Some people let their glowing reviews go to their heads not me, you can call me “NT” for short. P.S I’m thinking of selling these T-shirts as merch, want one?
Below is a long read about my experience at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, measuring success and demystifying the money. If that isn’t for you then here are the shows that I saw and loved and shows that everyone was talking about but I couldn’t go to because of show time clash/ I was too knackered.
Showstopper The Improvised Musical
An evening without Kate Bush
How do you measure success?
I needed to go to Edinburgh Fringe because I felt like I was starting to fall off the industry radar. The last time I was at the festival was 7 years ago with Hair Peace. My previous show Ugly Chief had a London run but that show was too expensive to tour, meaning that audiences and bookers outside London hadn’t seen my work for years!
I needed to put my head above the parapet and say: “Hi, I’m still really good, please book me! Also, I’ve been doing stand-up for years now and I’m the best at performing and writing than I’ve ever been”. The pressure was on. I needed to make a great show that showcased my signature documentarian style and my new extra funniness. It felt like if the show was a flop then it might mean that my future in theatre was precarious. Seriously, art funding is in the ditch at the moment, I’ve been turned down and so have loads of others. If this failed, then why would anyone support the next project?
I’m not a rich person. There was a pressure for me to make money or at least break even. a loss would mean serious rethinking and planning.
There was another pressure. The media got behind Head Set (HS) and started naming HS as one of the best shows to see and calling me a “Fringe Legend”. It was lovely that they were supporting me, but what if HS didn’t live up to the hype?
The first week in Edinburgh everything went wrong. Audience numbers were down, the iconic Pleasance Courtyard was empty, and us performers had this sinking feeling that the Fringe wouldn’t bounce back after the pandy. My Edinburgh technician didn’t turn up for his 2nd shift and I had less than 20 hours to find someone new. There were hardly any technicians/stage managers in Edinburgh this year because so many sadly left the industry during lockdown. Josie Shipp saved the day; employ her, she’s incredible.
The first few days I had between 15–20 people in each show and we had given half of those tickets out for free. Every one of my early shows had at least one walk-out. When you give out tickets for free, some people aren’t invested in the same way. They don’t know what the show is about, it’s not their cup of tea and so they get FOMO and give up half way. I get it. Edinburgh’s exciting and audiences want to fit everything in. A member of the audience (or a secret nemesis) wrote a review of the show online: “not a good show – it’s all about her”. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I lost my appetite and I couldn’t sleep. I lost a stone in weight in one week. All I could think was that this was a mistake; I’m too old for this shit and I lost belief in the show and myself. I went to get acupuncture for the first time to try and calm down (it actually helped).
Then 2 things happened: the tourists finally arrived and Time Out came in really early and gave Head Set an incredible 4-star review. I don’t want to admit that external validation saved the day… but it meant I was able to glue stars all over my posters and then the audiences started coming. I went on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. There was a buzz about my work. Every day a new reviewer and bookers and people from the industry were coming. I started downloading the sales reports and got confirmation that I was selling out shows. I could see the £££££’s going up and up. Seeing the money going up gave me this new indestructible energy that came from feeling like I’m a professional and I must put on an incredible show despite how I’m feeling or what’s going on in the audience. I wasn’t offended if there was someone asleep on my front row, if they wanted to line my pockets with cash to have a nap for an hour then go ahead. Here’s a pillow. Then celebrities started coming and we put on an extra show.
I went from “I’m never doing the Fringe again” to “how can we get a show ready in time for 2024?”. I loved that my main priority each day was to perform. I was boring and nerdy. I hardly hung around with friends or saw many shows. I got up each day, practiced, prepped and performed, then returned home to watch Below Deck with my dreamboat flatmate. Top mental health tip: live outside of the centre with someone who has nothing to do with the Fringe.
I have so much to say (ADHD) but I want to talk about success. Was it a successful Fringe run?
It’s hard to answer this question properly because the success of a show, for me, lies in its future plans. My producer Will Arnold at Farnham Maltings and I are planning and plotting and speaking to people about a UK tour in Autumn 2023, but until I have contracts signed, sealed and delivered then nothing is certain.
I also measure success by the following metrics:
Will it tour nationally and/or internationally?
Will I receive commissions and support for future projects on the back of this show?
Am I back on people’s radars?
Have I introduced my work to new audiences?
Did I have fun?
Did I hone my craft?
Is my show in the best place it’s been in?
Am I walking away with any newness e.g. ideas/collaborations?
Did I make enough money to pay myself and make a profit or at least not make a loss?
I don’t want to show off because I know that everyone performing at the Fringe has radically different experiences. Some people will never perform again because they had such a horrendous time. Honestly it can be soul destroying, handing out flyers in the rain and turning up at your dank venue to perform to one person and it’s a dog and they are a critic. We are so vulnerable when we are sharing our stories, and sometimes audiences could literally not give a shit. But then it can also be life-changing. I witnessed people become superstars (Jordan Gray and Leo Reich).
There are also loads of different ways to do the Fringe. You can do Edinburgh with less financial investment. You can perform on the free fringe or split an hour with a mate. I decided to go down the bigger investment route. This is my 5th show, the 3rd that I’ve brought to the Fringe. HS has film, sound, lighting cues and a set. I needed a reliable set-up with great tech (Sound and lights and a crew to manage it) Therefore I decided to pitch my show to the Pleasance. I invested in Public Relations (PR), who liaise with the press, and I paid a brilliant flyerer. And when I could eat again, I ate well. Josie operated my show. All of those were non-negotiables for me, meaning it wasn’t going to be cheap.
A note on PR. It’s a big investment but I wouldn’t do Edinburgh without it unless I was making a show that wasn’t ready for the press yet. BUT I want you to make an informed decision. Getting a PR doesn’t guarantee you press. There aren’t as many reviewers as there used to be unfortunately. Part of the reason they came to see me is because I have a track record. You can help things along by having a bold image and a newsworthy/exciting/unusual angle to your show.
Back to money. I kept seeing the pounds go up from ticket sales and all I could hear in my head was cha ching! Theatre has always been my worst way of earning money. Most of my money comes from art commissions, touring existing projects, workshops, and even comedy gigs are starting to pay ok now. These ticket sales were exciting: I sold approx. £15,500 worth of tickets. I thought “theatre’s finally going to earn me money! After splitting the ticket sales with the venue, I reckon after paying myself and all the other costs I’m probably looking at least a £4000 profit, right? Wrong!”
I should point out that this is my back of the envelope costs and budget. We will get the proper settlement in mid-October. It’s not all exact yet.
I should point out that whilst my ticket split with Pleasance (45% of total ticket sales goes to them and 55% to me) may seem like a lot, they also provide literally everything (the building, press and arts industry office, technical infrastructure and loads of other support). The whole venue was full of crew and staff working incredibly hard to support artists and audiences. I opened the door of my venue during one performance to show the audience that there were 4 crew members in the torrential rain erecting tarpaulin so that me and the other performers wouldn’t get wet when unloading our sets. I couldn’t have done this without them. I think the whole festival is a miracle.
I’ve worked out roughly and approximately my costs and my profit and I wanted to share it with you. I ran a workshop during the Fringe for emerging creatives, as part of Horizon Showcase, who were planning on bringing work to the festival. I’m old now and I’ve been in the biz for a long time. I talk to younger peers all the time and as somebody who went to university for free (don’t cry but I also got a grant to go), I have received grants as an emerging artist from initiatives that don’t exist anymore (thanks Tories). I feel like the least I can do is share what I know. I also think we need to be less British about talking about money. Edinburgh has got so bloody expensive, the more we can have honest and open dialogue the more we can create change and make informed decisions.
So here we go. After the split, my share of the ticket income is approx. £8500. That’s still loads! My BIG profit from all my massive ticket sales is still going to be at least £4000 right? I should point out that I just conjured up this imaginary figure I hadn’t actually sat down to do any sums. It was just a figure that got stuck in my head.
Well, after all my spends and if I including NOT paying myself for the before prep or performing in Edinburgh my grand profit is £200!
£200 shitty pounds from £15,500!, that’s £8.33 a show!
FFS. I know, I know Edinburgh is a trade fair and I’m lucky I didn’t make a loss but seriously a crappy 200 notes. I thought going to Edinburgh was going to be my new money earner. FFS.
A less melodramatic quote here from Will Arnold my producer “This is a harsh but important reality of the Edinburgh Fringe, and something that has likely intensified since the pandemic. You can have a successful show that sells-out most nights, receives excellent reviews and generates lots of industry buzz, and still make very little profit. We are seeing a movement to an Edinburgh model where your ‘profit’ can’t be measured not in money, but in recognition.”
Below is a more detailed version of the latest breakdown income and expenditure for those interested.
I ask the question again: was it a success, was it all worth it for £200?
I can answer that properly in a years’ time when we know where we are touring and what new work is being made. But, in short. absolutely yes, I LOVED it, in the end. The answer is yes to most of the questions above and we estimate that over 1500 people saw the show. I got lovely 4 star reviews and The Stage said that HS was one of the best shows of the year. I got reviewed positively by Chortle by them reviewing HS they are commenting that it is funny enough to be considered as stand-up. I’m leaving Edinburgh with an idea for a new show and a potential new collaboration that is mega exciting. I’ve worked out where I can make savings for next time. The fact I’m even thinking there will be a next time means I’ve come a long way since that first heart thumping week.
To the people that feel like Edinburgh wasn’t a success for them. Solidarity, I didn’t have a particularly good time the last time I was up 7 years ago with Hair Peace. Like child birth it took me that long to forget the pain. Edinburgh is not the be-all and end-all, I got just as many reviewers and audience numbers coming to see me after the Battersea Art Centre, London run of Ugly Chief. There are other festivals now Brighton, Camden, Leicester. If you ever want a chat I can always fit in a coffee and a zoom.
I’ve got so many people to thank and I dislike naming everyone in case I leave anyone out. If I have left you out, I still love you. Blame the ADHD! It’s my excuse for everything.
Dr Silvana De Pirro, Sean, Mitch, David Curtis-Ring, Tom Parkinson, John Gordillo, Laura Woodward, Gavin Stride, Deborah Pearson, Tarim, Brian Lobel, Janine Fletcher, Sam Brown, David Sheppeard, Faith Dodkins, Josie Shipp, Emily Davies, Eve Allin, Will Arnold (and everyone at Farnham Maltings) Victoria Tillotson (and everyone at Watershed – thank you for that early commission and belief in the project whilst it was still in its infancy) Kate McGann, Pleasance and the whole crew. The whole team at Mobius.
I know this was long and very industry focussed, but I hope it was useful or/and interesting. Edinburgh has got so expensive, we’ve got to help one another out, help each other to make informed decisions. I will be back next month with something more “enthusiast” based and loads of art for you to see. Thanks for reading.
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Love Vic x
- “Turn your trauma into material, it’s how we process it” April 28, 2023
- ART!!! April 28, 2023
- Relationships, new show and the best art to see and do November 21, 2022
- Demystifying the money and measuring success September 11, 2022
- The queen of theatrical quirkiness September 11, 2022