Ten ways to screw up your show in Edinburgh
  • By Pete Shaw
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  • 8th Jun 2017
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  • Edinburgh Fringe

Over 3,000 separate productions will squeeze themselves into Edinburgh this August and the slightly depressing reality is that most will not achieve their objectives for the festival. Which brings us neatly to the first way to screw up your show in Edinburgh and that’s not to set yourself objectives in the first place. Pause for a minute and think ‘why am I doing this?’ Seriously, you need to understand why you are there and what you want to get out of it. The obvious, but slightly unrealistic one for most, is for financial gain. With so many shows chasing a finite audience who are price conditioned into thinking anything over a tenner is a bit of a stretch, making money is not easy. If this is your first time in Edinburgh, chances are your wallet will be significantly lighter when you leave, but don’t worry it’s not all about the moolah. Let’s face it, if it was, you wouldn’t be in this business in the first place.

The audience numbers have been depressingly low, the stage manager snores like a wildebeest and someone is stealing your lunch from the communal fridge in your damp and overpriced rented flat.

There are other, probably better, reasons for attending EdFringe. Getting critical coverage; securing tour bookings, or simply networking to give your show life beyond the festival. But if you don’t have a goal you’ll probably miss those opportunities. Don’t expect Edinburgh to simply stumble upon you – get out there and make those opportunities happen. Go to the press events; consult the experts in the EdFringe Industry Office and seek out the free workshops and seminars that take place throughout the month. EdFringe is less an arts festival and more a trade show for the performing arts.

The second way you can screw up your show in Edinburgh is to completely underestimate the white noise of competition you’ll be up against. It’s worth repeating that you are one of over 3,000 shows in the Scottish capital in August. The programme feels more like a telephone directory every year. Do nothing to market your show and you’ll get nothing in return, but the good news is you don’t necessarily have to splash out the equivalent of the national debt to get noticed – just think a little outside of the box. And the box, in this context, is the basic marketing that your venue will have asked for which includes posters, flyers and (depending on which venue you’re in) a mention in their own programme. Bear in mind that for the majority of your competition, that will be the full extent of their marketing activity, so anything – no matter how nominal – will give you an edge chasing the elusive Edinburgh punter. Online advertising can be cheap and very effective (shameless plug for Broadway Baby here, nudge, nudge), as can Google & Facebook keyword campaigns. The point here is to do things your competition isn’t. Don’t follow the pack and you’ll be rewarded with bigger audiences.

Your third screw up is to ignore your branding. Again and again in this article we’ll come back to the sheer size of EdFringe, and this means eyeballs scanning listings will only grant you fleeting moments of attention. Your brand, therefore, is paramount in burning your show into the consciousness of your potential audience. The golden rules are to keep it simple (it’s got to work when your image is tiny); keep it relevant (how does the image reference your show?) and keep it consistent (don’t change the image after you’ve submitted your programme listing – a new image means each appearance has to work twice as hard to garner recognition). Flyers, posters and other marketing materials should compliment each other and give the viewer enough information to make a purchasing decision. Try not to be so obscure that you don’t tell people what the show actually is – there’s a fine line between intriguing and confusing; know which side of the line you’re standing. Don’t skimp on design and think just because you’ve got a copy of Microsoft Publisher and a hundred free fonts you’ll be able to DIY a superb flyer. I’ve seen those way too often and an amateurish flyer implies an amateurish show.

Screw up number four is to be (or appear to be) unprepared. Segue into an anecdote here: A few years ago I was putting together the lead review for front page of the printed edition of Broadway Baby. Back then being the lead review often meant sell-out houses for the rest of the run. I needed an image to accompany the piece and contacted the show’s producer who sent me a slightly blurred photo from the rehearsal room of two actors standing some distance apart out of costume and a huge valley of bland wall between them. Needless to say I didn’t use it and we went with a different show that had a better picture ready. In this case preparation is everything. Go to Edinburgh with everything you may be asked for on a memory stick. Good production photography, your editable artwork for your flyers, cast lists, etc. Better still, create a publically shared folder in the cloud on Dropbox or similar with all your assets in it – then create a short URL to that folder that you can repeat over the phone, so even when you’re on the Meadows enjoying a rare bit of Edinburgh sunshine you can provide a journalist or printer with files instantly.

Never give up. That’s screw up number five. John Fleming, a well-regarded blogger who also creates the Grouchy Club podcast with Fringe veteran Kate Copstick wrote about his experience with acts looking out at single digit audience numbers and thinking of throwing in the towel. He recounts how he advised one performer not to go home even though he was getting virtually no punters. One night there were only four in the room, but two of them were TV producers and the act was subsequently booked for a two series run on BBC2. Another time Fleming (who was scouting for Channel 4 at the time) turned up for a show where the performers had already given up and gone home. The other audience member was a BBC radio producer. As Fleming points out, it’s not the bums on seats that matter, it’s whose buttocks they are. Wise words. Opportunities in Edinburgh are around every corner.

If you let bad reviews get to you, you’ve achieved screw up number six. Put half a dozen Edinburgh Fringe reviewers in a room and they won’t agree on what time of day it is. The point is you’re unlikely to appeal to everyone, so chances are you’ll get a range of opinions. My tip is don’t read the reviews – even the good ones – while you’re doing your show. If you believe in yourself and what you are doing, don’t let a negative comment effect your work. Leave it to your marketing guy to comb through the reviews for the pull quotes and if you must read the reviews, put that off until your show is packed up in a van and heading home. Publically complaining about a review on Twitter, etc, creates what is affectionately known as The Striesand Efffect – the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove or censor a piece of information generally draws attention to it. Don’t be a Barbra. Be a Meryl.

Look after yourself or you’ll screw up big time. Yes, I know The Abattoir is open until 3am and those kids over at C Main are having an awful lot of fun until five in the morning, but you don’t have to join them every night unless your FOMO is so far off the scale it needs medical attention. You’ve probably paid a small fortune to be in Edinburgh, don’t screw it up by turning up to your gig with a gale-force hangover. Drink water; eat proper food and get a good night’s sleep. The flip side to this coin is don’t be a hermit either – the performer bars provide excellent opportunities for networking and you’d be surprised who you’ll strike up friendships with. Some of the folk I’ve met over a festival pint have had a huge impact on the growth of Broadway Baby. But, as they say, everything in moderation or your liver will be filing divorce papers.

The Edinburgh weather will screw you up, which makes eighth on our list. You’ll get rained on one minute, then in glorious sunshine the next. Your venue will probably get unbearably hot and the portable air conditioning (if they even have it) will be too loud to turn on during the performance. You’ll end up smelling like a damp dog sweating in a polythene bag. So pack clothes accordingly. You’ll need a light rainproof jacket and decent brolly (no, not one of the cheap ones – the wind in Edinburgh means you can pick up plenty of broken ones of those in any bin). Wear layers that you can remove easily to adjust for the climate and take a small rucksack so you can tote it all around.

Ninth, be nice to Dave, or he’ll screw you up. Dave is your venue tech and he’s overworked, underpaid and didn’t get much sleep last night. Sure you’d like to get the lighting plot just right, but you’re sharing this space with 12 other companies and Dave’s nerves are getting a little frayed. If you’ve not been to the Fringe before, you should realise the tech get-in is never long enough, almost always at unsociable hours and if you aren’t prepared for the odd compromise you’re going to have bad times. If you’ve been before, you already know this. Your venue tech can usually perform miracles if you get on their good side and make your life hell if you piss them off. Dave likes beer and Haribo. I’ll just leave that there.

Finally, be nice to each other, or you’ll screw up your show completely. Yes, I know the audience numbers have been depressingly low, the stage manager snores like a wildebeest and someone is stealing your lunch from the communal fridge in your damp and overpriced rented flat, but don’t let the rot set in and fall out of love with your show and your team. Stress comes with the festival territory, you’ve just got to slap a smile on your face and get back out there on the mile and hand out another flyer. Try bonding activities with your company that isn’t just sitting in the bar after your show. One theatre company I know have an annual trip up Arthur’s Seat in the last week of the festival at midnight to get naked. They always come back to Edinburgh, so I guess it works for them.

So don’t screw up. Be awesome and enjoy it.

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