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 Rooms.
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 difference."
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 it here."
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 themselves?
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 journey.
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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