It feels like I haven't fringed in ages, but really it's only been a year and a half. Man, it's amazing though. I look at my friend's facebook posts about shows and after-show bar experiences and it all feels very far away and I feel very old. But it's only been a year and a half! How old could I get in that amount of time? Old enough to sit down in my rocking chair and reflect on the crazy scope of the international fringe scene? Apparently! So, now that northern hemisphere fringe season is starting to wind down, why not come sit by my fire (crackle crackle), listen to the creak of my chair (creak creak) and my voice blathering on about old Fringe memories that aren't actually that old?
This blog post is really for people who are interested in the difference between the English-speaking scenes, and will be very boring for (1) people who are not interested in those differences; (b) have already done all these festivals; or (gamma) people who have just finished a fringe... why would you want to read this if you've just finished a fringe? Shouldn't you be napping? Shouldn't I?
Quite possibly... and yet, I have facebook friends from all the English-speaking Fringe communities, and they're always wanting to know if they should take their shows to the OTHER English-speaking Fringe communities, and I think, as someone who has dabbled in all of those fringes, maybe I can speak on that shit a bit!
If you don't feel like reading any further, I'll get right to my thesis statement: If you're Australian or British, or used to doing those festivals and being successful and having fun, then get your ass to Canada. If you're used to doing Canadian fringes and being successful and having fun, and wondering if you should do Australia or the UK, I'd say, only maybe.
SHOULD I DO THE CANADIAN FRINGES?
Let me tell you about the cream puffs that are the Canadian fringes. They are the coziest, cutest, easiest fringes of all. Not like I knew that when they were the only fringes I'd ever done. I thought they were big and hard and scary! But ha ha ha! Then I went to Edinburgh and got my ego handed to me in thin raw slices of carpaccio-like misery!
Canadian Fringes are only two weeks long, and you get about 8 performances. So there are things like DAYS OFF, which is insane. Also, there aren't that many shows! The biggest fringe in North America, Edmonton Fringe, still maxes out at under 400 shows. Compare that to, say, Edinburgh's 4000 shows, or even Adelaide's 1300 shows. Actually don't compare them, cuz ya can't.
Canadian audiences vary from being adventurous and fun, to old and stodgy. They're a good mix, but in general, their tastes can be pretty white-bread. There are ready audiences for conventional stuff. If you are a straight white man who likes to sit on a stool on stage and tell amusing stories, you might do fantastically well in the Canadian fringes. That said, more off-beat artists can also do great in the Canadian fringes, because these fringes are super word-of-mouthy. Also, the audiences are Canadian, so they're real polite about taking fliers from you, and even acting interested/grateful to hear about your show.
Another feature of Canadian audiences is that they LOVE ACCENTS. So especially if you're British, because Canadians have an especial hard-on for Brits, but really, if you're from anywhere not-US/Canada, there's going to be built-in enthusiasm for your show.
As if that wasn't enough, Canadian fringes, for the most part, FIND YOU HOUSING. That's right, the fringe itself actually finds a place for you to live, for free, in some art-friendly house where you will in most cases feel nourished and looked after, and where your host will most likely become a friend for life. This is called billeting, and it is a gift from heaven.
So, yeah, if you're from the UK or Australia or anywhere else, you should probably get in on the Canadian Fringe scene.
The trick to this scene, however, is just that: getting in. Those Canadians know what they have, and they don't make this easy. Each Fringe is determined by lottery, which usually happens in this hemisphere's autumn. So you pay a 25$ application fee and then, if you're international, your show goes into an international pile. And there are only a certain number of international shows picked for each festival. The good (or bad) news is that the lottery isn't curated, so no matter how good/bad your show is, it doesn't matter, it's just luck of the draw.
Once you've done one Canadian Fringe festival, you are then eligible to participate in the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) lottery, which also costs 25$, but if you get picked, then you are automatically accepted into however many fringe festivals you want for that year.
Otherwise, you have to apply to each individually, and the chances of getting in, frankly, are slim each time.
Another option, which many fringe veterans take, is BYOV, or Bring Your Own Venue, which means that you don't have to participate in the lottery, you just find a venue that works for you, pay the Fringe fees plus the venue rental fees (so the total does end up being quite a bit higher than if you're accepted via the lottery), and you're good to go. This is great if you already know a festival and know what the good BYOV venues are, (and where the bad/out-of-the-way venues are) or if you're a known quantity at that festival and will bring in audience regardless of where you are. If neither of these things apply to you, then BYOVing is much riskier. It could work, but it could also be a disaster.
Still, when you consider the disaster that Edinburgh is for so many performers, it's not that scale of disaster, at least.
SHOULD I DO THE EDINBURGH FRINGE?
So far, I've done Edinburgh twice: one time I did the Free Fringe, one time I was co-produced in a sweet central venue with a 60/40 split and a flyering team. Both times I hired PR. I broke even the first time and made a few grand profit the second time.
I've tried to answer this question in previous blog entries, but the short answer is this: Edinburgh is a well-oiled machine that is set up for already-successful artists it mostly already knows. Venues are all BYOV–the festival doesn't find you a venue—and the popular venues are all carefully curated. Are there breakout stars who find some fame and/or a big career jump at Edinburgh? Sure, but the "breakouts" I've witnessed were well-connected already, like they were someone famous's son or their director had won a big award previously. If you're holding onto the fantasy that you will be discovered at the Edinburgh fringe, you cray. And as I've mentioned, you've got to be careful even if you've found success on the Canadian circuit. British tastes are decidedly different than Canadian tastes. If you're a white man with a stool, get in line behind the 5000 other white men with stools who have been doing Edinburgh every year for the past twenty years. Audiences are going to see thosewhite men with stools well before they consider taking a chance on you. But in general, they like weird, they like visual, they like risk, they love comedy.
There are Facebook groups and books devoted to tips and tricks to survive and thrive at Edinburgh, so definitely consult those before you go for it. But for Satan's sake don't delude yourself that it's going to be anything but mongo stressful and exhausting, even if you do well. It's an incredibly intense atmosphere. It was really almost too much for me my first Edinburgh, and I was pretty successful and had good friends with me.
SHOULD I DO THE AUSTRALIAN FRINGES?
I've done Adelaide Fringe twice and Perth Fringeworld twice and Melbourne Comedy Festival once. I worked with an Australian producer who managed my marketing and negotiated with my venues for me. I made decent coin at all of them, except for Melbourne Comedy, which is my biggest disaster festival to date.
For North Americans, the Australian fringes might look attractive, especially if you want to escape winter. Summer in Australia, you say to yourself. What could go wrong?
Sure! Why not? Not as big and daunting as Edinburgh, right? And if you want to go to Australia, this is as good an excuse as any. But success at Australian fringes—and I'm talking about the big ones, Adelaide and Perth (don't ask me about Melbourne Comedy because clearly I don't know)— is dependent on a bunch of factors that are real good to know before you commit.
Australian fringes are also BYOV. And all venues are not created equal. Some venues are like theme parks with hundreds of people wandering around going to shows, and some venues are semi-abandoned buildings with broken air conditioning several blocks away from a street anyone's heard of. The best venues at Australian fringes are, like Edinburgh, carefully curated, and unless you're a bit famous, you probably won't get programmed there unless someone from the venue has seen your show. Or, it's possible you might, but probably only if your show fits into the genres that Australian fringes like best: comedy, magic, circus, sexy comedy, sexy magic, and sexy circus. If you have a sexy magic comedy circus show, Australia is going to really take to you.
The Adelaide fringe is long as fuck (almost 5 weeks). Some performers only do a portion of it, but if you're relatively new to the festival, it makes sense to do the whole thing in hopes that word of mouth spreads. And yes, you might need PR, and definitely a flyering team. Perth Fringe runs are shorter, but again, if you're unknown there you might need marketing support.
I have a lot of admiration for my Aussie artist friends who cut their teeth on those huge fringes, because that shit is CRAYYYYY. Adelaide venues are often stuffy circus tents, Perth venues can be weird office buildings. In general, these fringes feel almost as intense as Edinburgh.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I SHOULD FRINGE INTERNATIONALLY?
I feel incredibly lucky that I've had great times at these festivals, and very few disasters (I'm looking at you, Melbourne Comedy! Suck mine!). But I also feel lucky that I am not a devil-may-care risk-taker that would do any of these festivals before I was pretty sure they would go well for me.
So how do you know when a big leap like an overseas festival is the right choice? It's a great question. I'll share a story of how I decided to make that leap. When I did the Edmonton Fringe in 2014, which was my biggest Fringe to date at that time, my "marketing" consisted of about 300 photocopied, Microsoft-word-template 4-to-a-page "fliers" that were one-sided, black-and-white, and suuuuper shitty. I don't even think I handed them all out; I really didn't flier at that Fringe, and I sold out my whole run real fast and won some awards to boot. Word of mouth was just really, really on my side. The amount of return I got on that festival was definitively bigger than the effort I put in to get bums in seats. But also, I had just directed a show that was a big hit in Edinburgh, so I knew if I went the next year and dropped that name in my marketing, it would also open doors for me. That combo of factors felt like Momentum. It was like wind, that feeling of something pushing you forward that is motored by way more than just you and your elbow grease.
So, pay attention to momentum, to where the wind pushes you.
Also, of course, do your research. Track the careers of shows similar to yours. And remember that whatever path you go, you'll learn a shit load. Really, what else are we here to do?
And for all you fringers who for some reason are still reading this, I salute you! We all salute you! You've worked hard and brought beautiful art to the world! Take my chair by the fire! Isn't it cozy? Here's some cocoa; I put cinnamon in it. Creak creak creak. Time for that nap.