Fringe. Whether you’re talking Adelaide, Edinburgh, Hollywood or Prague, a Fringe Festival can make you or break you. As a producer at the Australian production powerhouse that is Cluster Arts, I’ve seen and heard it all — the good, the bad, the big wins and the total fails, the beautiful successes and the tell-no-one tales of excess… and I spoke to some of the world’s most experienced performers to get the low-down on how to make it out alive – with your composure intact!
Know Why You’re Going
“My biggest bit of Fringe festival advice is decide why you’re doing it before you apply and write that reason down. Then think about that goal at every decision you make about your season. How does this decision serve my goal? That way when everything is hard and you’re tired and you think it’s going horribly 3/4 of the way through the festival you can remind yourself why you’re doing it,” says Hannah Cryle (The Iron Maiden, The Big Wheel Show)
This is a big one. There are a lot of reasons to go to Fringe, and being clear at the outset will help clear your mind. Are you there to make money? Because if so, that will affect the show you write, the venue you apply to, the length of the season, and your investment in marketing. But money is not the only goal, and for smaller, fresher companies, it might not even be the best goal.
Some of the other goals could be: to run in a new show before taking it on tour; to get a handful of reviews to sell the show in the future; to experience a long-run performing season; to market your show to producers and tour in the next 12 months; as a jump-off point before an international tour; to cause a riot with your scandalous reinvention of the art form; to see every contemporary circus show in the world (my personal fave); to fulfill your lifelong dream; to make lots of friends and to leave a trail of broken hearts at the artist bar…
Do the Math
Seriously. I can’t stress this enough. Do a budget. Figure out what it’s going to cost you. Put it all in a spreadsheet. Make sure you put in your accommodation and food. Make sure you put in the venue split. Don’t forget marketing, and social media advertising. What will your costumes cost? Petrol?
If you struggle with numbers, either phone a friend or hire a producer. Most fringes suggest you budget for just 25% capacity. That’s not even a joke. If your break-even point is 50%, can you afford to cover the difference? If you know you can take the hit, you are less likely to freak out if it isn’t going well. If your break-even point is too high, go back to No. 1. Why are you there? If you are going to Fringe to fulfil a lifelong dream, then save up and go, and get in there… Take every cabaret slot, introduce yourself to all your heroes, own it. Make it the best month of your life.
Sean Gandini of Gandini Juggling has seen the Fringe change over many years, and he asserts that there are benefits to running a show, even without a profit, “The last few years the Fringe has changed dramatically. Circus has had a growth akin to stand up comedy in the ’80s. Personally, I don’t necessarily think this is all good. It has had a commercialising, homogenising effect. I have seen some terrifyingly bad work be hugely successful and some wondrous gems be squished. Over all, if one is aware of losing money aspect, I think it is a great opportunity to run a show many times to a (hopefully) diverse audience! “
There’s a real tricky point, halfway through a Fringe, when you see that some people have just realised they are not going to break even, but they still have two weeks of shows to complete. Ouch. That sucks. I feel for them. I’ve been them. Because Fringes are a money-eating machine. It’s not personal. It just didn’t work this time. So, don’t get blindsided halfway through. Know what it’s going to cost. Aim for a sold-out season, but budget for the apocalypse.
Be Ready Way Sooner Than You Think You Need to Be
Fringe applications open anywhere up to 10 months before the next season. And if you successfully apply and can lock in a venue, you want to be ready to go. I’m talking images, copy, videos. Make your poster design six months in advance. If you are booking posters, be ready to book a distribution company five months before the actual festival. Make a marketing plan immediately – and think about long lead opportunities! Get your freight priced last year. In fact, test your show at another venue first, so you already have all the collateral ready to go.
Ben Grinberg (The Almanac Dance Circus Theatre) agrees on the importance of prepping your promotional materials, and has some specific pointers, “Make sure you have a great photo — not one that just shows how awesome your technical skills are, but also one that shows what the tone of your work is, who you are as an artist, and what themes you’re playing with. It definitely doesn’t need to be a performance shot, either. ”
Don’t worry if in the frenzy of creation the show ends up being quite different. You need to get that fabulous hero image (the cover image that sells the show ) into the press, and let the audience worry about if it matches the work.
Hire a Publicist
If you can afford it, and you want sales, I would say that a good publicist is worth their weight in gold. In fact, can you afford not to? They have the contacts to get you in front of media, who will get you in front of eyeballs. This is especially important if you are not on your home turf. Get a recommendation from a friend, or from your venue. Find someone who believes in your show. Ask their opinion on your poster, copy, images. Talk to them. Ask for updates. Ask them if they need anything else. Be their very best friend in the world.
The success of your show is not a reflection on the quality of your work. A bad review is also not a reflection of the quality of your work.
“Practice pack to make sure you can fit your show in your luggage allowance.. and maybe some clothes!” says Anna Luth (Solid State Circus).
Don’t leave your packing to the last minute. Stack your stuff in piles, measure it, weigh it, decide what you can get there and what you can leave behind.
Use your carry-on wisely – one company I work with had a bag lost in transit – with their costumes in it! They now put their costumes in their hand luggage, because it’s way easier to get new day clothes than it is to get matching giant overalls that you can do a backflip in!
Freight costs like a million bucks, so try and get it on the slow boat – but you need a long lead time for this.
Make a plan. You know why you are there (see the first tip). Make yourself a schedule. Know who is flyering, and for how long. Decide how much you are going to spend on social media, and what’s your buffer. And take care of you. Buy a slow cooker and feed yourself well. Have baths. Have as many chill days as you do party days. Producer Nicola Lawton’s advice is also to be kind to yourself,“If you can, make sure that you set yourself aside some downtime, this could be spending an hour at the gym, visiting a spa, going swimming, relaxing in the meadows (if its not raining), grabbing a coffee with a friend. Your mental health is important and the pressures that can come with taking a show to the Fringe can be overwhelming, so make sure that you look after yourself.”
Remember, whether or not your show sells is not the barometer for your experience. The success of your show is not a reflection on the quality of your work. A bad review is also not a reflection of the quality of your work. You know this. It’s hard not to take it personal. But don’t. Have a rant to your pals and shake it off. Some of the most incredible artists have limped away from fringes with a huge hit to the hip pocket or a withering review from a writer who should know better. But they had a successful Fringe because they got to test out their work, party for a month, see every contemporary circus show in the world (insert other success here).
Fringe is a beast – Edinburgh has around 3500 shows. There are literally 20 pages of circus shows in the guide. Some of those shows are huge machines with teams of many people behind them. It’s not just that. Your up against a resident population saturated by shows. You’re up against Brexit and other political wildcards. You’re up against the last days of the summer holidays. You’re up against 10,000 other hungry creatives. It’s a complicated tangle of different elements, each that has a stake in your success – the size of the venue, location, timeslot, audience connection, marketing cut through, hero images, flavour of the month, what happened last year. It’s the motherflippin’ zeitgeist. Believe me, sometimes you just can’t make the magic work. But sometimes you can.
Above All Be Kind ♥️
“My extra advice is be nice, even on your worst day. Learn the names of your front of house, give your techs flowers, go say hi to the box office, tell the cleaners they are fab. Then hopefully on your worst day (and there will be one), someone will be kind to you,” says Malia Walsh (Circus Trick Tease, Children are Stinky)
This. At the end of the day, you are part of a community who all love the arts. And we love you. And you love being a part of it. Circus life is the best life. Even when the going gets hard, there’s no other bunch of acrobatic creative weirdos that I wanna spend a month crammed into a too-small flat with, eating lentils and drinking cheap prosecco.
So spread that love around. Appreciate the incredible energy that’s happening all around you. Keep an eye on your friends. Spend some time on a dance floor. Now that’s the spirit of Fringe!
Feature photo of Chasing Smoke by Casus at Adelaide Fringe Festival. All photos courtesy of Nadia Jade