Are Fringe Festivals really worth it?
Earlier this year New Diorama Theatre and Underbelly announced the Untapped Award, generously supported by The Mandy Network. The mission of the award is to take some of the very best theatre groups to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Groups that, without the added financial support and promotion, would otherwise struggle to showcase their work at the festival in August.
Since UNTAPPED’s announcement, earlier in the year, I’ve been asked by many directors, actors and producers whether fringe festivals are worth it. The case against Edinburgh, the world’s biggest arts festival in the world, gets stronger every year. Audience sizes can really vary as you compete against thousands of other productions from around the world. National press coverage of the festival decreases every year. And, after living off a diet of food that’s almost exclusively sold out of vans for a month with little sleep, you return home with a whiff of scurvy and the walking dead about you. While costing a fortune.
Our rule of thumb at New Diorama is that a production will cost £9,000 ($12,200) to take to the Edinburgh Festival, plus an extra £1,000 ($1,355) for every person you take up with the company – meaning a show with a cast of five can end up costing in excess of £14,000 ($19,000).
You can see why many criticise Edinburgh. It’s like a casino. For every company or show that hits it big, there are countless others who fade into obscurity once the poster boards are taken down in September.
So, is it worth it? Can it possibly be worth it?
The answer is yes and here’s why.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival Is A Great Leveller
One of the best things about fringe festivals is the varied diet of work on offer from a range of artists at different points in their careers. Many of the advantages the big players have are stripped away. We’re all working within the same constraints and it means that real talent has a chance to really shine through. If you look at big hits from the festival in the last year, many are artists making their first shows. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have an expensive set, a massive technical team or a budget of several thousand pounds – Edinburgh is a festival that rewards bold ideas, performances and storytelling.
As an audience member and an artistic director, it’s always a pleasure, each year, to see established theatres (including my own) get our socks blown off by some new, unknown talent.
If you think you’ve got the skills and a project that can compete with anything you’re currently seeing on stage, fringe festivals are a place where you can take on the big boys and win.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival Is A Hunt For New Exciting Work
Running a venue in London, I see how often agents, producers, programmers come to see work. While they do come, the numbers pale in comparison to a larger number of scouts and interested parties who comb Edinburgh Fringe looking for the next exciting thing.
As a programmer, it often feels like a treasure hunt, making sure you’re seeing work first before it’s poached by a competing venue. At almost every performance I attend – and there are thousands of them on each week – I’ll invariably be sat next to a casting director, artistic director or producer that I know. It’s one of the best places to get your work seen and, if you attend during a British Council Showcase Year (which happens every other year, where international programmers travel from around the world to see work), then you’ve got an added chance of being offered to transfer your work abroad.
In the last few years, I’ve seen many of our supported companies, such as The Pretend Men, Bucket Club, Rhum and Clay, Idle Motion, tour extensive international work having first been spotted at the Edinburgh Fringe. Opportunities that they would unlikely have got anywhere else.
On top of the programmers, directors and producers, there is an overwhelming number of committed theatre critics at the Edinburgh Fringe: The Guardian, The Stage, Broadway Baby, Fest Magazine, FringeGuru and countless other publications all reviewing hundreds of shows across the whole festival.
We all get up early and go to bed late. Some of the festival's hit shows have been in very early morning slots (although, anything before noon feels like you’re doing farming hours at the Fringe) in obscure rooms in hotel foyers or converted stationery cupboards around the city and others run to the late hours of the night.
It’s a myth that there’s a lot of exceptional work going undiscovered and unappreciated. If you’re making and presenting good work, you will get attention.
Fringe Festivals Are Full Of Curious Audiences Hungry For New Work
For many companies, a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be the longest amount of time they have performed a single piece of work. Performing at the festival can allow the show to grow and be shaped by the new audiences the festival provides.
So often, groups get caught only doing one or two nights only to friends and family – who are not typical audiences and very hard to get proper, meaningful feedback from. Even though to start with, crowd sizes can be small, for many, they’re the first “new” audiences that artists build.
I know from my own work, having taken work to the Edinburgh Festival now for over 10 years and havinge built a festival audience, how vital that organic audience growth is. Your audience is made up of people from all over the world who, over a decade, have regularly seen shows I’ve staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Many of these audiences know my work better and have seen more of it than our home audiences at New Diorama in London.
For actors, there are many ways you can make the most of the festival. Here are my top three tips for having a productive fringe:
1. Aim For One Of The Bigger Venues
If you have a choice of production, there is a big advantage to being attached to one of the larger venues. Performers are typically issued with a company pass allowing them free access to other shows at your venue (at Pleasance or Underbelly that’s hundreds of productions). All actors know it’s easier to approach a director or discuss new projects when you’ve got a working knowledge of the work they make. Edinburgh is a great time to see a wide amount of work and discover new directors and companies you may want to audition for in the future.
2. Professional Networking
Mandy, Spotlight and Equity are all growing their presence at Fringe Festivals, making them a great time to meet other actors, union people and attend free workshops and talks. These are often also attended by good-to-know industry people. I’ve made loads of useful contacts at these events over the years and growing your professional network is vital as a freelance actor.
3. A Better Chance Of Getting Reviewed
With shows getting reviewed by a large number of publications, websites and blogs, there’s a greater chance actors can come away from the festival with great press quotes and write-ups about their performances, which can help propel them to the next step and future work.
To conclude, the many benefits come close to outweighing the many risks that any fringe festival pose. I think the future is going to be companies like Mandy, NDT, Underbelly and others coming together to mitigate many of the pitfalls that even the most talented artists face. After all, how much better would the greatest arts festival in the world be if it truly was open to everyone?