Like everyone performing at the Edinburgh Fringe I’m about to make a lot of mistakes. I’m about to lose a lot of money too. But after ten years covering the festival as a reviewer I’m at least able to predict which errors I can’t avoid blundering into.
First, the campaign to attract a crowd will be pointless. This stands to reason. Five or six thousand hopefuls swarm up to Edinburgh each year and they all use the same marketing strategy. Attention-seeking stunts on the Royal Mile. Tiresome afternoons forcing leaflets on unimpressed Americans. Fly-posting after dark, on tiptoe, by torchlight. Desperate texts to friends of friends promising five-for-one discounts. Bravura letters to newspaper editors offering ‘an exclusive front-page splash about this groundbreaking work of art’. None of these endeavours qualify as true promotional work. They’re just a neurotic alternative to curling up on your bunk-bed murmuring, ‘Why did I come here?’ into a flask of cooking sherry.
Second, the publicist will let you down. You can try chivvying him or her (more likely her) to make a greater effort to promote your show but she has scant reason to bother. Publicists are brilliant at selling themselves to performers but as soon as the fee of £1,000 (plus VAT) reaches their bank account their enthusiasm melts like August sleet and they head to the Pleasance to self-medicate with the hospitality budget. Fringe veterans tell me that even getting a publicist to attend their show is a major coup. The most your PR firm will do is to email your press release to their ‘exclusive list of 100 high-value media contacts’, which is how they describe the spam accounts of the Critics’ Circle. What they don’t tell you is that getting a critic to see a show by sending an email is like getting David Cameron to give you an earldom by sending smoke signals.
Third, the ‘asymmetric’ marketing ploy you’ve worked on for weeks will crash and burn. My show bears the eye-catching title, A History of Feminism (as told by a sexist pig), and when I premiered it last May at the Brighton Fringe I assembled a catalogue of eminent women and wrote to them all, in deliberately vague terms, asking permission to use their image during the performance. My hope was that this intrusive and faintly creepy request would ignite suspicion and outrage. I expected the venue to teem with private detectives, litigation clerks and undercover council officers seeking evidence that I’d committed a breach of privacy by exhibiting an unauthorised picture. It never happened. Most of the grandes dames ignored me. One or two loftily ordered their executive assistants to ‘forward a suitable publicity shot’. A famous novelist sent me a sniffy email: ‘I can’t think of a good or a kind reason why I should say yes.’ And the only person who replied with good humour was Julie Burchill, who told me to grab any old picture from the internet and to expect her at the show. Unfortunately she broke her leg instead. What a waste of time. I sent 150 letters, received eight replies and scored zero spectators.
There are one or two mistakes I’ll be able to skirt around. The name of my show, you’ll notice, is rather verbose. That’s deliberate. The theatre has an in-built commercial flaw in that the customer is obliged to pay for the product before having seen it. So the surest way to minimise this nuisance is use your title to advertise your show’s content. But it amazes me to see so many Edinburgh participants who seem oblivious to the ruthless nature of the marketplace. Here are some shows that stand a chance of survival: Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, Zorro the Musical, 101 Reasons Why I Hate Katie Hopkins. Punters can see what they’re getting. Now look at these chosen at random from the 420-page Fringe brochure: Carapace, Catalpa, IamI, #Realiti, Raymondo, Sequamur, Tether, Teaset. What the hell are they about? I doubt anyone will know.
I shan’t waste time praying that every performance sells out. Low attendance is a certainty and it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the show. I saw Reginald D Hunter play to a dozen punters and a guide-dog in 2007. It happens. You don’t get the audience you deserve, you get the audience the gods decree.
I won’t suffer nerves beforehand either. I don’t see the point. Even the most seasoned performer endures waves of fear and nausea before stepping into the limelight and yet an obvious remedy is at hand. Double vodkas. Ingest four of these miraculous potations in the half-hour before curtain-up and you can convert your torture-chamber into a realm of instant and growing pleasure. If you’re worried about alcoholism, think of your chemical cushions as dry martinis. Derelicts swig hooch. Sophisticates sip cocktails.
And no matter how much booze I sink I shan’t dream of ‘a London transfer’. The famous itinerary of Beyond the Fringe, which went from Edinburgh to Broadway via the West End, is a thing of the past. Yes, a few Fringe shows make the journey to the capital every year but invariably they go to smallish, cheapish venues which the producer has booked in advance knowing that the words ‘direct from Edinburgh’ create the impression that the show is a surprise hit carried south on a tidal wave of popular acclaim. Not so. The wily impresarios are just manipulating the poor old London punters.
Nor will I fantasise about a preview from the BBC. My show doesn’t offer the Beeb what it wants, namely topicality, scandal, death, celebrity, voyeurism and victimhood. Especially victimhood. Experimental staging helps too. If I were a BBC arts editor I’d have my eye on a song-and-dance show, Coffin Ship, about real-life Sudanese migrants who wrote an award-winning musical version of their story and are about to re-create it in Leith dockyards, with a chorus line of local ex-junkies, in a co-production backed by Amal Clooney and Bob Geldof. It doesn’t exist, but that’s what they’re after.
Finally, of course, I will lie about the cash. No returnee wants to admit to catastrophic losses up in Edinburgh and a spot of false accounting is perfectly acceptable. Here’s the tell-tale sign that you’re being fibbed to by a Fringe veteran with a newly acquired five grand overdraft. ‘I broke even. Just!’
A History of Feminism (as told by a sexist pig) is on at the Space, Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh, from 7 to 22 August, 19.20 p.m.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free