An Actor's View: The Edinburgh Festival - Michael Simkins

The Edinburgh Festival - Michael Simkins: An Actor's View

Edinburgh Fringe Festival - Street Performers
Michael Simkins

by Michael Simkins, actor, author and former UK Theatre Magazine columnist.

Date Published: 04 August 2017

I rang my producer friend Sally this week for a chat, but it turned out to be a bad moment. “I can’t talk, I don’t have a Qlab license" she wailed.

I assured her I didn’t have one either; but the difference, as she explained through clenched teeth, was that I’m not trying to put on a show on the Edinburgh fringe, whereas she is.

Apparently every venue that includes either video or sound as part of the live performance must have one of these pesky certificates, and with 72 hours until the opening performance, the venue that has booked her show had informed her they don’t have one.

But this sort of crisis, Sally assures me, is just another day at the office when Edinburgh comes to call. Her life as a producer of small scale shows consists of solving problems, putting out fires, and scrabbling down the back of the sofa to find extra funds for the next inevitable expense; as well as drinking too much and sleeping too little during the festival itself. Yet she loves it.

The fringe at Edinburgh is nowadays bigger and better than ever – especially bigger. When I last appeared there in the late 1990’s there were already over 1000 fringe events, but two decades on, the number in 2016 had ballooned to 3269 shows in 294 different venues (perhaps the individual whose job it is to count them could do his own fringe show next year about his job spec).

Sally says that the fundamental misconception performers make about Edinburgh is that you can just turn up, hand out leaflets on the Golden Mile wearing some funny hats, and watch the punters roll in.

It won’t happen; and the Fringe can prove a money pit for the unwary or inexperienced. For a start, to have any chance of standing out from the herd your product must have some decent PR, and must be playing at a popular central venue rather than in a hastily-converted warehouse down some forlorn side street. Favourable reviews in the newspapers are also essential, and that isn’t easy with over 30’000 separate performances for the critics to choose from. And even if you get good notices, they need to be published early on in the run - getting raves three days before you close won’t help you much.

And then there are the associated costs. Arranging to have your show registered and included in the brochure can cost over £1000, while many venues insist in on a 60/40 split of the box office takings. Another friend of mine who has hired a two bedroom flat for his three week run of stand-up this summer has had to fork out £2700 for his accommodation, plus a £300 breakages deposit.

For a lucky few the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe will prove a gateway to fame, fortune, and their own TV series. For others it will be just another convivial and absorbing way of losing a few hundred quid and getting a ricked neck while sleeping on someone else’s floor. But all are agreed on one thing – there’s nothing quite like it.

Sadly for me my days of appearing on the fringe are probably long gone, although I’ll always wonder what happened to the somewhat gauche young man whose show I saw last time I was up there. “An evening with Mother Theresa”, I think it was called, featuring a young stand-up from Ireland wearing a tea towel on his head.

What was his name again? Ah yes, Graham Norton. I wonder what happened to him…

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