Category Archives: Tips for performers

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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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13 tips for writing a soapbox play (from the soapbox plays’ harshest critic)

Production shot from Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale

Fiona Evans’s Geoff Dead, Disco for Sale, was probably the last good soapbox play I saw. That was seven years ago.

So, now that Edinburgh Fringe is over, it’s that month where I do my roundup, covering everything I’ve seen in detail, together with detailed analysis of how they did with other reviews, plus a look at some plays I wasn’t able to see. And that’s going to take absolutely fricking ages to write. So, in an effort to put this off to another day, I’m going to procrastinate with a tips article I’ve been meaning to do for some time. Ever since my surprisingly popular 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting thee years ago, I’ve wanted to expand on the individual entries, and for some time I expected the first I’d do would be the dreaded “trying to be clever”. But lately, I’ve found the thing which disappoints me the most is the “opinion play”, or as I’m increasingly referring to it, the soapbox play.

Don’t get me wrong – I like soapbox plays if they’re done well. I try my hardest to disregard my own opinions on the subject when I see this kind of play. But roughly speaking, for every soapbox play I see that I enjoyed, there’s another five I found disappointing, a bit like devised theatre. There is, however, a difference between the two: devised theatre is hard. Usually the people who produce disappointing devised theatre are inexperienced groups who end up out of their depth. But disappointing soapbox theatre, on the other hand, is frequently produced by people who should know better. And, most frustratingly, it’s often writers who I have a lot of respect for who are clearly capable of doing something better. How does it go so wrong so often?

When I refer to a “soapbox play”, I mean a play whose primary purpose is to express some sort of opinion to the audience. However, regular plays often have something somewhere that makes a social or political statement somehow, and what I say broadly still applies. Either way, people generally don’t like having opinions rammed down their throats. Especially me. But fear not. I’m here to list all the ways you can do a soapbox play wrong in the hope you don’t repeat these mistakes.

The very first question

Before you begin even thinking about a soapbox play, there is a very important decision you have to make as soon as possible. Quite simply: What do you hope to achieve from this play? There is no single correct answer to this question, but answer this you must. The wrong answer is to plough on ahead and worry about it later. Continue reading

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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.

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13 questions to ask yourself before you enter a playwriting competition

This is going to sound ungrateful of me, seeing that I was a finalist of 2012’s People’s Play (and frequently mention this fact to make myself look good), but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about playwriting competitions. I’ve got a number of gripes over them (read on to see what), but the main thing is that I’m not really interested in seeking someone else’s approval for my script. I want to take responsibility for what I show an audience and let them be the judge. I just don’t have much patience with the hoops you have to jump through in reading departments.

Nevertheless, for the majority of aspiring writers, the fact remains that script submissions such as playwriting competitions are your only chance of getting your work out there. And, of course, if you can produce your own plays, it’s not an either/or choice – you can produce your own work and enter competitions at the same time. The odds of winning are bound to be low, but it’s not a bad deal if you prevail: typically you can expect a four-figure cash prize, a performance of your work, and a leg up with your career now that you call sell yourself as “winner of the X prize/competition”.

Approaches to competitions vary. Some people set their mind on going for one particular competition, whilst others are happy to go for a scattergun approach and submit to as many competitions as possible. Either approach can work and has worked. But based on my occasional foray into these kinds of competitions – and my habit of reading the fine print first – I think it’s a good idea to use some discretion over where you send your work. There is more at stake than a few postage stamps here.

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Beware of locality bias

Angel of the North + Newcastle United Shirt + six bottle of Brown Ale

A good formula for a Tyneside-based play? Not as much as you think.

So, the Fringe season has begun. In Brighton, Edinburgh and the smaller fringes, hundreds of groups will be showing the world what they have to offer, without any vetting committees dictating what you can and can’t perform. That’s how it should be, but one effect of this is that some of these shows will be turkeys.

And this raises an obvious question: why do so many people take poor productions to the fringe? Similarly, why are so many performers expecting their big break with something that’s only average? The easy answer is to say that these groups didn’t bother with hard work, should have known how bad it was, and brought it on themselves. But I think that’s a lazy answer. With the exception of some student productions (who can treat the Fringe as a holiday), do you really think these groups willingly gamble thousands of pounds without thinking very carefully if it’s going to pay off? Of course not. In which case, how are so many groups getting this wrong?

Well, after a long time watching others in action and a short time having a go myself, I’ve come up with a theory I call “locality bias”. There’s a lot of variations of this, but the basic principle works as follows: All other things being equal, the more local your audience is to your play, the more favourable their reaction will be. This theory also applies to reviewers and script readers. One extreme example is that a school puts on Grease to a mediocre standard, even compared to other schools, but the audience dominated by doting parents still think it’s wonderful. But there’s no way that audience would be so complimentary if it was another school in another town.

Locality bias isn’t always a bad thing, and sometimes it can work to your advantage. But when it goes wrong, it can go very badly wrong. So here is a list of things to beware of, and what you can do about it. Continue reading

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Why devised theatre is hard

Three women applying lipsitck in mirror

Skolka (later retitled Ulov), a play about Russian mail-order brides, was an outstanding piece of devised theatre. Sadly, this is the very much the exception.

One thing I kept bemoaning in my roundups of this year’s Brighton. Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes was the number of poor and mediocre pieces of devised theatre. This is a blog for things that are good, so I won’t name and shame examples, but the same mistakes keep being made. The definition of devised theatre is a bit vague, but what I mean by devised theatre is a production where there is no writer and usually no director. Instead, the play is jointly put together by a collaboration of the actors.

There are two things I can say are good about the devised theatre I’ve seen at Fringes. The first thing that has consistently impressed me  is just how slick and how well choreographed these things are, from the fully professional right down to the student productions. With so many theatres terrified of anything in the slightest bit unconventional, it just goes to show what you can achieve when you are adventurous with movement. And the other thing that impresses me is the great ideas that these plays have as their subject matter. But sadly, these great ideas almost always fail to live up to their potential. In the majority of cases, there is little or nothing about the devised play I found memorable. Now, I am perhaps one of the harsher judges of devised theatre – other reviewers are more accommodating than me, possibly giving the benefit of the doubt of a work in progress. But I don’t make allowances for that and I expect devised theatre to be as good as conventional productions with a script and a director.

So why do I keep going to devised theatre if I’m so cynical about it? Is it because I didn’t know it was devised theatre when I bought the ticket? Do I only realise when I’m in the theatre and it’s too late? Strangely enough, no. The real reason I keep giving devised theatre chance after chance is that, on the rare occasion when devised theatre turns out well, it is outstanding. Even some of the most famous plays were the product of devised theatre once. Abigail’s Party is one of the most famous examples. That was once a project where Mike Leigh gave five actors different characters, threw them into a situation and waited to see what became of it – and the rest is history. Continue reading

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