Confessions of a EdFringe PR: Life in Edinburgh as a Publicist

It’s August 2006 and I’m sitting on a wall in Edinburgh, watching a Star Wars stormtrooper, Jesus in an orange Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit and a nun with a beard and a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth, all deep in conversation. A dead ringer for the late Peter Cook hands me a flyer and tells me about his Pete’n’Dud show in character. There’s a giant upside down purple cow in the background. And I’m thinking, ‘This is the place for me!’

Every year, we roll the dice and take our chances. You lose some, but it’s so rewarding when you win!

Working in theatre marketing, the Edinburgh Fringe had been on my bucket list for a few years when I was given Charles Ross’ first One Man Star Wars Trilogy UK tour to work on, following its debut at the Fringe. I headed up to do tour promos with him and was instantly hooked. Hence for the last 13 years, while my friends are enjoying the summer in the south, I’ve been battling the variable weather up north – and I can’t imagine being anywhere else in August.

Not that it was as easy as I initially fondly imagined it would be and every year, it seems to get a bit harder. When I first started working the Fringe, there were less than 3,000 registered shows and publications that still valiantly tried to cover all of them, so you could pretty much guarantee you’d get a handful of reviews per show. Nowadays, the print coverage is drastically reduced and the growth in websites hasn’t completely taken up the slack (although the standard of the latter’s reviews has improved no end), so it’s much tougher to get the reviewers in.

There also used to be an embargo on announcing your shows before the programme launch (imagine that, kids!) and most Fringe Society events didn’t start till early spring, so there was a six-month respite between festivals. Now, it’s pretty much a year-round experience and I’ve had acts contact me during August for the following year’s Fringe.

As I work by myself, my main criteria for taking an act on is (a) whether I really love the sound of the show, and (b) whether I think it will sell tickets. I’ve paid the price of letting my heart rule my head in the past and there is nothing more disheartening than spending a month trying to flog a show that apparently only appeals to the writer and myself.

Also, important is whether I am going to get on with the people doing it. Because we’re going to share a month of intense hard work together, so it helps if we like each other. Thankfully, most working relationships have survived the Fringe and I’ve made some really good friends around the world, but I had a strange experience a couple of years ago when I was pitching to a potential client via Skype and I suddenly realised I felt absolutely no rapport with her, so I found myself going into a kind of reverse-pitch in the hope she wouldn’t hire me. (It worked – she didn’t.)

I don’t do comedy, I specialise in theatre, music and dance, and I love to work on anything quirky and unusual. Hamlet as comedic film noir? Love it! The gods locked in a Big Brother house on Olympus, watching the Trojan War on TV? Absolutely! A guy sued for $19 million whose sanity is saved by a ballet dancer? Yes please! Lorca and acrobatics? Where do I sign? The best part of the Fringe for me is every year wondering what kind of shows I’m going to be offered this time around.

That’s not to say that all my Fringes are unalloyed joy and to be honest, most of the grief doesn’t come from the media. Yes, there are journalists who let you down, reviews that don’t run, but that’s the nature of the beast. When I look at the low points over the years, they have usually come from clients who thought that hiring a publicist was enough and that they didn’t have to make any effort themselves; that it was totally acceptable to turn up 40 minutes late for a BBC TV filming (luckily, TV always runs late, but still…) or to cancel a promotional appearance 15 minutes before it was due to take place (in that particular case, I forced them to phone and make their lame excuses to the organisers themselves).

It’s also heartbreaking when you have a hard-working cast, who are doing all the right things and receiving four and five star reviews, but that, for some reason, can’t find an audience for their show. Sometimes that just happens. And there are the (thankfully, rare) occasions where, when you get to see a show for the first time, you realise that you’ve take on a complete turkey and wish you could recall all the press invites you’ve spent hours sending out…

But the highs far outnumber the lows. The first time a client (Uglies Do Edinburgh) received a five-star review in The Scotsman was definitely one and worth being woken by them screaming down the phone at 8am. Kicking off The Aluminium Show’s run by joining forces with an Edinburgh Council recycling campaign, which resulted in an insane photo shoot with about 15 cameramen, was another.

And it’s always great to see shows you believe in doing well. The fabulous magic show SNAP! were the hardest grafters I’ve ever worked with – they’d start flyering at 8.30am and not finish till the last person had left the Tattoo – and they were up for any and all promotion, putting up with nausea and dizziness by climbing into the kaleidoscope at Camera Obscura for photographs, which later appeared in four major media outlets. They’ve since gone on to more festivals and an off-Broadway run, and I can’t wait to see the new show they’re promising to bring over next year.

Taking on a concert orchestra (the Russian String Orchestra, aka Misha’s Gang) was a bit risky, but I’ve had great fun with them, causing mayhem by performing amongst the rails in the Gap store on a busy Saturday afternoon, and their hard work resulted in Herald Angel and Spirit of the Fringe awards – plus I get to enjoy a first-class orchestra whenever I want to.

And then there’s the pleasure of spending a month in Edinburgh itself – one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Walking home at night and stopping on North Bridge to look at a full moon and fireworks above the Castle (you have to take a photograph – it’s the law) or getting up early and watching the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat (if it isn’t raining or surrounded by fog…), sipping tea and wondering what today will bring. Because one of the joys of the Fringe is that you can have a really bad day and feel like going home, and the next morning, you’ll get an email from the BBC who want to film a show or a call from The Scotsman who want to do a photo shoot or a producer that you didn’t even know was in yesterday, who wants to talk… I think that unpredictability is one of the reasons why I keep coming back. I’m addicted to the gambling element of the Fringe; every year, we roll the dice and take our chances. You lose some, but it’s so rewarding when you win!

Related Listings

Lorca: A Theatre Beneath the Sand

Lorca: A Theatre Beneath the Sand

Two young drama school students play a surrealist game of poetry and acrobatics exploring the passionate world of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca including one of his best and least known plays, The Public. 

zounds!

zounds!

zounds! is a comedy about the Greek gods during the Trojan War, set in the present. In the ninth year, when Aphrodite is injured in battle, Zeus puts the gods under house arrest on Mount Olympus… 

Voice of Authority

Voice of Authority

European premiere. Best of Fest award-winner, Pittsburgh Fringe Festival 2018. ‘Hidden gem’ (FringeReview.co.uk). ‘Perfect. Magic’ (Theasy.com). With the US Department of Justice after him for $19 million he doesn’t have, Dean’s world has gone sideways… 

Before the Wall

Before the Wall

Playwright Chris Ruffle delivers a blow-by-blow account of the 1860 Opium Wars politics in this atmospheric drama, populated by rarefied creatures of the Chinese and British royal courts and their military henchmen… 

The Gray Cat and the Flounder

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One bright and sunny day, a fish jumps out of a river, and promptly meets a fellow animal with whom he will share the next 46 years of his life. 

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Passion, jealousy, and murder never got so many laughs! John Minigan’s new and wild reimagining of the Shakespeare classic has more twists than a gallows necktie. Hamlet is a wise-cracking private eye, his pal Horatio is now a complicated gal Friday named Rae Chio and the rotten state of Denmark is transformed into the City of Angels circa 1949… 

I Am Not Marilyn

I Am Not Marilyn

Andy Warhol’s paintings, JFK’s birthday song, NYC subway grate upskirt, the list goes on. Marilyn’s icon is a blend of innocence and feminine sexuality. Despite her bombshell fame, Marilyn contributed to setting the standards of the jazz and swing golden age… 

Misha's Gang

Misha's Gang

Herald Angel (2017) and Spirit of the Fringe (2018) award winners, Misha Rachlevsky and his Russian String Orchestra return with a new series of captivating afternoon concerts. World-class performances in intimate surroundings… 

Climb

Climb

Climb is a live album brought to life through compelling characters, storytelling, and original music blending bossa nova, jazz, reggae, and soul, written and performed by Duane Forrest… 

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