Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2003
- article on the festival in BackStageWest by
Laura Weinert (August 2003)
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- Bravehearts Only
- By Laura Weinert
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the spring
of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything prepared... we
had no one in the audience.
- For many a theatre maker, taking a show to Scotland's Edinburgh Festival
Fringe is a bit like making that pilgrimage to Mecca. It is something you
just have to do at least once. Yet few experiences will challenge your
mettle--and pocketbook--more than a four-week run at the world's largest
theatre festival. It can mean chopping a half hour off of your perfectly
balanced show to fit one of the festival's many arbitrary timeslots. It
can mean performing in a steamy cave--yes, a real cave--to an audience
of two. It can mean sleeping on the floor of an apartment with 11 other
people. You will probably lose thousands of your hard-earned dollars. You
will beg for reviews. You may get bad reviews from papers of which you've
never heard. You may get a great review from that bastion of respectability
known as The Scotsman, only to find that your review never gets published,
or goes to press on the last day of your run. You will spend long hours
shoving your expensive postcards in the faces of tourists just to watch
them end up in the nearest trashcan.
- So why on earth does anyone pack up a show and head to the Edinburgh
Festival Fringe? Simply put, there's nothing in the world quite like it.
What the Fringe has to offer a performer in terms of growth, experience,
and pure fun is unparalleled.
- "When you come here as a starry-eyed performer, sure, you are
waiting to be discovered," said Christina Augello. This year, Augello
performed and produced Kerry Reid's whimsical, language-rich show Last
of the Red Hot Dadas, based on the unsung hero of the American Dada movement,
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Said Augello, "In a best-case
scenario, I'm hoping that someone would discover my show and see its value
and artistic statement and continue it. But the honest half of me, the
producer in me, just came for the adventure. I love theatre. I've done
it my entire life. It's my commitment for the rest of my life, so to be
here where it's happening in every nook and cranny--in every loft, staircase,
or cave--that's a turn-on. If you've ever loved anything in your life,
you'd like to go where it was always there. It's like you're in heaven."
- Augello is founder and artistic director of San Francisco's Exit Theatre
and also produces the San Francisco Fringe--so another motive was educational.
"I'm hoping to make the San Francisco Fringe more international,"
she said, "so another part of this is just exploration."
- Fringe newcomer Matt Malinksy said his group's main motive was simple:
It's a chance to become better performers by doing it every day for a month.
Malinsky was a producer/performer in Chairs, a one-hour improvised play
by 11 graduates of Chicago's Second City. Malinksy and fellow performer/producers
Bina Martin and Sarah Haskins said they had been warned about the nature
of the beast early on.
- "Before we applied we sat down to discuss what we hoped to accomplish,"
said Malinsky. "We talked with people who had come here before. And
they were like, 'You guys will have such a great time. Don't do it. It
will be a nightmare. You're going to lose money. You'll love every minute
of it. Don't do it.' But we knew that we weren't the type of show that
was going to get picked up to go to Singapore or something like that. We
mostly just wanted to do it for our own growth."
- Their realistic expectations, combined with massive amounts of diligent
research, paid off. It didn't hurt that they did some clever grassroots
promoting--including making an offer to The Scotsman to shape an entire
show around the newspaper if they'd send a reviewer. The stunt worked.
Much to their delighted surprise, these first-time producers saw Chairs
play to full houses.
- Other, more seasoned Fringe producers had different reasons for coming.
Jon Rivera, artistic director of Los Angeles' Playwrights' Arena, has weathered
the Fringe numerous times and built up something of a reputation for his
company. Back in 1984, Rivera had the good fortune of directing actor Guy
Masterson in City Gents at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Masterson now happens
to be one of the biggest producers at the Fringe and has invited Rivera
to bring shows to one of the Fringe's most coveted venues, The Assembly
- After two successful runs of Nick Salamone and Maury R. McIntyre's
Moscow, which garnered a Fringe First award, as well as being an audience
favorite, Rivera returned this year with Salamone's warped and wicked love
story Red Hat & Tales. Rivera views the Fringe as a great opportunity
to raise his company's profile.
- "For me as a theatre company, what I am looking for is the international
press," said Rivera. "When we do grant writing in L.A., we would
love to include a Scotsman review or a Guardian review. All the other theatre
companies are only doing L.A. Times and Back Stage West, but if we also
have The Guardian, a Polish paper, a New York paper, that can make a real
- Then there is the sheer thrill of testing out brand-new L.A. work abroad.
Said Rivera, "Because Playwrights' Arena only does newer playwrights,
it's very exciting to take the work we are doing in L.A., which is mostly
about L.A. playwrights, and then present it internationally."
- Indeed playwright/performer Salamone saw the Fringe as an opportunity
to test out his play and guide future revisions. He also took the opportunity
to attend some of the festival's numerous workshops. Said Salamone, "One
of the workshops I took had the literary manager for the Royal National
Theatre. She read the play in advance and then met with each of us and
spent two hours just talking to you about it. Where else could you get
something like that? It was just amazing."
- And Salamone has been lucky enough to taste the success that can come
out of a great run in Edinburgh. "Moscow got the New York production
as a result of this one. And the Florida one as well. We are negotiating
with Prague. All of those possibilities came about because someone saw
- L.A.-based Fringe producer Michael Blaha, who brings five or six U.S.
shows to Fringe each year, has also seen the fruits of a Fringe First award.
He produced a show called Runt two years ago, which took the prize. The
BBC came to the show and decided to produce it as a radio drama, which
went on to win a Sony radio award for best drama.
- High-profile successes like these do happen. Indeed, American shows
staged something of a coup at this year's Fringe--well, at least those
few that emerged from the pack. All of these privileged shows hailed from
New York. Two of the top productions offered significant and timely social
commentary. Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist, which won the best of The
Scotsman's Fringe Firsts, was an intriguing look into a military secret
operation meant to assassinate a world leader. And 78th Street Theatre
Lab, which won the Best Ensemble Acting award, produced Boy Steals Train,
a play about a 15-year-old boy who steals a subway train and drives it
into the World Trade Center.
- Comedy Central
- Perhaps the biggest disappointment for U.K. Fringe performers was that
New Yorker Demetri Martin scooped up the very prestigious Perrier Award
for Comedy. The Perrier Award--less than a decade old--is perhaps the most
coveted honor on the British comedy scene, leading many U.K. comedians
to flock to the Fringe in the hope of winning and thereby securing that
British sitcom deal. Because of the Perrier, some performers say the Fringe
is starting to look like the Aspen of the British comedy world. Indeed
many have complained that since the mid-'90s the festival has been dominated
by standup comics, most of whom are British.
- "It's so strange because I was here in '84 and there was no comedy,"
said L.A. actor Elizabeth O'Connell, who stars in Red Hat & Tales.
"It was just theatre and no comedy."
- Salamone agreed. "Comedy has really been taking over," he
said. "In the bigger venues, there is more comedy than theatre. Now,
after 11 p.m., you won't see any theatre whatsoever in The Assembly Rooms,
because comedians are the people who pack big houses."
- It's almost at the point that theatre is slowly becoming the fringe
of the fringe, ghettoized to less popular locales and time slots. Yet it's
not quite fair to blame the comics if your show just isn't drawing the
audience you'd hoped. Scarce audiences seem to be the experience of most
Fringe performers. Some say the Fringe has just gotten too big for its
own good: With nearly 20,000 Fringe performances on offer and a program
that resembles a city phone book, it's no wonder that many shows are only
able to draw an audience of six--and for some, that's a good day. You also
have to remember that the competition is not only your fellow Fringe performers
but several other festivals that are happening simultaneously: the main
Edinburgh Festival, a film festival, a book festival, and the military
"tattoo," a stirring pageant of marching bands from around the
world--not to mention all the tourist sites the city has to offer.
- You are also competing against local groups that are part of the Fringe--groups
that have a solid neighborhood following built up over years of hard work.
A case in point: the Edinburgh Makars production of Plaza Suite, a community
production I attended in a local suburb's church hall. Superbly directed
by Margaret Milne, this was not only one of the most professional community
theatre productions I've seen but was also drawing packed houses of more
than 100 people a night.
- Fringe producer Blaha pointed out that often there is just no telling
how a show will be received. A successful U.S. show that may seem tailor-made
for the Fringe may not translate into box office once it gets there. This
year, Blaha took L.A. performer Dominic Hoffman's Ovation-winning show
Uncle Jacques' Symphony, only to watch it flounder for attendance, despite
being in an ideal venue, The Gilded Balloon.
- A lot depends on luck--specifically, on how much help you are lucky
enough to get from reviewers, publicists, and enthusiastic audience members
with lots of friends. Yet one of the largest factors is, of course, how
much you are willing to help yourself. So if performers decide that despite
the drawbacks, it's time to make that pilgrimage, what can they do to help
- Location, Location, Location
- The time to start planning for the Fringe is between December and January.
Obviously, small, portable shows travel best--and more cheaply--which explains
the preponderance of one-person shows at the Fringe. Unless you have $20,000
to spare, you may want to keep sets, pyrotechnics, and tech requirements
to a minimum. Budgeting for a trip to Edinburgh will mean socking aside
at least $5,000--and that is for a barebones, one-person show with a lot
of grassroots marketing and perhaps a few frequent-flier miles used for
- The biggest and most important expense you will have is your venue.
Location is everything, people will tell you. For years, if you weren't
in the big three venues--The Pleasance, The Assembly Rooms, or The Gilded
Balloon--you weren't on the radar. True enough, these venues still have
built-in followings and much higher profiles with regard to press. Yet
choosing a big venue does have drawbacks. First off, they're the most expensive
in town and gaining admission to them is not easy. Each one has its own
artistic director, who's swamped each year with applications. It's wise
to look carefully at the shows the venue produced the previous year (this
information is left online all year, until the new festival begins) to
get a sense of the artistic director's tastes.
- But perhaps the most frustrating thing about these big venues is a
little situation that to some looks a bit like a conflict of interest:
Though these venues take a publicity fee from performers, they are also
producing and promoting their own shows, meaning if you aren't one of theirs,
you may get not much help.
- Explained playwright Kerry Reid, "We had to pay the Gilded Balloon
a non-negotiable publicity fee of 500 pounds. But when we went and met
with the publicist of The Gilded Balloon, he basically flat-out said, 'Most
of what we do is promote the shows that we produce.' So any publicity we've
gotten is through us. Christina [Augello] emailed a bunch of people before
we got here, and we were basically lucky enough to get some press to come
out. But it just has really felt like we're falling through the cracks--particularly
since we have done everything they'd asked."
- The good news is that there are sure signs that these mega-venues are
no longer the only games in town. Site-specific work is making something
of a splash. The most talked about show of the Fringe this year--Traverse
Four's production of Ladies and Gents--took place in a restroom. Frantic
Redhead productions, run by L.A. producer Ginger Perkins, has had numerous
years of solid runs with its venue-less walking performance of Macbeth.
- Several other venues are becoming increasingly more high-profile. C
Venues had numerous hits this year and is rumored to be an up-and-coming
location. Crowne Plaza Hotel is a newer venue favorably located on the
Royal Mile--the virtual aorta of the festival, a jam-packed road with a
carnival atmosphere where performers will do pretty much anything they
can to get you to take their fliers.
- Malinsky discovered the benefits of going with the lesser-known Crowne
Plaza. "Because they were so new, they were very eager to work with
us," said Malinsky. "They are trying to self-promote a bit, too.
Our first Friday's show was sold out. I have no idea how that happened.
I think our venue did a good job of meeting with the press and doing a
lot of that. That's something that American companies should look into:
How much PR is your venue going to do for you? And ours did a great job."
- Applying to the venue will involve choosing a handful of places that
suit your needs and sending off a packet of reviews, a script, and tape
or DVD. Many venues have websites with loads of information on their spaces
and past shows. Some websites even have blueprints available.
- After you get your venue, you can then start addressing things like
finding an apartment, and fundraising, fundraising, and more fundraising.
The Fringe office will also provide lists of U.K. publicists you can hire.
While not an absolute must, a U.K.-based publicist can be tremendously
helpful; many have contacts with local papers and can help with the most
difficult and important Fringe task, getting reviewed.
- A good review in a small paper can lead to a good review in a larger
paper. And if you do somehow manage to receive that seal of greatness?the
five-star review in The Scotsman--or are lucky enough to win a Fringe First,
the good news is that you will have a certain amount of cachet when you
return. And there's the possibility that next time your Fringe experience
may not be quite as rough, frantic, or financially harrowing.
- Although it might. There's always a certain amount of hard education
that happens at the Fringe. Still, you can't help but come out of it a
stronger, smarter performer--which may be one of the reasons even the most
downtrodden actor will tell you that, all things considered, it was well
worth the ride.
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