(This piece was also later published in the Huffington Post)
I have occasionally blogged advice on the perils and pitfalls of staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. But it really requires a whole book – which is what Mark Fisher has now done with The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide – How to Make Your Show a Success – published today.
In 1983, Mark appeared in a Fringe show called Shubinkin, which The Scotsman described as weaving “a Coronation Street idiom on a Miltonian frame”. He took part in the Fringe as part of a student production in each of the three years of his undergraduate life. In 1986, he returned to Edinburgh to work at the Fringe Office and he is now Scottish Theatre Critic for the Guardian and Variety, a judge for the annual Scotsman Fringe First Awards and much else.
There are many ways to get a book published. In 2002, I approached Random House with an idea for a book to be written by comedian Malcolm Hardee and me. They turned it down but suggested we instead write a book called Sit-Down Comedy, which a new Random House editor had been thinking about. It was published in 2003 and was recently brought out in Kindle and iBook editions.
Rule One of writing books: never stop publicising them.
Mark Fisher’s book came about in much the same way. It was not his idea. He got an email from Anna Brewer at Methuen Drama. She did not know him, but she had come across his theatreSCOTLAND website and she asked him if he would like to comment on a book idea she was developing: how to put on a show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“She had lots of good ideas,” Mark tells me, “but she couldn’t decide how it should be written – whether it should be a Fringe Office insider or lots of people writing different bits or someone else entirely. My reply was: Not only do I think there should be a single author, but I think it should be me. That got me the gig. Brass neck. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
And, pursuing the importance of publicising your book, Mark is now thinking about staging his own Fringe shows this August: “I’d like to do a series of chat shows that cover the same territory as the book, so I’d have different sessions with producers, publicists, critics, actors, stand-ups and so on. I’m in discussion with one of the big venues about it.”
Chat shows seem to have multiplied at the Fringe in the last few years – I even did four evenings myself last year, but surely only comedy really sells at the Fringe nowadays?
“Well,” says Mark, “you see some extremely inventive examples of comedy at the Fringe, so I’m not inclined to complain that it’s doing well. Even though I earn a good chunk of my income as a theatre critic, I find it hard to despair about the rise of comedy as some people do. However big comedy is, there are still 80 pages of Theatre listed in the Fringe Programme – and that doesn’t include categories such as Dance and Physical Theatre. Does anyone really think 80 pages of Theatre is too little?
“One reason comedy has proliferated on the Fringe, however, is that it’s the cheapest type of performance you can do: one comic, one microphone, one spotlight and you’re away. For the same reason, you see a large number of one-person plays on the Fringe. Many of these are very good, but often you feel artists are limiting their imaginations because of the budget. Comedy is not to blame for this, but its proliferation is a symptom of the same financial pressure that affects theatre.”
But, I suggest to him, surely the Free Fringe(s) are now the true spirit of the Fringe and the paid-venue Fringe tends to rip-off performers? It is a point I’ve made in several blogs. Mark disagrees.
“It is hard to argue that paid venues are ripping artists off,” he tells me. “On the whole, the venue managers are in it because they like the art and what they charge for are the professional facilities that you don’t necessarily get in the free festivals. Most of them tell you that they’re lucky to break even themselves.
“I love the way the Fringe always seems to balance itself,” he continues. “So just as one end of the market appeared to be getting ever-more commercial, with major TV names playing to big audiences… up popped the PBH Free Fringe, the Laughing Horse Free Festival and the Forest Fringe to make more room for artists at the other end of the scale. So, yes, in one sense it does feel like that is the true spirit of the Fringe. But, in reality, the Fringe has always been a mix of the amateur and the professional, the new and the established, and you could argue that the spirit of the Fringe is actually in its diversity. Anything that keeps that diversity as broad as possible is good.”
So who, I ask him, was the best act he ever saw who never got famous by performing at the Fringe?
“I suppose the Doug Anthony Allstars did get famous,” he says, “but nobody seems to remember them now and I had some of my best Fringe experiences in their company. I remember following them out of the theatre into the women’s toilets of Teviot Row House (now the Gilded Balloon) where they crawled over the cubicles and sang Christian songs. Then there was the time we ended up round a bonfire at the back of the Pleasance and the audience started voluntarily throwing their credit cards into the flames – I think even the Doug Anthony Allstars were surprised by that one.”
Mark Fisher knows his Fringe from the inside out and the outside in. And, with quoted advice from comic Phil Nichol, actress Siobhan Redmond, actor/director Guy Masterson et al, his Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide may even tell you, as claimed, How To Make Your Show a Success.
Yesterday evening, I was having a drink with Italian-born stand-up comic Giacinto Palmieri. By bizarre coincidence, this book came up in conversation. He had a copy of it in his bag; he had bought it from Amazon; it had arrived the day before – two days before publication – and he was already well into reading it.
“There is so much love about Edinburgh in the book,” he enthused. “It really tries to convey the idea of how mad and intense and crazy the Fringe is. So much good advice and full of interviews with people who brought shows there. One of the very first sentences is from somebody (playwright and director John Clancy) who says of the Edinburgh Fringe It’s like sex, it’s like having children; there’s no way to explain it to anybody.”
So Mark Fisher had a bit of a challenge writing the book, then.
But he seems to have succeeded.
Where the Edinburgh Fringe is involved, anything is possible.