Lots to learn from life on the fringe
Hilary Strong is a freelance theatre producer and director. Having taken her company’s comedy show Let Them Eat Cake! to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, Hilary debates the advantages for performers of creating their own fringe show.
"Performers often face a period of unemployment when, traditionally, the only option is to stay by the phone waiting for the agent to ring with news of an audition or casting. Mobile phones have at least allowed the struggling performer to get on with life and take the calls on the run but there’s no denying the frustration of inactivity which can lead to many people giving up and looking for a conventional job.
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that actors are sometimes perceived as passive individuals who rely on others to create work for them and that they only have a sketchy appreciation of the complexities of producing a show. However, more and more performers are discovering the advantages of putting on their own fringe shows and are successfully forming companies to perform at Edinburgh or other fringe festivals.
Producing a fringe show trains participants to be much more than actors. At the very least, performers have to take a part-time interest in the press and marketing campaign; they will almost certainly gain some insight into stage management and technical skills, and they may even gain a working knowledge of a budget. But most of all, their exposure to other productions ensures that fringe performers gain a unique perspective of world culture that will shape their artistic ambitions in the future. This is particularly useful when preparing for drama school auditions when applicants need to select at least one contemporary play and perform an extract. Sadly, too many applicants have no idea what to choose because they haven’t seen enough plays. Their desire to act is entirely shaped by their contact with television or film – and mostly the mainstream content.
So, how difficult is it to create a company and produce a show on the fringe?
A few months back my company (Women on the Make) decided to take our comedy show Let Them Eat Cake! to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We're all grown up enough to know that the costs of producing a show can be ridiculous and the chance of success only modest but we were determined not to be defeated by the challenge and set about fundraising. We knew we needed to raise about £4,000 which sounds a lot but it’s achievable if you allow enough time.
We did car boot sales, cake stalls, music gigs, poetry recitals and wine and cheese evenings. We always added a raffle or tombola to each function and secured a few donations along the way. Some events can be very labour-intensive and car boot sales it seems are not very profitable unless you have good stock (clothes are surprisingly popular though!). We found the best earner to be a cabaret evening as long as you don’t spend too much on a venue and you have at least 50 guaranteed punters!
Having raised the funds, you then need to sort out who does what and draw up a budget. This will depend on the scale of the project, the costs of the theatre you are using and how much you decide to spend on marketing. Edinburgh for example is hugely competitive so an advert in the official programme can be a smart move meaning that you have more chance of selling tickets in advance. The admin is time-consuming so make sure the most organised person in the group takes it on. It will include complex paper work related to the choosing of a theatre space, negotiating terms, completing entries for the programme and endless emails demanding instant attention. Everyone you deal with will set deadlines, demand receipts for every communication and insist on rigid legal contracts so make sure you choose the best person for the job.
Edinburgh can be a risky venture so it’s worth also considering smaller fringe festivals like Brighton or Bath where costs will be lower and there are far fewer shows to compete with. The important thing is to use the opportunity to produce a show that you feel enthusiastic about and which will provide you and your colleagues with creative challenges. Being in charge of the venture means that you can write your own scripts (no royalties!), adapt a well-known book (make sure you secure the rights) or reinvent an established script (anyone for an all-female Hamlet?) It’s important to agree how you will decide things as friendships can be put at risk if you end up arguing over artistic direction or the cost of the poster.
The undertaking may seem daunting but the rewards are enormous and will ensure that many more performing opportunities will be open to you afterwards."