To Fringe or Not to Fringe…

Me and Mr. David Gaines working the Minnesota Fringe crowds.

…that is the question. I have done four U.S. fringe festivals which is nothing compared to some people I know. I based my decisions to tour to certain ones on a number of factors and research but actually doing them presents things you can only get through experience. One thing that happens when you tour the fringe circuit is you hear what works and what doesn’t really quickly from the other artists you end up meeting. Here’s the down-low.

WHAT IS THE FRINGE?

The first Fringe festival began in Edinburgh, Scotland and is still running strong. They have over 2000 shows that happen in a three week span. After I posted my last article on self-producing there was an interesting discussion that started to bubble on Facebook.

Matt Panesh wanted me to warn non-UK based artists about what actually happens.  “I know people from north america that have lost between 5k and 15k, and that’s in british pounds not dollars. A famous guy likened it to ‘standing under a cold shower for a month and ripping up 50 pound notes’.”  We went on to discuss how 5 people in your audience is an “Edinburgh full house”. Wow. Let me say it again. Wow. You want to know more about how to swing   Edinburgh, Matt can answer your questions.

There are Fringe festivals throughout the U.S. and Canada. Here’s the great thing about them.

*Fringes are uncensored. You have control over your production. If you want to get up on stage and pee in a cup while singing a new opera you created that’s fine. Nudity helps too.

*Fringes have a built-in audience. Since it’s a festival you have the opportunity to constantly promote your show as people are entering and leaving other shows at multiple venues. You get face time with audience members which is crucial.

*The Fringe selection process is simplified. Traditionally selection was made through lottery. Now there’s festivals that do combinations of first-come first-served, lottery and juried Fringes.

WHO IS THE FRINGE FOR?

It’s great for artists who don’t fit into the normal theater constructs. Think off-off-off-off Broadway and you get the picture. Even if you are doing something non-traditional audiences still respond to well-developed, strong shows that make an impact.

I’ve seen Shakespeare mash-ups, musical spins on action movies and simple one to two person plays. The range of art is immense and creates for an inspiring, meaningful and incredibly fun experience.

THE NETWORKING

I have met some of the most amazing people while on tour. Folks that I want to be friends with forever. Fringe Central is the after-hours spot where audience, volunteers and performers all gather to socialize and it’s a total blast. These relationships have not only led to dear friendships but also potential collaborations and discussions about how to tour more effectively.

WHO THE FRINGE ISN’T FOR

Dance companies, unless they are performing in their local fringe, do not do well on the circuit. Comedy and theater are what the festivals are mainly made up of. I watched new friends lose their shirts because, all and all, this isn’t dance focused like Jacob’s Pillow.

It also isn’t for the timid. You got to work your show up to everyone constantly. Kevin Thorton hates handing out postcards so he made himself into a walking sandwich board. He walks around the festival, with a handmade sign slung over his shoulders. He is everywhere and everyone knows him because he stands out.

THE EXHAUSTION

I work 7-10 hours a day promoting my show for every festival I go to. It’s extremely tiring because I’m always on. I don’t have a problem talking up my show and it can also be fun teaming up with other performers and talking to audience members waiting in line together.

I make up 1500 postcards and am determined to get rid of them by the time the festival is over. I put stacks around at the venues but my goal is to get them into people’s hands and actually have a conversation with them.

I’m a person who likes to go to bed at 11:00. When I tour I’m usually in bed by 2:00 or 3:00 am. Fucks. Me. Up.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CIRCUIT

Since each festival is run differently it creates both positive and negative components. It’s a given that people who run these festivals have to make tough decisions in an already wonky economic climate but there are elements that can make it difficult as a performer.

*Festival Maturity. Some Fringes have been going strong for 20 years. Some like Atlanta are just starting out. When festivals are young they haven’t been able to work out the kinks, they are just starting their own audience development and things naturally fall through the cracks. Due to this you will feel the backlash of their baby steps.

*Some are run by artists. When I was having a conversation with Robin, the Executive Director for the Minnesota Fringe I breathed a sigh of relief to find out that she wasn’t the creative type. That festival runs like a smooth ship. I can’t tell you what good news this is. It’s best if the people in charge are art supporters. I know plenty of well-rounded artists who can juggle admin and event planning tasks but the fact of the matter is that they want to be performing, not running things. Burnout for artist run festivals is way too common.

*Lottery competition.  As these festivals become more known, the competition to get into them increases. Frigid Fringe has half of their slots become available on a first-come first-serve basis during Labor Day weekend. In 2009 the slots filled online in less than two minutes. The next year it filled in 6 seconds. The next in two seconds. Two. Seconds. That’s nuts.

The Canadian circuit is even harder because Edmonton and Winnipeg are known money-makers. The waiting list for the lottery becomes extensive. It really does become luck of the draw.

*Local focus. When I went down to the Capital Fringe in D.C. I had an interesting interaction handing out my first postcard. I had just arrived that afternoon and took the subway to Fringe Central to get the lay of the land. I handed my postcard to someone sitting outside.

“Oh cool, this looks great. Where are you from?”

“Massachusetts.”

“Ohhhhh, out-of-towners don’t do so well here. Sorry.”

It was true, unfortunately. I got great reviews, was running around like a mad man talking up my show and my attendance was consistently low. This was happening for several other out-of-towners as well and when I looked at the board of sold out shows they were all local artists. There’s nothing wrong with people supporting their local artists. I’m all for it, but as a touring artist at a national festival it can suck. Big time.

*Comps. One of the benefits of touring the Fringe circuit is being able to see other shows. Most festivals have it set up so that you can see shows for free with an artist pass. Paid ticket holders get in first and then if there are seats available, artists can get in. It’s a great system but again each festival runs on its own system.

Sometimes you get a discount on shows with an artist pass which although making it cheaper can make you have to be choosy about what you’re going to see.

Another flip side of comps is the VIP audience members who get into shows for free. When I was performing at IndyFringe I had a show that was pretty packed. I was excited when I went to see how much I made but came to find out that 15 people were VIPs for the show.

“What does that mean?” I asked

“That their VIPs.” said the volunteer.

“Right, but why?”

Again all festivals are run differently so I assume that VIPs in this scenario were major donors to the festival. For more performer reviews of festivals visit the amazing Fringe or Die blog, a great resource for the inside scoop.

THE DOLLARS AND SENSE

In my previous post on self-producing I said this: “I did the Boulder Fringe in 2010. Just that one. In 2011 I did Minnesota, Capital and Indy. I made the same amount of money in 2010 as I did in 2011 and worked three times as hard and was on the road six weeks vs. two.”

You are not only paying a production fee up front, which is roughly $500 but also all the travel to get to and fro, your food and other expenses. The festivals usually help put you up which is fantastic but you need to sit down and crunch some numbers.

For example, Wilmington Fringe charges $5.00 per ticket. You get 100% of the ticket sales but if someone buys a pass for $25 you get $2.50 per ticket for any pass sold. You have to ask yourself if $2.50 a head is worth it. Yes, they have no production fee, just an application fee of $75. Ok, that helps but I really can’t wrap my head around tickets being $5.00 nevermind $2.50. Festivals are trying to keep their admission prices low but for me this is far too low.

Each festival’s payout varies. Some pay you 100% of the box office, some 65%. Some require you to have liability insurance, some have you sign a waiver. Some have a low payout but the networking opportunities can’t be beat. Sometimes you want to go to a particular location because you want to expand your audience base there.

You need to ask yourself what value are you getting for putting all this effort in. Is it for money, networking, audience growth, to visit a new place you’re thinking of moving to or a combination?

You can take a look at a public google doc I created with the Fringe Festivals in the U.S. and Canada. It’s two years old so the dates are off but give you a general idea of when applications, deadlines and festival deadlines are. Always a work in progress, it’s continually being updated with new festivals. For more current dates go to United States Association of Fringe Festivals.

MY COURSE: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF BEING A TOURING THEATER ARTIST

I’m in the process of developing a course on all this madness. I have a crazy amount of information that I’ve gathered through multiple hours of research, trial and lots of error as well as interviewing multiple artists who tour for a living.

I’m aiming to launch a course in June. There will be a series of podcasts dedicated to understanding what it takes to be a self-promoting theater artist which include detailed pdfs with a ton of info and helpful links. You can do it all on your own time.

Getting a grip on how to self-produce is imperative and nobody’s going to do it for you. So take a breath. It’s ok. We can do this thing together. If you are interested in taking the course contact me letting me know your interested by putting “nuts and bolts” in the subject line. I’ll keep you updated on the launch. I’m also available to consult on this nuttiness in person one-on-one or for groups. Contact me if you you’re interested in that too.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I am producing my show for the upcoming Hollywood Fringe Festival and the numbers just don’t add up. From a producers stand point, participating in this festival is for publicity or that you may win a prize, get reviews and the hopes that someone will see the show and want to develop it at their theater or you take it to small theaters in other cities.
    The average ticket price is $10. With a 50 seat theater rental, advertising, productions costs, although discounted, and the fee of $250 to be a part of the fringe, making any money to pay yourself is let’s just say way below Equity scale. In addition:
    I just read an article by the festival founder that last year the seats were filled to 40% capacity. I really hope this year the attendance is higher, well especially for my show. Thanks for writing your article.

  2. sethums
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts on Hollywood Fringe and the math! I would like to point out that they are still a young festival and are working out the kinks. Once year 5 comes along things should be rolling a bit better.

  3. Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I did a seven-Fringe tour in 2010 with my solo show Phone Whore. It was a serious leap of faith–those entry fees alone added up to over $4300–but I got a bunch of sponsors and did all right, enough to throw my hat into the ring again in 2011 with slut (r)evolution. That year I did five Fringes instead of seven and ended up almost as much money, I think. This year I am doing the same five–Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, Victoria, and Vancouver–with the third show in the triology, power | play.

    The first year I immediately received three benefits from performing on the fringe:
    – REPETITION. Doing your show over and over and over tightens my performance in a way that a two- or three-night run doesn’t.
    – REVIEWS. It is tough for small theater companies and solo artists to get reviews in their own home towns, especially if, like me, you are coming from an area where the idea of Fringe or “small theater” is not known or supported. Getting out to a Fringe increases your chance of getting reviews, which, if your show is solid, means 1) increased chance of getting pull quotes for future marketing materials, press releases, etc. and 2) increased chance of getting an outside perspective on your work. Yes, Fringe reviewers are probably not professional theater critics, but many of them take their work seriously and some are quite thoughtful. Similarly…
    – AUDIENCES THAT DON’T KNOW YOU. If you are only doing work in your area so far, you are probably leaning heavily on your personal/family networks to bring in audiences. They are biased. Now, home-court advantage is awesome, and we all need a sense of support, but I found it SO MIND-BLOWING to take that shit out to strangers and see how they deal with it. Festivals push you so far out of your comfort zone, in terms of who you’re performing for–well, in terms of a lot of things–but yeah, if you want to be performing regularly and touring around, you gotta get used to a shit-ton of strangers watching your work.

    Another great thing about Canadian festivals is that they’re nicely organized, chronologically speaking. I am pretty much working across Canada, east to west, from mid-June to mid-September. American festivals… don’t really have that. I want to try some of them, but there’s no pattern, date-wise!

    You’re right, festivals aren’t for the timid. You have to be willing to put it all out there. If you’re not naturally outgoing, you need to figure out a way to fake it or work around it (passive marketing techniques like the sandwich board are always awesome). But at least with the Canadian festivals, the audiences tend to be there, and my promo activities make a difference in ticket sales. I get stuck on non-festival appearances in the US, because that audience pool just isn’t there yet. I have to consider non-festival shows to be “loss leaders”, audience development opportunities and networking that will lead to future productions, and I consider them more carefully now, because otherwise I’m just losing money.

    I am saving up to take Phone Whore to Edinburgh in 2013, and I feel that three years on the North American Fringe circuit have done about as much as I could wring out of them, in terms of prepping me for the relentless promotion and grind.

    PS: I’m doing a weekly column for a Canadian theatre blog, the Charlebois Post, about my experiences touring the Fringe Circuit. It’s called Tour Whore, and here’s a link to the most recent one:

    http://www.charpo-montreal.com/2012/05/tour-whore-may-13-2012.html

  4. sethums
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Cameryn,

    Thanks for your detailed account of touring. I agree that the way the dates flow for Canada fringes are great. However doing the Minnesota Fringe is worth it and then some. The networking alone is incredible and it’s the third largest theater town in the US as far as tickets sold. My plan is to Canada next year. If you want to talk about Edinburgh contact Matt Panesh: http://www.monkeypoet.co.uk/ He’s always up for helping people understand that festival better so that they can do it without lossing their shirts.

  5. Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I have met Matt on FB, and am supposed to be sending him my list of questions, like, now! BELIEVE me, I am doing the research! Though I am an exhibitionist, I have no interest in losing my shirt. Thanks for the great work you do!

  6. Cynthia Beard
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Insightful analysis. A lot of this info is also relevant for touring musicians. Thanks!

  7. sethums
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    True, dancers and musicians. Anyone touring can get something out of this I hope. Thanks for the love.

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