Buxton to Brighton: what I’ve learned

So, it’s been six months since my Brighton Fringe escapades. This blog isn’t the place where I promote my own work – the short version is that I got my first four-star review but I had abysmal ticket sales. Still, it appears to have helped my efforts along back in the north-east, albeit in different ways to what I expected. If you really want to read all the cherry-picked ego-inflating quotes I’m using, you can read it here. But this post isn’t about promoting my work, it’s a list of lessons I’ve learned that might have other people.

As with my first two “What I’ve learned” posts, this isn’t a comprehensive list of tips for taking part in a fringe, but rather a list of things I found in in the process of taking a show to Brighton, having previously only had experience of Buxton. Some things scaled up as expected, some things worked out differently. For anyone else trying this, your unexpected experiences will probably be different. Without further ado, here we go.

Firstly: what I already knew

Seeing as some of you might be looking for general advice for taking part in the Brighton Fringe, I’ll start with some general tips. Everybody who’s anybody at a festival fringe can tell you this stuff, but if you’re a novice, the rest of this article won’t make sense unless you know the basics.

So let’s start with four generic tips that apply to pretty much any festival fringe.

  • You need to know what you’re doing. This is not the time to go mucking about with complicated and unreliable sets, sound plots or lighting cues. You might have patient venue managers back home who let you spend hours setting this up, but here it’s got a be a slick operation getting in, setting up, and getting out again. You also need to know what you’re doing with your script, because …
  • Local enthusiasm is dangerous. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by praise back home. People are naturally supportive of local ventures, but you have to succeed without local support. Expect your star ratings at Brighton to be lower that what you’ve had before. Will that be enough? (See my article of locality bias for more information.)
  • Expect to make a loss. The law of supply and demand says you can’t win. So many people want to take part in festival fringes with only a finite number of spaces available that costs skyrocket and sales are spread thinly. There’s many reasons to take part other than money: building a reputation, learning to compete in a professional environment or simply because you love doing it – but it had better be worth what you’re spending.
  • Marketing is very important. Back home, your only real challenge is getting your audience to like your play. At a fringe, however, all these efforts come to nothing if you don’t get an audience in the first place. Even if you’re somehow not too bothered about your audience size, it’s also a tough job to get the attention of reviewers. Expect a large chunk of your efforts to go into marketing.

In addition, there’s a couple of things more specific to Brighton.

  • It costs a lot more to do Brighton than do Buxton. Unless you have a large cast, a show taken to Buxton will rarely set you back more than a few hundred pounds. At Brighton, the bill can easily top a thousand if you’re not careful. The good news is that it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper than Edinburgh.
  • Brighton is a much better option than Buxton for exposure. If after good publicity that the arts world takes seriously, it’s really a choice between Edinburgh and Brighton – and the Brighton option, of course, has the advantage of not having the insane expense of Edinburgh. Buxton is slightly catching up now, thanks to FringeGuru’s efforts, but Brighton gets coverage from lots of publications that the arts world takes seriously.

In short, if you’re serious about getting noticed in the fringe theatre world but don’t want to take the massive financial risk that is the Edinburgh Fringe, Brighton is really the only option for you. But the stakes are still high. Never underestimate the gamble you are taking.

11 things I’ve learned

I could write endlessly about this. There’s so many little quirks that you only really know from doing this first-hand. I could, for example, talk about getting your pass from an unmarked building and being led into a back room feeling rather like a secret meeting for the Freemasons. But sticking to some things that are of practical use to know:

1: You are up against tough competition from the local groups

Logos of various Brighton-based companies
Some of what you’re up against, yesterday.

With Brighton Fringe roughly five times the size of Buxton Fringe, you can expect a more difficult job standing out from the crowd. That’s pretty much a given. What I hadn’t appreciated was how many reputable local groups there are. That makes is doubly difficult for you as an outsider.

This is a peculiarity unique to Brighton. Buxton has a fair amount of local representation, but it’s mostly youth groups that doesn’t compete much with regular theatre groups. (True, there is the unbeatable sort-of local Three’s Company, but that’s just one group.) Edinburgh, oddly enough, has very little fringe theatre scene outside of August. But Brighton Fringe has lots of locally-based groups who take part in the Fringe in May, and they’re good. And the bad news for you is that they have all year to build up their reputations, which means they’ve all got a massive head start over you in terms of both media attention and word-of-mouth publicity (because Brighton Fringe punters are mostly locals themselves).

Apart from the obvious but difficult remedy of coming with a big enough reputation to compete with all the established local acts, I have only one idea. If you can, get on good terms with the local performers in Brighton. Serious suggestion. If you can get them to like you enough to come and see your performance, and they like it, they’ll go and tell other performers how good you were. And they, in turn, have the ears of other punters and the fringe media. This isn’t a quick fix – you really need to have been to several previous fringes to have built up good relationships, and you might have to wait for future years before word going round does you any good, but I’d give it a go. If nothing else, it’ll help you out with the next issue.

2: Brighton is a lonelier fringe

One thing I learnt this year that surprised me is that there are some Buxton regulars who’ll happily take part in Edinburgh but not Brighton. The reasons are varied, but one thing that’s very popular at Buxton is that it’s small enough for everyone to know and support each other. Edinburgh, of course, is way too big for that, but what you get instead is a huge amount of camaraderie building up over the month, especially between performers in the same venue. Brighton has neither of those. It’s too big for the community effect of Buxton, but runs of 3-7 days are too short to build up relationships with other performers the way you can in Edinburgh. To compound this, many performers are local-but-not-quite-local-enough. They don’t hang around before and after their performances because they hurry back to their homes elsewhere in Sussex. Don’t be surprised if the only people you’re on regular speaking terms with are your venue staff.

Take this into account. It’s stressful enough taking a show to the fringe, especially if you’re going on your own. The community spirit at Buxton can mitigate this, but there’s no such mitigation at Brighton. It helps if you are bringing something you have already done before successfully, as this eliminates some, but not all, of the things to get stressed over. It also helps if you’re bringing other people with you (preferably loyal and trustworthy people). But think very carefully about going to Brighton on your own with something untested. Your mental health could be the thing that cracks first.

3: Public liability insurance is a rip-off you can’t avoid

In theory, in any kind of fringe – indeed any kind of performance – everybody has to take out public liability insurance. In practice, this is only really enforced in Brighton and Edinburgh. But to anyone who’s disciplined with finance and keeps costs under control, this extra expense can come as a bit of a shock. And yet this substantial expense is barely mentioned to prospective performers. I suspect this is overlooked because most professional performers will already have PLI somehow, either directly or indirectly through something like Equity. But for the dedicated amateurs taking part, that’s at least another £80 on your bill they don’t warn you about.

I’m surprised this isn’t debated more. £80 isn’t a vast amount compared to all the other expenses at Brighton, but what are we actually paying for? I am highly doubtful the liabilities actually paid out to performers at Brighton Fringe is anything like the amount we pay in. And if this rule was ever enforced at smaller fringes like Buxton, it would probably kill them. Obviously nobody wants a small group to find themselves liable for tens of thousands of pounds in damages, but I’m yet to be convinced this isn’t a scam created by colluding insurance companies to rip off people who have no choice but to pay.

In the meantime, my advice is to buy anything but festival-only insurance. A year-long policy costs about the same as a three-day policy, so you may as well get a year-long one and maybe get to re-use it later in the year. But if the insurance companies want me to believe they’re being fair, they have a lot of explaining to do.

4: It doesn’t pay to go cheap on accommodation

Another large bill you will face at Brighton is accommodation. This time, it’s fair to say that Buxton performers have it easy. There’s plenty of people in Buxton who support the fringe by hiring out rooms for stupidly cheap rates to performers. Honestly, where else do you get £10 per night for a room to yourself? At Brighton, there is still an entrants’ accommodation list, but you can expect more like £40-50 per night. What Brighton has that Buxton doesn’t, however, is hostel accommodation. As such, it is tempting to save a couple of hundred quid and stay in a hostel. After all, hostels are a perfectly viable option for punters to the Brighton Fringe.

Don’t do it. You are not a punter, you are a performer, and you are going to have a far more tiring time than any punter does. Even though you are only performing for one hour every day, you can expect to be continuously busy the rest of the time doing one thing or another. It is all very tiring – twice I woke up and discovered it was already past 11. The last thing you need is to disrupt the little sleep you get in a hostel dorm with people coming in and out all night. You might get away with it is there’s a lot of you can book one hostel room, and you’re able to share out the leg work between you, but definitely don’t try it if you’re on your own. That’s an economisation too far.

5: Beware of mission creep

A Brighton Fringe act blowing its budget, yesterday

So, as you will have gathered by now, the bills pile up in Brighton. You probably want to get some of your money back. If you can sell out your seats, you might just do that. You also stand to get a lot of good publicity that will make all that money and effort worthwhile. As such, it’s quite natural to want to go the extra mile to achieve this.

Be careful. Mission creep is a thing in Brighton. In Buxton, once you’ve booked for a three-day run and paid for posters and flyers, there’s not much more you can do (at least, not without looking unduly extravagant). In Brighton, however, there’s two things you can end up doing. One is to spend more money on publicity, such as adverts in the fringe programme or places on poster boards. The other more recent thing is that some venues now actively encourage you to do a minimum of five or even seven days.

This is dangerous. The more you spend, either on extra publicity or longer runs, the more tickets you have to sell to cover these extra costs. Which in turn leads to further temptations to spend more. Should you take out more adverts? Should you get professional production shots? Should you have a professionally-made trailer? Should you hire a publicist? I don’t think anyone comes to Brighton with the intention of risking more money than they can comfortably afford to lose, but with all these extras looming it’s tempting to do just that. If you’re not careful, you could find your costs spiralling out of control.

6: Venues do almost as much guesswork as you do

Any venue of any standing at any fringe will be discerning about what it puts in its programme. Some venues like an artistic slant, most venues will want a programme that enhances their reputation, but the #1 concern of any venue is what will sell. Better ticket sales usually mean better box office splits for the venue, and even if venues take a flat hire fee, better ticket sales means they can attract more and better acts in future years. Therefore, it is in the interests of venues to be experts on knowing which acts will sell well and which won’t, and one would expect them to have a lot of practice after years in the game.

Truth be told, I’ve found out their guesses aren’t much better than mine. I’ve heard admissions that some shows which they were convinced would have wide audience appeal had slow sales, whilst others they had less hopes for outperformed expectations. Plays can also be unexpectedly good or unexpectedly awful, but that doesn’t always explain unexpectedly good or bad sales figures.

Not much you can do about this, apart from maybe be careful if a venue offers to put you in a bigger more expensive space on the promise you’ll definitely sell tickets. It’s worth taking this lesson home though. Your local professional theatres probably want you to believe – or at least are happy to go along with the idea – that their choices in what they programme is the definitive list of the best and most popular theatre in your region. Chances are they too are mostly guessing. So don’t think anyone is authoritative – if you think your local theatre is overlooking someone who deserves better, don’t be afraid to say so.

7: Factor walking time into your plans

As well as Brighton being larger than Buxton in that Brighton Fringe has more shows than Buxton Fringe, don’t forget that Brighton as a city is physically larger than Buxton as a town. In Buxton, everywhere that’s anywhere is in a few minutes of each other. In Brighton, venues, fringe offices and suitable flyering spots are further apart. It’s not unusual to need to allow 30 minutes to get from A to B. This catches out punters too, but it’s a bigger problem if you’re a performer.

One thing you need to factor in is how for out your accommodation is. In Buxton, it’s quite easy to nip back you your digs for a quiet couple of hours. Or to pick up something you’ve forgotten. Or drop off something you don’t want to lug around with you. In Brighton, unless you are lucky enough to have somewhere absolutely central, every trip back might be a 60-minute round trip: 60 precious minutes you could have spent doing something more useful. There’s little you can do about this except take this take this into account. So don’t assume the tight timescales that worked in Buxton will work in Brighton.

8: Recommendations won’t necessarily get you an audience

Okay, this is the one that caught me out. The thing that persuaded me to take the gamble that is the Brighton Fringe was the reception I’d got from Buxton. My primary concern was whether this play was faring well enough to manage in the tougher climes of the south coast, but based on the limited evidence I had from friendly fringe, I calculated it was worth the risk (a calculation that turned out to be correct, thank goodness). A secondary concern, however, was a hope that the Buxton performance would get me recommendations. I knew I’d have minimal resources to publicise myself once I got to Brighton, so I was really counting on recommendations in advance of my run. And I got them. The one I got from FringeGuru was one I thought I might get (where admittedly I was at an unfair advantage because I am good friends with editor), but the recommendation from FringeReview came completely out of the blue. Turns out they have their own spies in Buxton and I’d come on their radar that way. I don’t think there’s a recognised way of ranking plays based on pre-fringe recommendations, but I reckon I’d got myself in the top 25% or so. Surely this had to be worth something at the box office?

Apparently not. I’m not going to going into the full embarrassing details, but my ticket sales were pretty dreadful. And, honestly, I’m at a loss as to what you can do about this. If recommendations from two fringe publications isn’t enough to get you an audience, it’s hard to say what is, and besides, it’s difficult to see how you could debut at Brighton with more than that if you’ve come on the Buxton route. Star ratings plastered over your poster might draw the punters in, but even if you have a seven-day runs, reviews have an annoying habit of not coming out until after you’ve finished. More publicity runs the runs of falling foul of tip #5. Perhaps there isn’t a foolproof plan. All I know is that sometimes even the best possible pre-festival acclaim isn’t enough.

9: It’s an agonising wait for reviews

Admit it. You care what the reviews say, don’t you? No matter how much you may wish the the verdict of one reviewer isn’t important to you, the fact remains that, career-wise, there’s nothing better to take back with you that a four- or five-star review from a reputable publication. Back home you can bang on about how great the audience feedback was, but anyone can claim that irrespective of the truth. Pre-fringe recommendations are better, but it really takes too long to explain exactly what you achieved. Bottom line is that there’s no quicker way of telling theatres of your achievements than “I’ve got this four-star review.”

Unfortunately, given the size of Brighton Fringe, there’s quite a high chance you’ll get just one review. And individual reviews are a bit of a lottery, skewed heavily by the personal preferences of the reviewer. This is especially precarious if you’re doing a play that splits opinion (as I knew mine did). Even if it’s a minority who don’t like it, it just take one bit of bad luck at the wrong moment. And here’s the bad news: you are going to have to wait for days. Apart from the annoying habit for reviews to come out too late to affect your sales, it also means it’s an agonising wait before you know if you have something to show for the hundreds of pounds and months of work you’ve put it. Worse, you don’t know when the review is going to come out, so instead of being about not thinking about it for a few days, you’re likely to be checking the internet obsessively, know the review could come out any moment. Jesus, who thought smartphones were a good idea? Especially the ones that load the pages slowly. I remember twice getting a fright as a two-star rating flashed up on on Broadway Baby, followed by a sense of relief when the title of someone else’s play loaded . (Note: if that was your play where I thought “phew, that bad review’s someone else’s”, soz.)

My advice is that if your venue offers you the option to book in reviewers but not tell you they’ve got one in, take it up. The less you know about pending reviews, the better. Even so, that can’t always be avoided – you might notice someone with a notepad in your sparse audience, or a well-meaning friend might notice and give the game away. Once you know, you can’t un-know. There were periods when I was convinced I was going to get a good review and other periods when I was convinced I’d get a bad one. Whatever your tactic, there’s a lot at stake psychologically on the outcome. When I got my four-star review on the last day, that overcame the disappointment that had got to me all week about my tiny audiences. If I’d been less lucky, it could have been a very different journey home. Really, Brighton is not for the faint-hearted.

10: Your festival fringe reputation can overtake your local reputation

A Brighton Fringe veteran attempting to tell the local press of his achievements (and definitely not a scene from Despicable Me), yesterday.
A Brighton Fringe veteran attempting to tell the local press of his achievements (and definitely not a scene from Despicable Me), yesterday.

Okay, I’m going to slip into a minor rant here, not about Brighton fringe, but about places that don’t embrace Brighton’s spirit of inclusivity. One frustration I and many other people have is local arts media who don’t seem that interested in emerging talent. I don’t know what the editorial policies of local arts media is, and they’re welcome to explain it at any time, but the fact remains that the coverage is dominated by what’s going on in the same few big venues – it sometimes feels like little more than reciting their press releases. So how are you supposed to get started? With a few honourable exceptions, it seems they’re not bothered.

That’s the beautiful thing about the Brighton Fringe. When you start doing the festival fringe circuit, everyone’s status and standing is reset to zero. And, okay, you’re up against established local companies who have a major head start on you, but the open culture of the festival fringe means that audience and reviewers alike look beyond the big names they know and give some unknowns a chance. They care very little who are the giants and who are the minnows back home – it all comes down to what they want to see. Giants can outperform minnows and minnows can outperform giants. You can earn the respect of punters, press and venues in Brighton even if you’re ignored locally.

So you might think that a good way to get taken seriously by the local media and local theatres is to do something at Brighton that succeeds, return triumphant with great reviews to show people, and let them beat a path down to your door. Sadly, in my experience, it doesn’t work like that. Maybe it’s because local arts press is too entrenched reporting more of the same, or maybe they don’t realise there as festival fringes other than Edinburgh, or maybe they want loads of four- and five-star reviews before they take notice. Whatever the reason, you can expect to be treated with nearly as much indifference on your return. Perhaps a bit of progress, but glacially slow progress. This means I’m in the bizarre situation where I have far more coverage outside my home region than I do inside, and I don’t believe I’m alone here.

Come to Brighton to escape being treated like you don’t exist if you like – just manage your expectations for what’ll happen afterwards.

11: Yes, you can do great performances to small audiences

Since I’ve had a rather gloomy tone to many of these tips, let’s finish with something positive, even inspiring. You have probably heard the saying that even if you’ve only got an audience of two, you can still do a great performance to those two people. That might sound like a platitude, but I can now vouch this is actually true. Obviously this works better for some plays than others, but if it’s something that relies on an intimate setting, you have not excuse not to give it all.

This is important. I don’t subscribe to this notion that performing to a small audience isn’t worthwhile, but for anyone who does, bear in mind that any one of the few people you have in your tiny audience could make a big difference. It could be a reviewer, a promoter who wants you for their venue, or someone from the well-known theatre companies in Brighton who can spread the word for you. Obviously, the realisation you’re playing to three when you were hoping for thirty is probably a demoralising blow at the worst possible moment, but you have to overcome this. Hold your nerve, think about what you stand to gain from a good performance, and go for it. You may be thankful you did.

And one thing where I’m none the wiser

And to round of the list, one thing where I still don’t have any useful advice.

12: Flyering

Flyering. Hmm. I am yet to be convinced of the benefits of flyering in Brighton. I keep hearing how the most successful shows are publicised by people who are passionate about their work and want to tell you all about it, and yes, I agree that I’d much rather be flyered by one of these people than some paid drone who recites the pitch for a play by rote. However, that principle only works if you’re flyering someone who is already thinking of seeing Fringe shows. That’s fine in Edinburgh because in the Royal Mile or Bistro Square you can safely assume almost everyone around is there for the Fringe. In Brighton, however, most people are just going about their lives. Either that or visiting Brighton for the weekend to drink. Both of those are a waste of time and flyers.

Even the places that are supposedly hubs of the fringe are dubious. Fringe City, intended as the equivalent to Edinburgh Fringe’s Royal Mile, ought to be the obvious place to go, and the recent growth in the fringe has helped push it in this direction. But still, the majority of people you’ll find on New Street aren’t there for the fringe. Even the people who watch the street acts seem difficult to drag to any events proper. If you can present an event at Fringe City, that probably helps, but it’s too noisy a place to be able to do this for straight theatre. It’s really better for music and dance. I suppose you could try flyering to big outdoor bar in The Warren (if they don’t mind flyering for non-Warren acts there), but even then, I suspect a lot of people are there to just drink.

You’re welcome to say what I’m doing wrong and give your own success stories. I’d love to know. But the conventional wisdom to go out and flyer just isn’t enough.

So is it worth it?

Okay, having got through this, let’s end with the usual question. Would I recommend you doing the same.

If you’re in the same situation as me, that is you’ve already run a show at Buxton Fringe or something similar, and you’re reasonably confident it’s going down well: why not? Some bits of Brighton will come as a culture shock to you, but you’ve already had experience of the basics, such as getting a cast (or yourself) away from home, producing a play in a small space with no set, designing publicity to professional-looking standards and knowing how good you need to be. What you don’t know you can pick up as you go along. Usual caveats apply, of course. Most importantly, make sure you’re not gambling with more money than you can comfortably afford to lose. You probably also want to think about what you intend to achieve in Brighton, but if your sole aim is to see whether you can do it, that is fine. Go for it.

If you haven’t done a festival fringe before, I would urge a lot more caution. Up to now, I’ve been advising people not to go straight to Edinburgh – instead, use a smaller fringe like Brighton, Buxton or Bedford as an entry-level one. Now, I’m having second thoughts about Brighton being a suitable entry-level fringe. It’s a change that’s only really come about in the last few years, but Brighton is becoming more like Edinburgh, where competition is increasingly intense and novices can easily find themselves out of their depths. As such, if you’re completely new, I’d recommend starting with something smaller. For anyone in the north, that probably means Buxton, which is a manageable enough size for a newcomer. For the south, there’s plenty of small fringes for you to cut your teeth.

Only exception I’d recommend is if you live close enough to Brighton to do day trips and dispense with the accommodation costs. You and fringe veterans, feel free to give it a go. Fringe newbies, the sensible thing to do is forget about Brighton for now and come back when you’re ready. But if you’re not so sensible, best of luck.

One thought on “Buxton to Brighton: what I’ve learned

  1. Richard Stamp November 24, 2016 / 4:33 pm

    This is a great post, and I agree with almost all of it (or at least the parts where I’m qualified to have any kind of opinion).

    The one thing I don’t quite connect with is the point about reviews taking ages to come out. Lest anyone think I’m being defensive here, let me say that we (Fringe Guru) have been utterly rubbish across all the festivals this year, and are putting a lot of thought into how we can do better in 2017. But in general, I think reviews come out relatively quickly in Brighton, certainly in comparison to Edinburgh.

    There are a few things I can think of which might explain why you have a different:

    1. You’re spoiled by the Buxton Fringe “official” reviews system – which for all its flaws, does reliably publish the morning after the opening night.

    2. I don’t remember which week you performed in, but there was a notable dearth of reviewers in Brighton this year from week 3 onwards. I don’t know why that was – there are lots of theories, and it could be a subject for a whole other blog post – but however it happened, when people are spread thinner, the system groans and things slow down.

    3. But the biggest factor, I think, was that you were at Sweet, with its week-long runs starting on Mondays. Previously in Brighton, there was a big bulge at weekends – when it’s easier to cope with because people aren’t at their day jobs – and then a smattering of opening nights spread throughout the week. Sweet changed that dynamic completely, and as an unintended consequence it became much harder to get reviewers in early in a run. I personally reviewed some shows on Thursday or Friday which were closing on Sunday – not because I’d consciously de-prioritised them, but just because it took me that long to work through the batch of shows which had all opened on the same day.

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