If you follow any comedians on Twitter, read arts pages in newspapers / online content providers or are in Edinburgh in August then you’ll know that the Edinburgh Fringe is happening. Right now. I’m on the train heading up there, literally now. Has it finished yet? No, it goes on for blimmin’ ages. It lasts pretty much the whole of August. Which is why people bang on and on about if for ages in August. I’ve done it, I know. Talk to my friends. Actually, don’t; they wish to hear no more about it. But as a writer/performer/producer/directer, whether you’ve got your foot in the door and stepped directly onto the ladder while passing go and collecting £200 or are stood waiting at the door in the pissing rain with no coat or umbrella then it’s worth thinking about Edinburgh.
A good friend of mine asked for some advice about this recently. Someone who is already a successful actor and a very good writer. They thought it would be an idea to ask someone who has never appeared on telly – unless you count Points of View or a, thankfully fleeting, moment in my critically acclaimed Channel 4 documentary, Bare & Breakfast – for some thoughts on the matter. So, as someone who has taken several shows to the fringe and achieved no small success whatsoever, here’s my two penneth.
You definitely should put on a show. Edinburgh is a great, but expensive way to do it. It is gruelling and can at times be dispiriting, but it is also inspiring, challenging and can lead to opportunities you’d never imagined even if you are not nominated for any awards, which I certainly never was. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but writing and performing fringe shows got me into comedy professionally. It was a loss leader on the road to moderate achievements.
And here’s some specific tips, numbered to give it that clickbaity, buzzfeedy vibe….
1) Go to Edinburgh to watch stuff. You can’t imagine what it’s like until you’ve been. I visited for the first time in 2002 with my erstwhile partner Michael Spicer. Some shows were amazing and many were just okay. I thought I could definitely do an okay show and have certainly proved it. Michael and I returned full of ludicrous vigour and ambition before embarking on our highly successful 4 star – or 2 depending on your choice of publication – two hander sketch show Soft Toys in 2003.
2) Start writing. Now. You can never have too long to write your script. Want to do a show next year? Start getting your ideas down. Work on your structure. You want to be ready to perform previews early in the new year if you can – even if it’s just trying out sections of a show, putting something before an audience is the best way to see what’s working or not. Stand ups, character acts and sketch groups generally try out material across the year as they gather an hour of sure fire rock solid comedy gold. That’s the idea, anyhow. And many have been writing and performing for a few years before they take their first full show up, so it’s often three or more years in the making.
3) If you’re unknown or even if you do have a bit of profile, it’s probably best to start on the free fringe unless you know you’re going to have a knock out, very professional show that is worthy of people’s time and money. And if you put a great free fringe show on people will come, they will put money in your bucket, then you can take your show on tour around the country, then the globe, clean up and you will be a millionaire within months. That’s my guarantee to you.
4) Be your own producer. When you do your first show you could spend a huge amount of effort trying to find someone who will produce your show. And they do cost money. I’ve done it both ways and having a producer is great; it takes a huge amount of stress and time out of the process and you have someone to moan at, but you still have to be responsible for your show and getting people to watch it. It’s tedious admin but you can do it. Other shows had their highlights, but that 2003 show is still probably the most successful I did and the most cost effective. Deadlines for submissions to the fringe programme etc. come early in spring (I can’t remember exactly when and I’m on a train, the wifi is intermittent so you’ll have to do a bit of research, soz) so start planning early.
5) If you can’t afford PR (which can be expensive) then do your own. Find an angle, write a press release and send it out to any relevant publications. Contact people throughout the run to keep momentum. If anything happens, a small newsworthy (at least in the festival press) story, then contact journalists and you might get a mention. In 2003 there was an incident – I was accused of theft by a small Edinburgh post office where I was doing some photocopying. It really kicked off. You literally couldn’t write this better. Let me paint a picture of the drama; a post office worker said, ‘Did you nick that Blutack?’ and I replied, ‘No, it’s mine. I already had it on me.’ And they said, ‘Oh, sorry mate.’ The story somehow exploded into me being apprehended for an hour before breaking free and only making it on stage with seconds to go. I know, shock PR tactics. I was helped by a journalist friend that year, so I did have an advantage.
6) Have an idea of what you want to get out of it. I certainly had no idea when I started. For stand ups there is a clear path to follow, so if you’re in that game then talk to others and have a look at what they do. For character acts and sketch groups there is also a well-trod path; do a show, get great reviews, get an agent, get on radio then on telly, do a bunch of shows, have a lean period, split and do some serious acting, be a comedy walk on or baddie in a Hollywood movie, get back together for a money-spinning tour. Or do a few bits and bobs, then get a regular job in TV production and blog about it in a bid to make people think you know what you’re talking about.
If you’re a stand up or are involved in the circuit then you’ll be talking to people who know what the game is about. I guess it’s similar if you’re involved in fringe theatre. If you’re from outside those worlds then it may seem like a mystery, but throw yourself in. It’s like eating olives; you don’t know what you’re missing until you force yourself to eat them. There is still plenty to be gained and learned by taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I still don’t like olives, though.
Essentially my advice is; talk to anyone who might know anything and read loads of stuff online. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this but I’m approaching Edinburgh and will need to get off the train, jump in a taxi and head straight to destination comedy. So this must end now. Good luck.