Have you ever thought about taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, but not known where to start? Or perhaps you did take a show once and it didn’t quite go as planned. It was laborious to arrange, a nightmare to market and ended up costing you far more money than you’d anticipated. Well now Jon Gracey and Viv Egan are here to put a stop to all that. A couple with over a half-decade’s worth of Fringe experience – Jon having written and performed shows as part of sketch troupe The Beta Males and Viv having been involved as a performer, a reviewer and a punter – they’re not claiming they can help you write a brilliant Fringe show, but they can tell you how to put one on without going mad. Their new guide, Cracking the Fringe, is available to buy now.
Why did you think a guide to the Fringe was needed?
Thousands of people go to the Fringe every year, many from abroad having never been before – our primary aim was to give people as many tips as possible for getting through the month without losing more money than is absolutely necessary. We also wanted to prepare people – especially the complete beginners – for the emotional rollercoaster of the Fringe, and give them as many tools as possible for dealing with the flyering, the unpredictable audiences, the PR slog, the daily performing and the aftermath.
But what does your guide offer that existing guides don’t?
An account of what the Fringe is actually like. There’s lots of stuff out there about the history of the Fringe and where it comes from, but a lot of the guides we read end with “and here you are on opening night – good luck!” We wanted to cover the actual day-to-day occurrences, the deep despair you can fall into, as well as the utter joy; the realities of putting on the same show every day, the places it’s really worth flyering, the social skills you’re going to need to schmooze. What to bring, what to expect, how to set goals. Plus we have a chapter in the middle on the history of the Fringe because it’s pretty interesting.
Can you tell me about some of your personal experiences, what’s your best Fringe story?
Jon: When I first went up in 2008 I remember doing a disgustingly early tech run in C Soco, and climbing out the window of the stuffy attic we were performing in to have a cigarette and watch the sun rise. I had no idea what Edinburgh was, I had no idea which direction home was, but this was deeply exciting. Stuff will happen when you shove awesome people into the centre of a beautiful city. Climbing Arthur’s Seat amongst a massive crowd for the Noise Next Door’s 2012 improv adventure and roaring the Axis Of Awesome’s 4 Chords song while drinking whisky with a crowd of tired onlookers was pretty close to magic.
Viv: For me, it was getting on the shortlist for the Allen Wright Award (which is for young journalists covering the Fringe) in 2011. Even though I didn’t win (damn you Matt Trueman!), getting that recognition made me feel like I’d made the right decision. Paul Levy, the editor of FringeReview had suggested I apply, and that in itself was a huge confidence booster – he’s very experienced and is an excellent writer.
You’ve been going to the Fringe for a long time, what changes have you seen?
I think the biggest change we’ve witnessed is the rise of the free show model, in all its guises. I (Jon) first did a free show in 2009, and we felt like we were kind of on the outskirts of things. But then next year Imran Yusuf got nominated with a free show, and the year after Cariad Lloyd’s got nominated, and everything opened up, the mainstream really opened its eyes at that stage. This year, free fringe applications are huge and we’ve seen Freestival enter the fray. Doing a free show is a great way to perform at the Fringe, and ties in really well with how the Fringe started.
In the last few years there’s also been a surge in smartphones, which has meant Twitter, apps, faster information and greater marketing potential. A few years ago, if you didn’t have mobile internet connection, you had to either plan more at home or wing it more while you were out. These days, you can ask an app where the nearest show is starting, read its reviews and buy yourself a ticket, all about 5 minutes before the show starts. Oh, and check in on Foursquare and tweet a picture of the queue. It means that there are fewer places to hide – you can’t just have a great flyer but a shitty show. It can also divide time – you’re now basically required to be tweeting your Fringe and how great your show is, while still doing your street marketing and all the other stuff that goes along with promoting a show.
Is there a danger of the Fringe becoming too big?
Jon: There’s not much you can do to stop it, so in that regard I try not to worry. But you’re right in that the Fringe is expanding, year on year. That’s another reason I think free shows are so important – it allows more people to show what they have to offer without crippling financial debts at the end of it. That said, Edinburgh is never going to be cheap, but at least you’re not forking out thousands of pounds for a venue.
The wonderful thing about doing a free show is there’s not that financial fear – you’re happier to take a punt on something new, meaning experimentation is encouraged. I’m sure free shows will also have a critical mass where there will be too many to be supported, but I couldn’t tell you what that is. As for paid shows, that’ll be trickier to maintain as the Fringe expands, because there’ll be less dollar to go around. Time is still a major premium, but people are more likely to take a chance on lots of free shows they don’t know about than paid, I reckon.
Would you say the original values of the Fringe are being compromised because of the corporate interests?
Jon: To a certain extent: the “Edinburgh Festival Fringe” was initially created as an alternative to the mainstream “International Festival”, so for the Fringe to become such a huge mainstream juggernaut is probably a little ironic. And yet the Fringe is such a huge thing that lots of cool little shows have plenty of room to breathe.
Viv: I think people revel in bemoaning the loss of the original values of the Fringe, but that just makes it all the more special when you feel like you’ve found something that taps into the original spirit. It’s still there and it’s not hard to come by in a city packed with artists, many of whom are attempting to disrupt the corporate mainstream. People who keep their ear to the ground, say yes to the weird and take risks will be rewarded.
If you had to take one ‘top tip’ from the guide what would it be?
Jon: Oooh…the better your show is, the better your Edinburgh will be, so you’ll get so much more out of it if you put tons of time into making your show awesome. That’s kind of what the guide’s for – taking all the admin out of your head and putting it on the page so you can focus on the show.
But that’s a cheat answer. I would say the really look into your venue. You won’t actually spend that much time there compared to your accommodation and bars, but it’s the most important place at the Fringe. Make sure it can support your tech requirements, is easy to get to, and most importantly, is somewhere you can see your show working.
Viv: For most shows, I would say my best tip is don’t feel like you have to be in a paid venue to succeed. Especially if it’s your first Fringe. It’s so much easier to pack out a free or pay what you can show – and that allows you to put more energy and resources into making your show great.