I’ve been working with artists for most of my adult life. In the 90s I studied acting and was one of the lucky ones, working steadily for a number of years before finally diversifying into producing and directing.
Out of everything I’ve done in my various creative roles over the years, nothing comes close to presenting work in a Fringe festival when it comes to testing your grit.
Yes, there are many benefits to delivering a performance or show back-to-back for 27 days straight, not least the opportunity to fine-tune your craft in front of diverse audiences. But there are many potential pitfalls along the way, and they’re not always immediately obvious.
For nearly a decade I worked within the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, supporting an incredible range of participants, from novice companies to international artists of reputation. In that time, I chaired approximately 80 panel discussions about how to take part in the Fringe, and without exception three core ‘rules’ were raised in every discussion:
• be good
• be nice
• be present
Simple, really. These three principles can inform your whole festival experience, if you apply them across each stage of the process. Since leaving the Fringe Society and setting up Civil Disobedience, I’ve applied this mantra to all the projects I’ve delivered – and have asked the same of our entire stable of artists.
Whether it’s Assembly in Edinburgh, the Garden of Unearthly Delights in Adelaide, or the Public Theatre in New York, your work has to be the best it can possibly be to make whoever is programming a venue consider taking you on.
It’s true that there are a million different motivations to take part in a Fringe festival, but if you really want to have a great time, you have to bring great work.
Of course, you could take a mediocre show to a pay-for-play venue that doesn’t curate and is happy to take a fee for their space. But halfway through week two, when no one is coming to your show, the highly anticipated ‘good times’ can easily turn to anxiety. If you’re haemorrhaging money through poor ticket sales and licking wounds inflicted by a scathing 2-star review in a national paper, a good mood can be hard to come by.
I know it sounds bleak, but it is true. It’s a sentiment echoed by everyone, on every single panel discussion I have ever hosted about bringing work to Edinburgh.
Bring your best work.
Interested in taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe? Here’s a video of me chatting about exactly that with Kath Mainland (CBE), Robyn Jancovich-Brown, Rowan Campbell, Mhari Robinson and Rachel Sanger.
If you’re a decent person, this shouldn’t be too much of a stretch – but bear in mind that the Fringe environment can be more chaotic and stressful than everyday life. No matter how frazzled you feel, always do your best to be nice. Be nice to everyone. Even terrible people. You’ll sleep better for it.
Apart from the general sense of wellbeing brought on by being a good person, the Fringe community is a tiny world. The festival ecologies are intertwined globally in ways you would never believe. Everyone knows everyone, and there really are only a few flimsy degrees of separation at any one given point – so being a terrible person (even once, after a particularly bad day) is the professional equivalent of playing with fire in a pool of gasoline.
This one can be tricky to nail. It’s difficult to stay focussed when you’re tired – and you will get tired. So you need to drink lots of water and – contrary to popular belief – less booze.
Also, treat the festival like a fat camp. Foods that bloat you with excessive carbs and sugars also tend to rob you of energy and dull that sparkle in your eyes. It takes a bit of work, but going on a health kick while participating in a festival will make you the best version of yourself. And you need that to be present.
Now what exactly do I mean by being present? It’s not just about being in the room, but being open to suggestions and opportunities. It may seem like festivals exist in a microcosm, but they don’t. At the end of every festival, there is a company and a show. If you play your cards right, that show and company can live a long and fruitful life.
Most festivals now have some sort of artist’s hub. A place where you can meet like-minded individuals living the dream, while looking for a laundrette. You’ll normally find arts industry professionals in such hubs. Not by fluke, but more by design – most festivals make sure that buyers need to come to their artist’s hubs, to collect tickets or get accreditation. It’s a way to get you in a room together.
So regardless of where you are, find out who’s in town, and engage with them if you get the chance. The great thing about Fringe festivals is that any industry people you do come across will be in town looking for work – so they should be open to you!
It’s also wise to take advantage of every opportunity the Festival throws at you. For example, did you know that the Edinburgh Fringe has a resource centre hosting around 100 masterclasses, all included with the registration fee?
Orlando Fringe, on the other hand, has a much more laid-back model – a beer garden in the middle of their cluster of venues, where you can find a selection of their local, national and international artists. It’s a lottery Fringe, so participation isn’t guaranteed, but with so much home-grown talent and a dedicated staff skilled at networking, it’s practically impossible to leave without a whole new chapter in your address book.
If you are planning a Fringe adventure and have questions or need help, feel free to get in touch. In addition to bespoke producing / project management packages, as well as other ongoing services, I’m available for one-off consultations and I’m always happy to hear from new people.
Good luck, and have fun!
Producer and Civil Disobedience Founder
Barry Church-Woods is an independent live arts producer based in Edinburgh. He’s worked in areas of cultural provision for 20 years, most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society 2008-2016. He runs Civil Disobedience with his partner Josef Church-Woods and associate producer Louise Oliver. He wants nothing more out of life than to dance in one of Sia’s music videos.