Monday, 23 August 2010

15 (or so) lessons learnt at the Edinburgh Fringe 2010

[Updated: Oct/Nov 2010 - Admittedly much of what follows is pretty cynical and based on crass overgeneralisations – but, even so, I’d argue there is a lot of truth in it]

Here are some lessons I learnt at the Fringe – mostly about the Fringe:
  1. If you are going to perform at the Fringe, it helps if you are young. Physically preferably; but, if not, at least, in spirit. The Fringe is draining.
  2. This may sound obvious, but all seems to be about promoting, promoting, promoting; and then networking, networking, networking, networking; and then promoting, promoting, promoting, promoting… It always helps if you know the right people, of course.   
  3. Internet presence and social networks are crucial. And Twitter seems to be a critical tool for networking nowadays; just a shame I never got too excited by this application and did not bother to learn many of its features before going to Edinburgh… facebook, with which I'm much more familiar, did not seem to be enough (too self-contained).
  4.  It is very difficult to figure out where the audiences come from. What attracted them to your show? What made them come? The printed catalogue? The fliers? The ad? The posters? The online listings? The listings on the Fringe‘s iPhone app? Previews online? Previews on the press? Video trailers online? A review (whether good or bad)? Performing sneak previews at other people’s shows during the Fringe? Having a cockroach on the stage?  Gimmicky fliering on the Royal Mile? Blogging? Word of mouth? (...all of which brings us back to lesson 2 and its emphasis on promoting and networking, of course).
  5. If you take a show to Edinburgh, it helps if you 'dumb down' (to put it bluntly). If in doubt, bring the safer, less demanding version of your show (I can think of at least two shows I saw in 2010 where this was manifest); forget subtlety; and make sure you have a gimmick, preferably connected with TV and celebrities (be it Emma Thomson, Michael Urie, John Hegley, Penelope Cruz, Faulty Towers,...).
  6. The more expensive the ticket for a show, the more favourable the audiences – and the reviewers. It feels like free shows have to be twice as good as paid shows to get half the appreciation. It is a real shame that so much quality stuff is presented at the Free Fringe without the deserved recognition.
  7. This is probably the most obvious point on this list, but will never be overstated, I think: the relationship with the press is always difficult.
  8. Old school gay activists in Scotland hate the Eurovision Song Contest. ("Nemo me impune lacessit.")
  9. It may not be a good thing if a show is deemed “unique” or "unclassifiable" (adjectives that only seem to work if applied to bigger-than-life characeters like, say, Grace Jones). In fact classification at the Fringe is crucial. Make sure you get your show in the right category if you want to get the right audiences and the right (sic) reviews. Unfortunately the number of categories in the Edinburgh Fringe is limited (“children’s shows”, “comedy”, “dance & physical theatre”, “music,” “musicals & opera” and “theatre”) and the boundaries rather nebulous. In which of these categories would you include a multimedia spoken word production with some humorous content but not conceived as stand up? I have already discussed earlier my uneasiness about listing “In the Name of the Flesh” (ITNOTF) in the “Comedy” section. It is interesting that someone like Kate Fox has expressed similar concerns. Such concerns had tempted me to conclude that non-comedy-orientated spoken word shows would probably be better suited to the “Theatre” category. But then I found this blog from Helen Mort, whose spoken word show, 'A Pint for the Ghost', had been listed in the “Theatre" section of the Fringe. How did she fare? On her blog, Helen complains about a damning reviewer who "appears to have approached the piece as standard theatre (..) rather than a poetry and storytelling event". She then goes on to mention a more sympathetic reviewer who still "would have preferred a little more theatricality." Go figure.
  10. A bad review is probably more useful to get bums on seats than no review at all. Shocking but probably true. Well, you know the old motto: ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ and all that.
  11. When reading Fringe reviews some times one can learn more about the reviewers’ backgrounds and preferences (their tastes, their likes, their dislikes, their prejudices, the schools they studied at, who they kissed as teenagers) than about the show that’s being reviewed. In fact, one can encounter reviews that have the intellectual depth and cultural insight of Amanda Holden’s comments on Britain’s Got Talent.
  12. The Edinburgh Fringe does not seem to me the most gay friendly of festivals. Ok, this year there were a few successful gay comedians (e.g. the very funny & polished Paul Sinha) and a handful of well attended gay-themed shows (among which I particularly enjoyed Mysterious Skin,  for example). There is also the worthy, enjoyable and popular Sunday Fundraisers at the New Town bar showcasing gay Fringe talent; I will always be very grateful to the late Scottie McLaren for supporting my Fringe acts and giving me the opportunity to perform at the New Town bar more than once (I was very sad to find out that he died in an accident while on holidays in Spain shortly after the end of the Fringe). But I must admit I get the general feeling that the Edinburgh Festivals do not quite cater for the gay contingent. I feel there is a bit of a gap there. (And the gay scene in Edinburgh can come across as so "petit bourgeois" some times...) Ok, quite a few cute local boys though.
  13. Do nudity and sexual content get bums on seats at the Fringe? The jury's out on this. Shows with naked flesh and sexual themes still get a good deal of media coverage (for example, here, here and here). However, the nudity and the sex can still make people very uneasy and audiences have been known to walk out en masse because of their apperance in a show. I can think of two or three people who walked out of  ITNOTF because of that and I was told this also happened during the (sexually explicit) play Lady C. According to this blog, it also happened in the middle of the Malcolm Hardee Documentary. Can one really believe the (increasingly frequent) journalistic claims that nakedness and explicit sexual content do not shock audiences anymore? Allegedly, though, in 2010, shows have not been conspicuous for their exposure of naked flesh. If we are to believe this blogger from The Stage: “Another shocking thing we’ve noticed is that this year, for the first time in years, we do not have the usual unofficial nudity list going on our notice board. None has been spotted.”     Where have they been looking?
  14. Once you’ve made the effort to go all the way to Scotland to perform at the Fringe, you may as well spend the whole month there and go for the full run. I had already been adviced this by other people (e.g. Tonny A. and Leon Conrad) years ago. But I was always sceptical and, in fact, my original intention this year was to present my show just for a long weekend until I was compelled by RTJ to go for half the run of PBH’s Free Fringe: 11 days. Now I realise how right that early advice was. By the time I was starting to really enjoy my performances and the show was starting to get clued-up audiences and some media interest, the run was over and I had to go back down to London. It felt a bit like coitus interruptus.
  15. There is no much point in describing one’s show as “surreal” or “challenging” or “unique” as these are claims that are made about pretty much every other show. Besides, if what you do is really challenging and unconventional (if it is truly edgy and boundary-pushing) you are likely to have a hard time, I'd say. A bit of controversy, a bit of naughty content, a bit of innuendo in the title may help. But make sure your show is not too unorthodox as your average Fringe audience (and reviewer) may not be able to cope with it. Forget all those rumours that the Fringe is about taking risks, experimenting, cutting edges. This may have been true in the past (I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there). But, nowadays, at least based on my experience, the Fringe seems to be more about the blunt, the sanitised and the mainstream than anything else. Playing safe pays off. And I am not alone in this observation. I am tempted to sympathise with John Nicholson, who, lamenting the absence of "naked left wing student(s) doing obscene things with a cucumber" at the Fringe, wondered a couple of years ago: "Maybe conformity is the new rebellion?"

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