12 questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking of doing the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe has barely been put to bed, but already people are thinking about what to do on the fringe circuit next year. And amongst these will be a lot of people who have never done this before. If you’re new to this, there are a lot of guides out there that will cover the practicalities of doing the fringe – I’ve indulged a little in this myself, but there are other more comprehensive guides out there. But this isn’t about how to do a fringe show. This is about a question I don’t think gets asked enough: should you do the fringe at all?

Performing on the fringe circuit is a great experience: it can bring you opportunities you can’t get anywhere else, and best of all, there’s no gatekeepers telling us who is and isn’t allowed to be given a chance. But even so – and I say this as one of the strongest advocates of open fringes – that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone. Far too often, the opportunities are over-sold, and the risks are downplayed. Even if you’re lucky enough to have no worries about money, a fringe venture that backfires is a huge setback, far worse than a local venture that flops.

The biggest danger of the Fringe, though, is how much people want to do it. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone to say that there’s nothing like the buzz of being part of it. It’s dangerous, because when you want to do something this badly, it’s very easy to make an optimistic assumption here and overlook a problem there, until you’re convinced it’s a good idea long after alarm bells should be ringing. So, in my effort to avert disasters in the making, I am putting together a list of questions you should ask yourself first. These should always precede a decision to take part at all. Only then should you proceed with deciding how to actually do it.

Before we even begin

There is one other important thing I need to say before I start on the questions. As well doing this before you start making moves, I recommend you think about these questions before you even tell anyone you’re thinking of doing this. There is a good reason for doing this: friends and family have an annoying habit of thinking that doing the fringe is a great idea without appreciating how much of a gamble it is. It’s hard enough abandoning your fringe dreams for a year if you realise it’s not worth the risk; if you’ve already told people you want to go and they’re encouraging you, it gets even harder. Unfortunate though it is, well-meaning family and friends can spell disaster.

If you are fortunate enough to have a friend who is, and 1) sensible and 2) knowledgeable about what’s involved, then do include that friend in the discussion from the start. If you are going as a collaborative company, then of course talk to the people who are sharing the risk to money and reputation. But don’t be like stunt motorcyclist attempting a suicidal jump in front of fans shouting “You can do it!” We know how that ends.

Right, here are the questions, roughly sorted in the order I think you should be asking these. In all of these questions, I am making a couple of basic assumptions that a) you’ve actually seen a festival fringe in action, and 2) you know how to produce a play – if the answer to this is no, for God’s sake don’t. Other than that, there are no right answers to these, and few wrong answers. But you should have an answer. Let us begin.

1: Do you have any idea what you’re letting yourself in for?

Let’s start how I mean to go on. Do not be under any illusions under what’s at stake here. Appearances are very deceiving. Few people would watch a West End extravaganza and think “Ooh, I fancy doing that”, but when you see a fringe play with tiny production values succeed, it’s a very easy mistake to think you could do the same. Whoa there, not so fast. Almost all of the hard stuff happens out of view. And don’t think it’s going to be easy just because you produced a play like this back home. It’s a very different game under festival fringe conditions.

Any or all of the following could happen: you could end up in huge debts; you could perform your entire run to near-empty houses; you could be treated like you’re not there, or, worse, you could have your reputation as a theatre-maker damaged beyond repair. And if you remotely care about what you’re producing – and I hope you do if you’re you’re contemplating this – it can take a toll on you personally too. Throughout the run, and in the months leading up to it, this is probably going to take over your life. If it ends badly for your play, expect to go down with it. This is not an undemanding hobby that you can take or leave as you please – it is a big professional and personal gamble. There are ways of reducing the risk, but it is always there, and this risk is always at the back of your mind.

So if your motives for doing a fringe were simply “Ooh, I fancy doing that”, you need to stop right now, let reality sink in, and think if this is the path you want to go down. There is no shame in calling it off now before you get in over your head. Far better that than to delude yourself into thinking everything will be fine.

If you still wish to proceed, read on.

2: What are you hoping to achieve from this?

This might seem like an odd thing to ask, because if you’re thinking of doing a fringe you must have a reason somewhere. But I think it’s a good idea to establish early on exactly what you are trying to do. There are plenty of valid reasons doing a fringe: you might want to get some good reviews; practice your craft outside the comfort zone of an uncritical local audience; or build up the respect of your peers. Any of those reasons are fine. Or you might be in for the long game and want to build up a reputation over several fringes. Or you might have less grand ambitions, simply wanting to establish you can perform a play under festival fringe conditions, or just enjoy the buzz of being there – those are valid reasons too. The only two aspirations I would urge caution on are making money, or being discovered and signed up. Both of those are possible, but rare for a fringe first-timer. Best to treat that chance as a bonus rather than a mission its own right.

But I would urge you to make a decision and stick to it. If things aren’t going to plan, it’s good to look back at this and think if it’s still worth it. If you’re after good reviews, bear in mind it’s a tough job to get any reviews, let alone a good one – will it still be worthwhile if you don’t? If you want to practice your craft with a critical non-local audience, will you be happy if you have an audience of three? Even if your sole objective is to have a good time – don’t press on if it isn’t fun any more.

This, of course, only helps you in the early days – for most people, once you’ve signed the contract, you are committed to doing your show come hell or high water. But before then, when are are approaching the point of no return and thinks might not be working out the way you expected, a simple look back at your original reasons might help you make a tough decision to take the plunge or pull the plug. Just don’t end up doing a fringe for the sake of it.

3: Can you perform this play under fringe conditions?

I almost didn’t put this in the list because it should be bleeding obvious to anyone who’s seen a fringe, never mind taken part in one, but just in case anyone hasn’t realised this: in almost all cases, on every performance you are starting with a bare stage, you’ll have a short amount of time to set up everything (usually 10-30 minutes, depending on how intensively the venue is used) and a short or shorter amount of time to take everything down at the end. You cannot create sets of any complexity, nor can you count on lighting or sound cues that can’t be done with the most basic of equipment. What’s more, your 2-3 hours of technical rehearsal are very limited – you cannot achieve effects that require days to practice and perfect. And unless you are going for a big and expensive venue, you are probably going to have to work with a small stage space.

This is a pretty easy one to learn, because group learn to work within the limitations of the fringe space and do amazing jobs. And I must say, even when I’ve seen awful fringe plays, it is extremely rare they fall foul of this mistake. There again, I suspect this is because venues spot which groups don’t know what they’re doing at application stage (that’s why they are so interested in knowing your lighting and staging requirements) and steer clear of anyone expecting the impossible. Anyway, I have now stated the obvious. Please don’t trip over this basic hurdle.

4: Have you considered fringes other than Edinburgh?

I’d have thought this was an obvious question to ask, but it astonishes me how often people talk about taking their show to “the Fringe” without realising there are festival fringes other than Edinburgh. And, worse, the people who are the least aware of the alternatives to Edinburgh are usually the people who should consider this the most. Apart from the astronomical costs that come with the world’s largest Fringe, the sheer number of acts means that the Edinburgh Fringe is virtually a trade fair. You will be showcasing yourself against the best in the business, and you really want to be coming with your absolute best material at its absolute best.

Whether Edinburgh is right for you will depend a lot on what you’re trying to achieve. But if you’re finding your feet, you are probably better off looking at a smaller fringe. The next one down is Brighton, which is getting a lot more like Edinburgh with costs and competitiveness rising fast, but it’s still a picnic compared to its Scottish cousin where you have to run the whole festival. (You don’t have to run the whole festival, but in general, if you’re not ready to run the full three weeks you are not ready for Edinburgh at all.) Then there’s the small fringes: in the north Buxton and Greater Manchester are good options – I believe there is more choice down south. One complicating factor is that a lot of these small festivals who call themselves “fringes” aren’t actually open-access (because apparently the big one is Scotland – that all these other fringes rely on for their reputation – got its ethos wrong, and the correct way to fringe is for an enlightened vetting committee to decree correct and incorrect ways of being fresh and original, a gripe I’ve talked about before), but the options are there. Regardless, these small fringes are much cheaper to do, but they’re not great if you’re after exposure.

One notable exception where Edinburgh is good choice is student theatre – the timing of August is ideal, costs can be shared amongst those taking part, and as long as you’re there to have a good time that’s virtually guaranteed. Other than that, the decision of which fringe is right for you will depend a lot on what you’re trying to achieve. But the first step is to understand that there is more than one option. If you think it’s Edinburgh or bust, you could be setting yourself up for a very big fall.

5: Are you gambling with more money than you can afford to lose?

With the exception of a few lucky groups who are fringe favourites, it’s pretty much a given that you will lose money taking part in a fringe. There are plenty of guides out there to estimate your income and expenditure. It’s a good idea to use one of these, because this will force you to think about everything you need to spend money on. The general is that you can weigh up your projected income against projected expenditure to give you your net loss. Is your fringe project worthwhile net loss? If so, then go ahead.

However, the problem with these tools is that they generally only look at your expected scenario. That’s not enough. You also need to look at your worst-case scenario. And, in most cases, I recommend you ask yourself what your balance sheet will look like if your ticket sales are zero. (This is hypothetical – I don’t know of anyone who gets literally no sales through an entire run – but sales can be so bad you may as well treat your income as zero.) What happens then? And I’m not talking about what happens to your play or your reputation, I’m meaning what happens to you? Will you be in debt? Will you be able to pay it off? Will you have to cut back on the basics to live off? Will you have to sell your house? That might sound alarmist, but things like this do happen at Edinburgh – and now, to some extent, Brighton is going that way too.

The arts journalists who romanticise people who risk everything on a fringe show have a lot to answer for here, because for every person who succeed on that kind of gamble, there are countless people who pay heavy personal prices for their failures. Don’t take these risks. There are more important things in life. Often you can make the risk manageable by doing a smaller cheaper fringe instead. You may pass up the chance for your big break, but that’s not a gamble worth taking.

(And, yes, one side-effect is that this becomes a big barrier to performers who don’t have deep pockets. Having the security of a wealthy family to get out our of difficulties shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. If you don’t, that sucks. So far, no-one seems to have found a solution to this. But you won’t fix the system by getting yourself into debt.)

6: Are you prepared for mission creep?

So far, when talking about money, I’ve only talked about the risk of income being less than expected. However, there’s also a risk of costs being more than expected. This might seem like an easy factor to control, because all of the major expenditures like travel and accommodation and venue guarantee should be known in advance. In theory. Reality can be quite different.

What happens, in practice, is that after you decide you’re going to do a fringe, options appear for extra expenditure that you hadn’t previously considered. You may get encouraged to do a longer run that you first intended. Or you may get encouraged to spent extra on different kinds of publicity. Maybe hire flyerers or publicists. All of these things add to expenses, but promise to get you more tickets sold. So you do. But now you are working to a bigger budget to what you first intended. Then more optional extras come up, promising to sell more tickets, which you now need even more to cover the costs of the other extras you’ve already paid for. And so on. If you’re not careful, you could end up spending a lot more than you originally planned.

If you do indeed sell more tickets, and/or other get extras such as more recognition, that’s all well and good. But it means you stand to lose a lot more if it goes wrong. What might have started off an easily-affordable budget could spiral out of control and hit you where it hurts. If you, hand on heart, trust yourself to put your foot down and refuse to spend more than your maximum budget no matter how much people encourage you to, then go ahead. Otherwise, you need to allow yourself a big margin for possible cost overruns – never mind the 10% “contingency budgets” some people talk about, you could be looking at more like 50% or even double. You might make than money back – but be able to take the hit if you don’t.

7: Does the play you’re considering have a unique selling point?

This matters a lot more in the big fringes than the small ones, but it’s something you should think about early on. When thinking about publicity, you will probably be thinking about poster design and how to make you play sound as interesting as possible in the press releases. However, one thing you should also be considering is how easy your play is to promote in the first place. The harsh reality is that you might be taking the most brilliant play in the universe, and still no-one reviews and hardly anyone sees it because you can’t make it stand out from the other hundreds or thousands of entries in the programme.

This can come as a bit of a culture shock. Back home, an hour-long monologue may draw in and wow audiences with the amazing revelation than one person can remember a who hour’s worth of lines. But at a festival fringe? Meh. Loads of people do that. You need something that makes it different from all the other solo plays. Is the name of the writer or director a draw? Can you sell something unique about the story without spoilers? Is it based on an amazing story you had in real life? The bigger the fringe, the harder it gets. In Edinburgh, sod’s law dictates that if you bring a play telling your amazing story of being trapped in the Mongolian Wilderness for three months being forced to the corpses of a plane crash, there will be six other entries in the programme with exactly the same thing.

Such is the emphasis given to unique selling points, it has its own abbreviation of USP. If your play has a good USP, this will make your publicity a lot easier without having to resort to expensive publicity campaigns. If it doesn’t, you might want to consider instead bringing a play that does.

If you really want to bring a play that has no USP, that’s fine – you can still have a successful fringe without. Just be aware you will either have to work a lot harder to compensate for the lack of one, or lower your expectations for what you hope to achieve.

8: What is your plan if you don’t get the venue you want?

One thing that you learn pretty quickly on the fringe circuit is that although the festival fringe itself may be open-access, the venues are not – at least not the venues of any standing. In most cases, this is inevitable: there is only a finite number of performances a venue can show over a festival, so you have to say no to some groups – the only question is how you decide who to say no to. The other thing that is a common feature in most fringes are the “supervenues”, a kind of Premier League of venues. They’re the most contested venues to get into, but get in and you will a leg-up with publicity, prestige and ticket sales. It’s not all good news, though: the hire costs tend to be bigger, and you stand to lose more if you can’t sell.

In Buxton, the Premier League venues are Underground and (arguably) Rotunda; in Brighton it’s Warren, Sweet and Spiegeltent (the latter one is a lot more cabaret than theatre). At Edinburgh, it’s the Big Four (Pleasance, Assembly, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon) that constitutes a Premier League; with C Venues, Greenside and Sweet being a kind of Championship; Summerhall, Traverse and Bedlam being niche venues that don’t fit into this structure; and The Space having a reputation of being the theatre equivalent of Sunday League. Sorry Space. The one thing you won’t see in any of these guides for doing the fringe is a guide to the venues; things change so quickly, no-one even attempts to keep a list of pros and cons up to date. What’s important to remember, however, is that all the major fringes have a culture that you don’t have to be in a top-flight venue to be given a fair chance – this is in sharp contrast to regional theatre where, if you’re not in a top-flight venue, you will probably be treated like your efforts don’t exist and don’t matter.

Which venue is right for you to apply for will depend a lot on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve, but I would urge everyone to decide in advance what to do if they don’t get into the venue they applied for. Bear in mind that if this happens, it may be too late to apply for your second, third or fourth choice of venue. You might be confident that you can still pull it off in a small obscure venue; or you might think that without the backing of a better-known venue, you won’t stand a realistic chance. Either decision is fine. But try to have this decision ready in advance. If the worst comes to the worst and you suddenly discover you haven’t got the venue you were counting on, you don’t want to make any decisions in a panic. Not at the fringe, you don’t.

9: Are you aware that you won’t have local enthusiasm on your side?

Oh boy. This is something I wish we would warn people about more. There is a common factor I see amongst a lot of mediocre and poor fringe plays, and it’s this story: the play was performed back home and went down well, so now they’re taking it to the fringe. Without knowing the details, it’s difficult to comment further on individual cases – I do hear occasional report of the overwhelming praise turning out to be the actors asking their mates to say it was great, and I’m not terribly sympathetic when that happens. But most of the time, I suspect, these tales of going down a storm are made in good faith. There’s a thing I call locality bias, which is that the closer to your home crowd your play is shown, the better the reaction of the audience. And why shouldn’t they? People have a natural tendency to support one of their own. Sadly, this best will in the world does you no favours, if you go to a fringe (especially Edinburgh) thinking it’s better than it really is.

Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way of telling if a play that’s already had a successful run will fare the same at Edinburgh or Brighton. I’ve heard it said that you should expect Edinburgh reviews to be one star less than local reviews, but that’s a huge approximation and anything could happen. If you are lucky enough to be able to get feedback from someone who you know to be immune to local enthusiasm, for God’s sake listen to that. Most of the time, however, there’s little you can do except factor it in as a risk. It’s a bad idea to take anything for granted on the fringe circuit, but definitely don’t take a good reception for granted just because you’ve had a good reception on your doorstep.

One other thing whilst I’m on the subject: some people seem to think you can get this to work the other way round. The idea tends to be that your audience back home are too set in their ways and Edinburgh is far more open-minded. Whilst it is true that local audiences can be conservative, what I’ve heard happen in practice is that performers or comedians shock audiences in the village hall and then go into Edinburgh thinking they’re edgy. And, inevitably, Edinburgh audiences have seen this all before and go “meh”. If you’re lucky. One-star reviews if you’re not. Banking on local shock value is an even worse idea than banking on local support. So don’t so it.

10: Do you trust the people you intend to work with?

This can be a tough call to make. Under normal circumstances, it’s a good idea to vary who you work with. When you work with someone new, some people will disappoint you, but some people will impress you – and when you play the long game, you will increase your pool of people available to you. But, in general, a festival fringe performance is not the time to do this. The stakes are too high. You should be assembling the most reliable and loyal team you can find. They should be just as enthusiastic about doing this as you are.

Most of all, safeguard yourself against people dropping out. You can never fully safeguard against this – even the most supportive people can have horrendous things happening in their life outside your control, I’ve had some close calls there – but you should do everything you can to minimise this risk. For most of the other disasters I’ve talked about, you can recover, or at worst, struggle on; but a drop-out can kill your production before it’s begun. If you aren’t sure about someone, try to have a backup plan in place – could the other actors cover this role? (Oh, and don’t assume you’re immune to drop-outs just because you’re paying people. I found that one out the hard way. Grr.)

You can, of course, eliminate the risk of drop-outs by doing a solo show. This brings us on to …

11: Do you trust yourself to manage the stress?

There is one other reason why I advise you to have a loyal and supportive team around you: you are going to need their support over a tough few days, or few weeks. Unless you are a fringe veteran with a tried and tested format, you are going into the first performance with no idea if you’ll have much of a reception – and, in most cases, no idea whether you’ll have much of an audience. During this time, you will benefit a lot from people who have faith in you telling you hold your nerve and carry on. Of course, if you’re doing a solo show, this doesn’t apply. When times get tough, you may have no-one to reassure you.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of being sure if you’ll cope psychologically other than doing it and see what happens. One thing worth bearing in mind is that stress is easier to manage if the end is in sight. At Buxton, it will be over in a few days. At Brighton, it will be over in a week (don’t get too confident, a week is a long time at the fringe). At Edinburgh, the end could be almost a month away. If you are not sure whether you can cope with this level of stress, a smaller shorter fringe is a safer bet than a bigger longer one. So if you are already pushed to the limits doing local productions, maybe think twice before going straight to Edinburgh, You don’t want to have month-long meltdown.

12: Are you sure you really want to do this?

This is really a repeat of question 1, but it is worth revisiting. Pretty much everything you hear about how great it is to do a fringe are true, but this needs to be balanced up against the risks involved – this article can be considered a reasonably comprehensive article of what’s the worst that can happen. Risks can be mitigated are prepared for, but they cannot be eliminated. The worst thing you can do with these risks, however, is ignore them. Take these risks seriously from the start, and under no account allow people to cheer you into going without thinking of the down-sides.

I apologise for writing something that sounds so negative. Take it from me, if you reasonably know what you’re doing (and you don’t have to get everything right the first time), festival fringes are wonderful things to be part of – you enjoy it at the time, and if people like what you do, it pays dividends later. But you should set your expectations against the real fringe and not the romanticised fringe. And it there’s one lesson above all I want people to take home, please remember that Edinburgh is not the only fringe out there. Smaller fringes may still achieve what you want to achieve without the risk of Edinburgh-scale disasters.

If you were expecting a romanticised fringe and this list of cold reality makes you think again, so be it. There’s no shame in stepping back and deciding it’s not worth the personal risk, however many people you disappoint. And festival fringes are not the only way to build a reputation.

If, however, you’ve read this and decided it’s a gamble worth taking, good luck.

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