Fringe work exists to be on the periphery of ‘the main event’. It is the slightly eccentric, edgier brother to a Festival. It is where you will find a cross-section of the shoddy, the outrageous, the experimental, the downright wacky and occasionally, the pure genius. It is this magical, random concoction that draws Fringe audiences. There is hopefully something for everyone. Likewise there is probably a festival for every theatre company.
We Filskit ladies have just finished our stint at the glorious Brighton Fringe. A week at the seaside, surrounded by the buzz of a town in festival mode is always exciting. Having performed Snow White there last year, we were eager to return again for the debut performance of our new show, The Feather Catcher. Despite having healthy audiences for half our shows, we were disappointed with our overall ticket sales. However, for us it is an important step in the development of the piece. Through running the show we develop it further, ironing out teething problems and refining the dynamic.
Brighton Fringe has always been our festival of choice. It draws a large part of its audience from local people, which is beneficial to us when marketing to families. Brighton is also home to the weird and whacky, with some amazing cabaret and of course, Filskit favourites, The Lady Boys of Bangkok. We love being a part of the bigger festival atmosphere and always enjoy our time in the city.
Likewise we have a great number of peers who have had great success at Edinburgh Fringe a.k.a the largest arts festival in the world. Originating in 1947, it is understandably, ‘the biggie’. However, as with all fringe festivals once you have factored in registration, marketing, transport and accommodation, it is a costly venture that is a struggle to justify, particularly if it means travelling all the way up to Scotland.
The stakes are high but the rewards can be plentiful. We have become aware that it is almost the stamp of approval to say you’ve cut your teeth on the circuit up there. Then of course there are the reviewers, the visiting programmers and coveted awards to boost your commercial reputation. But what if you shell out all that hard earned money, only to find that there are more of you in the cast than in the audience? (We’ll be honest, this did happen in the early Filskit days.)
But these are the known problems of fringe performance. At the same time it is a great platform, particularly for those showcasing new work. A large amount of reviewers and venue programmers frequent these festivals as they can see a broad range of shows in a small area, over a limited space of time. Reviewers, audiences and programmers may take a punt on watching a 45 minute performance in a day full of shows, whereas travelling across London for a potentially indifferent piece of work will probably not feel like a worthwhile risk.
There are also growing opportunities and many different routes to get you and your show to the Fringe. The Pleasance Theatre offers support with showing work in London as well as Edinburgh. Ideas Tap offers funds to take work to Edinburgh and, with A Younger Theatre, has a reviewing opportunity for budding writers. There are means and ways – it just might take a bit of invention to make it happen.
Fringe festivals are expensive. They are a high risk opportunity to break into a market and get your work seen by those who can help you progress. This might be to get your show into venues or instigate new projects and collaborations. Whatever the next steps for your company and work, the fringe festival should be approached with a positive mindset.
The fringe is at its most fabulous best when companies take risks. The fringe audience wants to be wowed. One of the biggest criticisms of fringe festivals over the past 10 years has been the arrival of the commercial big guns; the stadium tour comedians who charge £35 a ticket for fringe performances. Instead, fringe festivals need to be celebrated for what they are: a safe place to take risks, to try out new work and fresh ideas. These shows might not sell well at first, they might be compromised by poor lighting and rushed get-ins, but as you spend the rest of the year trying to claw back the cost you can input the experience and responses you received back into your work. This is where the real value of the fringe festival experience lies.