Confessions of an Edinburgh Fringe Veteran
How many shows do you have to take to Edinburgh before you can describe yourself as a ‘Fringe veteran’? If the answer is ten, then Project Adorno, the poetry/music ensemble I’m half of, could just about qualify. True, we’ve only done seven Fringes together, but my partner, Praveen Manghani, has clocked up another one with an earlier incarnation of the group, whilst I’ve done two more as Rachel Pantechnicon. So there you are: Fringe veterans and still nobody’s heard of us.
But then, we’re not the sort of people who get mentioned in the media’s scanty coverage of the festival (we’re not Ricky Gervais, in other words). We’re not the coiffured youngsters who look good on posters or in quarter-page box-ads. We don’t lig with journalists or, as far as I’m aware, sleep with people from funding organisations. And we perform at a venue that even long-term Fringe-punters have never heard of. Yet this isn’t a zany article about ‘the unluckiest group on the Fringe’. Far from it. Project Adorno simply represent the rank and file. We are, in the words of a recent review, ‘the true spirit of Edinburgh Fringe’. Well, shucks – them’s mighty kind words, but it sure ain’t easy.
A couple of years ago, Helen Shay wrote an excellent article for WOL, bemoaning a much touched-upon Edinburgh problem: that the Fringe does not recognise Spoken Word as a category. If you’re taking a show to Edinburgh, it has to go in one category or another, because that’s how the programme is arranged. Poets therefore have to plump for either Comedy or Theatre, because it’s either that or Musicals & Opera, Dance & Physical Theatre, or Music. So you’re kind of handicapped from the word go, because reviewers – and audiences, very often – will judge you by the criteria of the category you’re in: ‘It wasn’t funny enough’ or ‘I didn’t think much of the acting’. After three years of getting one-star reviews in the Comedy section (including such constructive feedback as ‘Everybody has to see one real turkey, and this was mine’), Project Adorno decamped to the Music category. And since then, we’ve at least had intelligent, considered reviews. Albeit slightly bewildered ones.
There are signs, however, that things are changing, and this is largely down to the Free Fringe. This is a sort of fest-within-a-fest that does exactly what it says on the tin: it takes the innovative step of not charging performers for venue-hire (normally a vast drain on one’s funds) and, by the same token, stipulates that they do not charge admission to their shows. The Free Fringe and performance-poetry seem to be made for each other. I realised this as soon as I walked into one of their venues as saw the entire population of the UK poetry scene: ‘Oh look, it’s Matt Panesh – and gosh, Mab Jones – and wow, isn’t that Ernesto Sarezale?’ The Free Fringe has that mic-and-amp, let’s-busk-it vibe that poets are used to. We at Project Adorno like spending hours gaffering our leads to the floor and saying things like ‘Can we have more foldback in the wedges?’ to the technicians, so we feel that the Free Fringe isn’t for us just yet. But just to put it into perspective, we pay about £750 to hire our venue for a week’s run, and we generally make about £50 back from ticket sales. Free Fringe shows, we noticed, were invariably full to bursting.
The significance of the latter cannot be overstated. There’s an oft-repeated snippet of Fringe lore that goes: ‘Did you know that the average audience-size for a show is [any number between one and seven]?’ Project Adorno shows, by and large, prove this rule. If we get into double figures, we’re high-fiving behind the curtain.
What I’m driving at here is, if you’re considering the Fringe as a money-making exercise, forget it. For most people, it’s simply a case of keeping your losses to a minimum. A lot of performers go there to garner good, quotable reviews. And then, of course, there’s an outside chance of being ‘spotted’. This, too, seems to have turned in poetry’s favour recently: there’s a thing called a Fringe First award, which is given to the best show by an Edinburgh novice. For ages, these were won by lots of (obviously undeserving) people that you’d never heard of. But then, two years in succession, they were scooped up by two names from the poetry circuit: Suzanne Andrade and Inua Ellams. Next thing we know, Suzanne’s appearing off Broadway and Inua’s playing to full houses at the National Theatre (and you’re grabbing the person beside you and saying ‘I knew him when he was reading to three people in the Poetry & Words tent at Glastonbury’). It’s a great boost for our little scene.
Like so many performers on the Fringe, we at Project Adorno do what we can within very limited means. The received wisdom is that, if you want your press and marketing to snowball sufficiently, your show should run for the whole month of August. As we both have day-jobs and personal lives, however, there is little chance of this ever happening (‘Sorry, darling, we can’t go on holiday this year because I’m using all my annual leave to go to Edinburgh again.’) So we generally do one week. We do our best. That’s why – sticks-and-stones adage notwithstanding – an ill-considered review can cut to the quick.
Similarly, we do our best to sell our show without breaking our backs over it. This year, for the first time, we enlisted the services of a freelance marketing person. She set up a Facebook page for us and bombarded the Fringe’s press contacts with our blurb. But it’s hard selling a show. The press tend only to be interested if you’ve got an ‘angle’ of some sort. I remember that, a couple of years back, Steve Tasane – surely one of the finest performance-poets in the UK – did a Fringe show about shoplifting, in which he namechecked the stores that made for the easiest pickings. To cut a long story short, Woolworths were very upset and, hey presto, there was a story in The Scotsman. (In fact, there are those that blame Steve for the firm’s whole sorry demise.) Anyway, Project Adorno don’t do angles; we just write an hour’s worth of new material each year, string it together with a loose theme, and that’s our show.
The real marketing begins when you actually get to Edinburgh. But now it’s down to you and your wad of flyers. The High Street – aka the Royal Mile – becomes a feeding-frenzy of people doling out jazzy bits of paper. Couple this with the street-entertainers (who, incidentally, draw by far the biggest crowds at the Fringe; I mean, forget poetry – dust off that unicycle) and the thoroughfare becomes an almost impassable sea of humanity. Your job is to thrust a flyer into the hand of anybody that will take it, all the while engaging in persuasive sales repartee. Ten minutes in and you’re squawking a series of disconnected and oddly-stressed syllables in the manner of a market-trader, whilst your brain orbits the spire of St Giles’s Cathedral in a mantra-induced trance.
And oh, the distance you walk during the Fringe. There was one occasion, early on, when it occurred to us that we were feeling unusually weary and footsore. We had a look at our street-map and realised that we were walking at least ten miles every day. Because, make no mistake, the Edinburgh Fringe is about the most regimented thing you can do: it’s a case of get up, go flyering, go home, do rehearsal, do show, go home, see a show, go flyposting, go home, collapse.
Because of all this, you need to factor in some downtime as well, and Edinburgh can be a lot of fun. Not being drinkers or party animals, Project Adorno tend to take their pleasures in charity shops and second-hand record shops. Oxfam Music in Raeburn Place is a particular favourite. Plus, we do try to see a few shows ourselves. This is easier said than done, though. You start off full of good intent, whipping out your Fringe programme on the initial train journey, earmarking the shows you want to see. By the time you pull into Waverley station, you’ve shortlisted at least two hundred. In the event, you actually see about 3% of these; and they’re the ones by members of your immediate family or people who’ll never speak to you again if you don’t attend their show. By the end of the week it’s easier to hide from anyone you recognise, rather than explain why you’ve not caught their show. One reason why I myself don’t see as many shows as I should is – call me Mr Breadhead, but if I’ve just paid £500 for my share of one week’s rent on a two-bedroom flat, I’m going to spend a bit of time in it if it kills me.
Ah yes, the accommodation. Edinburgh prices rocket in August. Citizens vacate their flats, rent them out, and spend the next six months living off the proceeds. Obviously there are cheaper deals than the one I’ve quoted above, but they tend to involve sacrificing such things as personal space and clean linen.
But what of your show itself? you ask. I was coming to that, as Robert Graves said. Well, let me say that Edinburgh audiences are like no other. They are much, much harder. I mean, we all know what it’s like to do a good gig on home turf in front of our pals. But it feels even better to be well received by a new audience in a faraway place. And Project Adorno are no strangers to this: we’ve won over a bunch of uninterested scrumpy-drinkers in a taproom in Frome; we’ve had a roomful of Farnham students unexpectedly clapping along to our more rhythmic pieces; and once, after a particularly successful gig in Barrow-in-Furness, a guy emerged from the audience and flung his arms around us with a cry of ‘You are the Messiahs!’ But I’m afraid this doesn’t happen in Edinburgh. A smattering of polite applause if you’re lucky. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than coming back for a curtain-call to find that your adoring public has already left.
But you get used to Edinburgh’s ways. And, by way of summarising a few of them, I hereby present my list of dos and don’ts. It’s not very long.
a) If you’re taking a show to Edinburgh, don’t go there entirely on your own, because you’ll be crawling up the walls after three days.
b) If it’s a solo show, make sure it’s a proper show with a beginning, middle and end, rather than just three twenty-minute sets stuck together.
You may recognise the voice of bitter experience in these.
As for Project Adorno, something keeps us going back. Sometimes it seems to make no more sense than any other form of addiction. But hey, this year we got our best-ever review (the one I quoted in the second paragraph): yes, we have finally reached the dizzy heights of four stars. The reviewer said he’d have given us five, but he realised we wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. There’s honesty for you. We even had a little crew this year: not only did an energetic young friend arrive to help us with the flyering, but we enlisted the services of a splendid chap who was happy to be our soundman for the week. Thank heavens I had four t-shirts printed. And we saw great shows by Kit & The Widow, and Nick Pynn, as well as some of our poetry chums like the lovely Tim Clare.
Oh, and I bought a Noosha Fox LP for 99p. Which kind of made it all worthwhile.