'We used social media, flyers, sought out reviews ... we've been lucky'
Steve Pottinger, pictured left, has been performing poetry - with Emma Purshouse and Dave Pitt - at Edinburgh's Free Fringe for the first time. As a newcomer he reflects on the buzz, the camaraderie among performers, getting the word out, and the nagging fears.
Edinburgh festival proclaims itself the largest arts festival in the world. When you’re here, it certainly feels like it. The Edinburgh Festival has spawned the Edinburgh Fringe, and as the Fringe has grown in turn – and attracted corporate sponsors, along with costs for artists – several Free Fringes have sprung up to fill the void. The result? A sprawling hydra of comics, poets, theatre groups, and musicians, each and every one of them covering every available surface with posters for their show, armed to the teeth with flyers, enticing and cajoling passing tourists to come and see their production over all of the hundreds of others.
For first-time participants, it’s all a bit overwhelming. The largest and most established of the free fringes – the PBH Free Fringe – boasts over 500 shows in over 50 venues. In the years since it was first established, the number of poetry and spoken-word shows has ballooned from just nine to over 80. On the plus side, there’s the buzz of finding yourself in the midst of so much art, such a wealth of creativity. At the same time, there’s a nagging fear: how on earth do you attract an audience to your show when there’s so much competition?
After a week here – and we’d only booked a one-week run – I’m no nearer being able to answer that question. Our approach was to do as much as we could of absolutely anything we thought would help get the word out: we used social media, we handed out flyers, we talked to passers-by who looked even remotely as though they might be searching for performance poetry to brighten up their day, we mithered friends and relations, we contacted old acquaintances, we sought out reviews of our show and used them shamelessly.
All of this needs to be done – the average attendance at the Free Fringe is just four people at each performance of a show. However closely you follow the advice to eat properly, sleep well, and pace yourself over the festival run, morale and confidence take a kicking if you’re performing to an empty or near-empty room. Conversely, there’s nothing quite like a full room and an appreciative audience for putting a spring in your step and helping you through the inevitable lows and troughs that will – at some point – come your way.
We’ve been lucky. To date, our show has had three full rooms. Even on our quietest night, audience numbers were over the Free Fringe average (just). They’ve laughed, and applauded, and left money in the bucket at the end of each evening. They’ve recommended us to friends, and come back to see the show a second time. They’ve even bought books. Even so – and with three of us sharing the workload – our week in Edinburgh has at points been every bit as challenging and exhausting as it’s been wonderful and exhilarating.
Would we do it again? Yes, I think we would. We’ve loved the support and collaboration between acts whose only initial connection was that we were performing in the same space. We’ve made new friends and caught up with old ones. We’ve seized the opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and watch shows we’d never normally consider, and been gobsmacked by the wonder of some of what we’ve seen. We’ve revelled in being here. Would we recommend it to others? Absolutely. It may not be easy, but it’s an experience to treasure. Put Edinburgh in your diaries. Like Everest, you do it because it’s there.
Steve Pottinger, Emma Purshouse, and Dave Pitt were in Edinburgh with their show ‘Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists’
PHOTOGRAPH: MATT TIMBERS