Sabrina Mahfouz is the author of Chef, a one-woman play about a prison cook. After her show’s Fringe First-winning run, she sits down with Alexander Woolley in the Cow Café to offer her thoughts on marketing, PR, and the Edinburgh rain.
You don’t really realise how much influence those awards have, especially early on in the festival when people are still looking for advice on what to go and see
In May 2013 Mahfouz won a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, and with it set up POP, the production company under which she has brought Chef to the Fringe.
“The production company was set up to look at producing poetry in all its different forms, from theatre to visual pieces, of my own work, and other poets’ work in the UK,” Mafouz says. “We’ve had pieces for the theatre from a range of artists that I was aware of and liked, and from that we brought two here – Chef was one of them, and Shame was the other one.”
As well as a bursary of £30k, paid out over the course of a year, the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship comes with mentoring from employees of Sky. “It’s mainly marketing, business planning, time management – the kind of stuff that they do as a general day-to-day thing in their corporate environment,” she says.
“Time management isn’t really a strong point for me,” she adds. “I think it’s just because I do so much stuff… But any advice as to how to streamline multiple projects is always appreciated.”
As well as backing of the Sky Scholarship, Chef won The Scotsman's Fringe First Award this year, which recognises examples of outstanding new writing premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe. But what tangible effect did winning the Scotsman award actually have on the production? “The show pretty much immediately sold out for most of the run,” Mafouz says.
“You don’t really realise how much influence those awards have, especially early on in the festival when people are still looking for advice on what to go and see and there’s so much to choose from in the festival. Everybody who gets an award early on sees that reflected in their ticket sales.
“I didn’t even realise there was all that much publicity around it, but obviously word of mouth, coupled with the award, really boosted sales. It also meant there was increased press interest and increased interest from producers for future productions of it.”
I ask Mahfouz how, other than the press attention, she and her team have been marketing Chef. “I think the main thing that also has influenced the increased press interest is having a PR person, which I haven’t done previously, because it’s been in conjunction with a venue, which already has that facility. This time I did it with my own company and my own production, and I didn’t have that in-house facility to do that, so I contacted a PR person, Chloe Nelkin, and she’s been absolutely amazing.
“I think that is my main piece of advice for anybody. A press person is so worth the money, compared to the amount of money you’re spending on everything anyway, it really isn’t that much more. If you have to cut down on everything else to afford the fee, I would recommend it.
“It’s such a great resource to have somebody who knows all the press, who can keep tabs on all that stuff, who can encourage people to come and see it early on. It’s really important, in a way that it’s not so important in London, or wherever else. But in Edinburgh that makes a real difference to whether you lose loads of money or just a bit of money.”
Given that Chef is a one-woman show, it is easy to see why flyering would not have been very effective without hiring extra people, and why it has not played a key role in Chef’s marketing strategy. “It’s really expensive to hire flyer teams, so I would say it’s better to spend that money on PR than flyering teams,” says Mafouz. “I don’t know how well flyering teams do their job, though I’m sure there are some pretty good ones, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been swayed by a flyer, as a person who goes to see a lot of shows, though I know it works for some people.”
In view of its healthy ticket sales and the ecstatic press coverage, publicity went well for Chef, but even so Mahfouz would recommend sorting out this aspect of a production early.
“We didn’t have a preview prior to coming here,” says Mahfouz. “So our preview was our Edinburgh preview, at which we hadn’t really gone through our tech properly. Stuff like that was quite stressful. In the end obviously it worked out all right. But it’s nice to come here having got some outside reaction to how it’ll be received. You’re in it so deep you don’t really know any more how it might be seen by an outside eye.”
It has been a hugely successful month for Mahfouz and Chef. But, logically, there must have been less enjoyable moments? “The worst thing was probably overall – I know it’s such a crap answer – but the weather,” she says. “How cold it is has made me not really enjoy it. I’ve just been cold the whole time, cold and wet.
“It’s a real shame because everything else is going really well, but you just think, ‘I just want to leave now.’ Other than that, I’m really happy.”
Photo Credit: Eliza Power