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2002, a Faith Odyssey
...or How I Survived the Edinburgh Fringe and Learned to Love Redbull

(Editor's Note: With the deadline to apply for this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival approaching April 24, we asked Dance Insider contributor Faith Pilger to recount her experiences as a performer at last year's off-festival.)

By Faith Pilger
Copyright 2003 Faith Pilger

EDINBURGH -- The following is an insider view of Scotland's fabulous off-festival: What it is like to perform and a bit of friendly advice to my fellow producers. I have created brief chapters, including:

*Festival City, an insider introduction

*Busking and Beyond, the art of self-promotion

*Hot Venues, where you will want to perform

*Living (and dying) by the Scotsman, press/publicity/awards

Please browse the sections in or out of order. Keep in mind that this is a subjective piece. Still I hope to preserve accuracy where possible and I am open to corrections and opinions.

Festival City

Edinburgh (pronounced "Edinburuh"), Scotland in August is a whirlwind of festivals and events. Simultaneously and overlapping are the International, the Fringe, Film, Book and Jazz Festivals, with literally thousands of shows and hundreds of performance spaces. The Fringe venues range from theaters and circus tents to converted garages, hotel rooms, churches and labyrinthian chambers in the famous Edinburgh vaults to numerous free street performances (check out the awesome Aussies who put on the very best circus/sideshows on High Street!). You can simply be entertained by walking up and down the Royal Mile, drinking free samples of iced tea or gin, watching the endless array of fully costumed performers vying for your attention in the most creative ways -- busking (street performing) or simply passing out flyers for their shows. You may even partake in vendors' wares (including hand crafts, hair wraps and, yes, massages!) on your way up to the castle perched on top of the hill, overlooking the Princes Street Gardens and the entire city. Sound like heaven? Now...imagine it's raining.

Edinburgh, like all UK cities, is typically gray and drizzly (if not fully wet and cold) but in August it is blessed with some sunshine and truly those days are like Eden -- seemingly perfect! Even though you must expect (and prepare for) rain, you must not let it hinder your outdoor adventures. Scottish citizens make up a surprisingly large percentage of the audience at this international festival and are not at all phased by rain. They will be out on the street in droves, trudging through muddy parks and attending to rigorous schedules. And, though some performers will "take the day off" from busking when it rains, others will not, and there are only so many days one can avoid the crowds and not choose to be immersed in the shameless art of self-promotion necessary for survival at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Busking and Beyond

Upon arrival at Waverly Station (I flew in to Manchester and took a pleasant four-hour train ride up to Edinburgh, highly recommended if you are on a shoestring budget), the first place I was told to find was the Fringe green room. I trudged through the crowds of Princes Street and across South Bridge, hopelessly in search of a taxi just as the opening festival parade was coming to a close. An hour later I arrived at my flat, a musty yet cute little place with a miniature bathtub more reminiscent of Eastern Europe than the UK. I dropped my bags, walked across the enchantingly green Holyrood Park (think "Lord of the Rings") and up the steep incline of the Royal Mile/High St/Castle Hill which begins at one castle -- the Palace of Holyrood House, where the queen stays on visits -- and ends at another, Edinburgh Castle. Sound confusing? Don't worry, it is.

Edinburgh has the most intriguing architectural history and landscape, beginning with its having been built on top of the "crag and tail" of an extinct volcano. This accounts for the steepness of the "wynds and closes," some of the oldest recognized tenement housing in the world and the much-discussed "underground city." (If this stuff interests you, I suggest J. Henderson's "The Town Below the Ground" for easy but very interesting reading about Edinburgh's architectural history.)

Tucked away down Writer's Close, just off the Royal Mile, I discovered the green room. A haven for festival artists, this cluster of offices provides room to relax and change in and out of costume before/after busking as well as every other practical service imaginable. This is where I received all the information about where and when to perform on Fringe Sunday, a marathon of performances on outdoor stages in the Meadows. (Free publicity, folks!) It is also the place where I was advised about busking on High Street. Our company was given a small 8'/12' stage and ten dates and times to perform. There were three stages and numerous other assigned pieces of "street" that became stages for performers to present 15-20 minute street shows daily.

Later on, the green room became a place where our company often met to relax and, I must admit, it became my FAVORITE place in all of Edinburgh during the more frustrating days of lugging costumes, props and boombox around the treacherously steep cobblestone roads. The "Red Bull Recharge Room" provided a refrigerator full of FREE Redbull (yes, they got me hooked on that poison!) and comfortable space on rugs, pillows and couches; friendly staff, groovy music and copies of all newspapers to be scoured for today's reviews, tomorrow's previews and any other news.... (Two young girls were missing for weeks and eventually found dead; one of the children's teachers and her boyfriend were accused of the kidnapping and murder. And people wonder why I want to escape from reality!)

Other invaluable services provided by the green room: the lowest charge for computer/Internet use in the city (same as Easy Internet, one pound for one hour), the best prices for copying, printing, fax, phone and free advice regarding the festival itself and personal issues. A wandering masseuse offered services for low rates, while bulletin boards provided means to communicate between performers regarding services, opportunities, volunteer needs and availability. (Some people do actually come to the festival and just volunteer so that they can get involved and see the shows for free!)

Though I didn't take enough advantage of this, the green room also provided press info, advice on reaching the media and many free and low cost workshops and events, mostly regarding help for self-producers and artists on how to succeed at the Fringe.

Hot Venues

If you want to perform at the festival, you should start by picking the right venue for your show and for you personally. Go to the Fringe web site and browse the many categories. Most of your initial questions will be answered. Ideally, you should do this at least a year before you plan on attending the festival, even though you can sign up for the festival as late as the spring. Many of the venues will have their own web sites, including many details and even photos of the theatre, inside and out.

There are many venues and they are very different from one another. Some offer more of a hodgepodge of unrelated companies and shows, while others are much more selective in their programming. This can be more important than you think. Large venues (Like "C" venue) host so many companies that individuals often feel lost/forgotten and wonder how much publicity or promotion they are really getting from their presenters. Pick your venue based on the fee you can afford (dependent on size of space/number of seats). Also look for location. The closer to the Old Town hub or any main street, the better.

Get to know your venue manager. Find out what he or she has to offer. This can range from the basics -- i.e., you can simply rent the space and take care of the advertising, etcetera -- to more sophisticated systems like the cooperative arrangement at Aurora Nova. I found that I was drawn to venues which seemed more "focused and attentive," smaller and, I know it sounds superficial, but I was very impressed by some of the venue programs/booklets which were user-friendly and aesthetically appealing. Based on this criteria, and my interest primarily in dance/physical theatre/cabaret, I can say with confidence that the most interesting/best venues for dance at the Fringe are, in order: Aurora Nova, The Garage (the venue I was presented by in 2002), The Bongo Club, Dance Base and The Underbelly.

Aurora Nova: Run by Wolfgang Hoffmann and Tim Hawkins, as well as all of its performers collectively, Aurora Nova is a rare and beautiful venue. Amidst a plethora of money-grubbing, disorganized and careless presenters, this venue (only in its second year) takes a great deal of care in the production quality of its shows and the "quality of life" of it's performers. Even its sponsor, Cafe Direct, is a coffee company that considers the social and economic environment with a refreshingly high level of awareness. I had a great conversation with Mr. Hoffmann after one of the shows and found him to be warm, friendly and without pretension. He had that presence that one recognizes in a person who is doing exactly what he should be doing, and doing it well. I am not the only one who thinks this venue is top notch. In 2001, Aurora Nova won numerous awards as a venue and for the shows it presented, and again in 2002. The dance performances were all held in the majestic St. Stephen's Church, which boasts an indoor and outdoor cafe. Its visual theatre works were performed down the street at a smaller studio theatre, equally professional and well run.

The Garage: Run by Shakti, an unusual artist in her own right, The Garage began years ago at Avignon and now presents shows in numerous festivals internationally. We performed in the best of Shakti's four performance spaces, the Garage Chapiteau, a white tent located in the beautiful Princes Street Gardens. Her other spaces include the Garage Theatre, The Studio and the Citrus Club. The Chapiteau has the largest stage and is the most accessible. What it lacks in some practical areas (dressing rooms, bathrooms, heat), it makes up for in charm (a circus tent in the park next to a carousel and an open-air cafe... how much more romantic can you get!) You just have to laugh and remember that you are at the Fringe when you find yourself running up a hill to a public bathroom for your pre-performance pee. We had our share of frustrations with the venue and manager, though it's difficult still to tell which were based on our own inexperience and which were simple negligence. However, I can still recommend this as one of the best venues available for dancers at a festival which mostly caters to theatre, comedy and music.

The Bongo Club: This was one of my truly favorite venues, although I believe it will not return this year unless it's in a different location. In any case, its nightly cabaret turned out to be a fantastic variety show featuring tidbits from groups performing full shows at the venue. It also included Edinburgh locals who were not performing in the festival, other artists from the UK and (proving the venue's truly high cool factor) it even featured performers who were presenting shows at other venues. The space was part club, part performance space, and part gallery, with a full bar and nightly dance parties (until 4 a.m.) with DJs and live bands. The stage is not large, but the environment is excellent, accessible and ideal for a small company or solo work. In the gallery was exhibited work by a graffiti artist, "Elph" -- the only interesting looking exhibition in the entire Fringe, which is infamous for its failure to represent truly diverse and cutting-edge visual artwork. The Bongo Club throws the best end-festival party of any venue and draws the grooviest audience!

Dance Base: Though I was not able to see any shows at this venue, I can recommend this space because I saw it and it is beautiful, clean and state-of-the-art and because it is the venue which presented workshops for those performers/choreographers interested in teaching. I think that, for dancers this is an ideal environment for presenting more studio-oriented, education based or conceptual work with a free or low cost workshop to help draw the crowds.

Lastly, The Underbelly: This is one of the most unique and fascinating spaces. Located just off of High St. with entrances on Victoria and Cowgate, this venue presents four floors, five spaces, three bars and over 60 shows. The performance spaces are connected by an endlessly spiraling stone staircase that leads down...down...down into the "underbelly" of Edinburgh nightlife. The Cowgate area is notoriously seedy, surrounded by nightclubs, dark alleys and the unrested spirits of the Underground City. If you don't perform at this venue, at least stop in for a drink or a show. The spaces are raw, industrial and perfect for pyrotechnics.

Living (and dying) by The Scotsman

In a world where, as artists, we are encouraged to seek but not expect media attention, it is very interesting to find oneself in an environment that caters entirely to the press -- in fact, relies almost exclusively on press to advertise and compete for one audience. What I am getting at is this: As a producer at the Fringe you must, first, list your show in all publications possible (The Fringe program, your venue program and The List weekly magazine -- none of these are free listings); second, focus, especially during week one of the festival, on getting flyers and posters out there and seen; and, third, and most important of all, you must get press!

You must write a strong press release and send it out early to all press contacts/publications (The Scotsman, The List, The Guardian, The Herald, The Metro, The Times, The Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Record, The Express and the Edinburgh Evening News). These contacts will be made available to you through the Fringe staff and/or your venue manager. Television and radio are not particularly active in the Fringe, but if you have any contacts there, by all means, use them!

One day, while busking the mile, I approached a man with a TV camera and, as it turned out, he was recording live 15 second promos from performers for a local station (Channel 3). I was appropriately costumed and painted, and my show would still be running after the date which on the promos would air (very late in the festival, August 23) and so I was recorded (in just 15 takes...I'm a real pro!). This was my only personal interaction with TV, though there where quite a few making sporadic appearances on High Street. To be honest, it was often difficult to separate the media from the tourists, whose electronic toys get fancier every year. I do know that hundreds of people have returned home from their Scottish vacations, developed their film and found lovely pictures of me, as the sexy/scary/radical clown.

More advice: Use your creativity to think of ways to entice people on the streets. Get to the festival early. Keep your preview ticket prices low. Offer specials. Get your flyers up and your press out early. The festival runs for three weeks (last year it was August 4-26). The first week is press week. It's all about publicity. This is when the press will be most likely to see your show. If you can't afford to perform all three weeks (a very common situation at the Fringe) then I don't recommend skipping the first week. This is what we tried with our show, and it was very difficult to get press. We opened during the second week, just in time for rave reviews to be coming out for shows that had been running for a week and were in full swing. This is very challenging. Unless your company has performed at the festival before and developed a following, or is recognized internationally, I highly recommend running during weeks one and two or all three weeks.

Word of mouth is also very important, but is hopelessly tied to the press at the Fringe. They say that seven people have to recommend your show before the average Fringegoer will have the confidence to get a ticket. On the other hand, there are some amazing, maverick audience members who really do take the risk and see the unknown and the unreviewed.

You may be reviewed on your first night (after one 1 1/2 hour tech/dress rehearsal)...which leads me to my next important point. DO NOT BRING A SHOW TO THE FRINGE THAT HAS NOT BEEN PERFORMED ALREADY, WELL-REHEARSED AND/OR TESTED ON SOME KIND OF AUDIENCE!!!

Don't be fooled by the name "Fringe." Some of the shows at the festival have been touring internationally for months, some performed the same exact show the previous year to rave reviews and some are ensembles that have been together for over a decade. These are some of the best shows you will ever see, and they are your competition.

Awards: There are a few awards presented at the Festival Fringe and, if you receive one, it WILL make a big difference in your ticket sales this year and next. "Fringe Firsts" are announced each week on Thursday in The Scotsman. The Perrier Comedy Awards host a ceremony towards the end of the festival. The Bongo Club venue actively discourages support of the Perrier Awards, sponsored by a Nestle product (click here to find out why) and promotes its own much more casual/"fringe" version called the Tap Water Awards. And The Herald offers "Angel and Archangel Awards" to shows and venues respectively. The folks who decide on these awards are press, not public, so keep in mind that they are seeing many, many shows. If your show starts late (not uncommon) they may have to leave before it is over in order to make their next engagement.

See Faith Pilger tomorrow and Saturday night in "The Fu-Tour," performing at the new Theater of the Arts loft-space in Tribeca, 48 Lispenard between Broadway and Church. Doors open at 7:30 for preshow entertainment and complimentary transformative liquids.

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