The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide
If you're determined to perform a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, following Mark Fisher's Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: How to Make Your Show a Success will save you several thousand pounds. I make a similar claim about the workshops and consultations which I sporadically host. In truth, you could save even more money by skipping Fisher's book, my workshop and avoiding the Edinburgh Fringe entirely. It's a bit like the Californian wine industry: the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start out as a multi-millionaire. That said, if you want to go, getting sensible advice can save you from several very costly mistakes.
It's difficult to describe the Edinburgh Fringe in print. The statistics are overwhelming - it's the largest arts festival in the world, featuring over 2,500 shows. To put that on a human scale, Fisher cites one punter who attended 136 Fringe shows over 27 days (giving a new meaning to the phrase "getting your five a day"). Even that guy saw only 5% of the Fringe.
Fisher, who performed at the Fringe as a student, lives in Edinburgh and has been covering Scottish theatre since the late 1980s is well-placed to guide us through it. But he defers to John Clancy - founding artistic director of the New York International Fringe - to define Edinburgh. Apparently it's, "like sex [or] like having children; there is no way to explain it to anybody". If that feels like a cop-out, imagine an army of 3,000 comedians, actors and directors invading a city the size of Dublin. There's a whiff of revolution in the air, prices inflate and the locals grow hostile. Nothing runs smoothly. There's a vast oversupply of comedy and theatre, without the audience to support it. After three glorious, chaotic weeks, the whole thing collapses in on itself, and the army retreats in disarray.
It helps to plan Edinburgh as a military campaign, and Fisher does a first-rate job, providing a year-long strategy, introducing us to the key generals, and passing on advice from hardened veterans. On the comedy front, he speaks to venue gurus Alex Rochford and Tommy Sheppard, and comics Ed Byrne and Nick Doody. All four are excellent choices. However Fisher repeatedly returns to the same interviewees: Ed Byrne, the Controlled Falling Project, theatre companies 2B and 1927, Ed Byrne again. The Fringe is too vast to capture everyone's experience, but it's a mistake not to cast the net more widely.
However we do get quality information - clearly laid out in logical chapters - about venues, accommodation, marketing, media and finances. Fisher gives invaluable advice: visit the Fringe as a punter a year before you perform, plan everything and seek guidance. Above all, understand your motivation. Fisher devotes his central chapter to working out why you're doing the Edinburgh Fringe, what you want to get out of it, and how to make that happen.
Unfortunately, the Fringe is now so enormous that it's almost impossible to grab the attention of the real career changers. Sitting in Edinburgh mid-August, it's bizarre to realise that - within a one-mile radius - are 100 people who could transform your professional life. Unfortunately, your chances of meeting them, recognising them and persuading them to do so are minimal.
As my venue tech put it: "going to Edinburgh to get noticed as a comedian is like going to war, to get noticed as a serial killer." If you read Fisher's book, you'll be considerably more prepared, and as Louis Pasteur said, "fortune favours the prepared mind". Sadly, for most performers, the only guarantee is the one they'll owe to their venue at the end of the run.
Ultimately this is a book about how to cope with an exceptionally stressful festival - ***** (Five Stars). On that note, I leave the last word to the late comedian Jason Wood, as quoted in the book, who in 2004 got a devastating one-star review in the critically important Scotsman. Wood’s response? Emblazoning his publicity material with the legend: "A Star - The Scotsman".
Abie Philbin Bowman has been to every Edinburgh Fringe since 2005 as a performer, punter and reviewer. Three of his four comedy shows have been sell-out hits. He also conducts Fringe workshops and consultations.