decision that you can afford to do this. So any nagging thoughts about unexpected expenses are quickly glossed over. In short: if it’s touch and go whether you can keep your show in budget, but you decide it’s just about affordable to you, it probably isn’t – you are likely underestimating the cost by a long way.

The related problem is that everyone you know will encourage you to go ahead. It’s great to head to the Brighton or Buxton or Edinburgh Fringe with this support behind you, but not that helpful when you’re making the decision in the first place. Basically, the moment you start mentioning you want to do this, everyone will encourage you. So will any venue who can fit you into their programme. The further you go down the line, the more people will tell you to do it. The more people who encourage you to do it, the more you’ll disappoint them if you back out. It gets increasingly hard to make a rational decision on whether you can really afford to do this. That is dangerous.

So here’s my advice for how to handle this. Don’t rely on a budget you’ve set yourself, because you can’t trust yourself to stick to it. Instead, ask yourself how much money can you comfortably afford to lose. Then come up with an estimate for how much money you could lose if it goes disastrously. If this worst-case scenario is anywhere near this ceiling, don’t do it. You’ll have to save some money, or come up with a cheaper project, or simply concede you can’t do it.

Most important: do this first, before you even tell anyone you’re considering this. I mean it. The only people you should confide in are people you trust to tell you straight if it’s viable – if you know anyone like that, which you probably don’t. In theory, the point of no return for a fringe performance is when you sign the contract with the venue. In practice, you’re much more likely to pass the point of no return once you start telling people you want to do this. So make sure you’re ready for it.

In closing

I’m not going to doggedly argue it’s like this for everyone. Maybe, on these five points, other people are more disciplined than me. If you have your five-a-day, or successfully keep business and pleasure separate, or don’t worry about things you can’t change, or keep an iron fist over finances, well done. If other people have different bad habits, I’d like to hear them. I won’t judge you.

But the point of this is that it’s too easy to plan a festival fringe on the assumption you’ll be a super-disciplined super-human. Real life, however, doesn’t work like that. Everyone has their weaknesses, and if it’s not the five weaknesses listed here, it’ll be a different five weaknesses. No-one can eliminate these weaknesses; the best you can do is take this into account and live with it.

So do try to avoid putting on weight, going over budget, making ill-advised advances on your cast or unduly obsessing over reviews and sales. But don’t feel too ashamed if you fail. We’re all human. That’s why we make theatre.

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