Feeling the Pull of the Fringe Magnet

I’m taking my first full-length spoken word show to the Edinburgh Fringe in August (see Forthcoming Events page for details) and I’m going to try to blog about how it’s going, starting from now, when I’m about a month into full-time, serious preparation.

In many senses, my expectations are modest. I know, for instance, that I’m not going to make any money. Edinburgh is always just a very expensive holiday. I’m going with PBH’s Free Fringe, an organisation which doesn’t charge for venue hire, but also doesn’t charge audiences to watch (although a bucket is passed round at the end, so they can pay you if they want to). While this eliminates the single biggest cost of taking a show to the paid Fringe (if you’re paying for venue hire, you can be looking at anything between £300 and £2000 a week), all the other costs involved (accommodation, travel, printing flyers, housesitting/petsitting while you’re away) can tally up to an amount that would buy you a pretty decent Caribbean cruise. I know there’s not going to be enough in that bucket to break even. I’m accepting that the money I’ve laid out has gone down the toilet. Anything I get back will be an unexpected bonus.

I’m also not expecting full houses. Last time I took a theatre show to the paid Fringe, we got an average of about 10 audience members per performance. For a small company, with no famous names in the cast and no big team of flyerers to publicise it, I thought this was pretty decent. I was expecting the free Fringe to draw bigger audiences than that (after all, you don’t even need to persuade the punters to part with any cash. How hard can it be?), but friends who’ve been with the free Fringe have reported audiences you could easily fit into a Ford Fiesta. With their luggage. And their pets. So I’m expecting audiences you can count on the fingers of one hand. If you’re Captain Hook.

Nor am I going expecting to be Discovered. You hear about artists having an A-Star-Is-Born, career-changing, overnight success story at the Fringe, but mostly these tales are lies or exaggerations and most of the true stories happened decades ago, when Fringe was a very different beast.

So, why am I going? Primarily, because I want to try my hand at the one-hour show, as opposed to the 20-minute set, with a view to pitching a show to theatres in 2019, and this is a trial run, to see how far off the pace I am right now. Also, I want to show my work to a wider audience of public and fellow spoken word artists, get my voice heard and the things I have to say off my chest, and maybe get my name and my words a little more widely known, so that if, in two years’ time, a promoter gets asked, “Have you thought about booking Melanie Branton?” they might not say, “Who?”

And, of course, at root, I want what 99% of performers want, whether they admit it or not: I want to be loved. I want audiences to give me enough approval and applause and nice comments afterwards to make up for a lifetime of disappointments and rejections and not being good enough.

I’m both excited and terrified. I desperately want to get press in, because I know from my experience of taking theatre shows to the Fringe that a good review can quadruple your audiences and give you something to use on your publicity forever after, but I’m scared of getting a bad or (even worse) a mediocre review and what that will do to my reputation on the spoken word circuit and to my sense of myself as a performer and as a human being. So scared that part of me wishes I hadn’t sent out press releases and wants to ask for them back.

Even more scared that other spoken word artists and promoters will think I’m shit, or just a reasonably competent amateur, while they’ll be having serious professional conversations with everybody else from my local spoken word scene. At this point, the persona in my head which drives me mad, telling me on a continuous loop in my mother’s voice, “You’ll never amount to anything much”, “Don’t aspire to anything, because you’re bound to be disappointed – nice things never happen to people like you”, is reading this over my shoulder and nodding sagely.

Totally slambolic

Officially, I’m Not Doing Slams Anymore. I made a decision, about a year ago, that I’m Beyond That Now and that I was going to concentrate on getting more 20-minute sets and developing one-hour shows. The high-impact, three-minute attention grab was no longer for me.

Which is odd, because I’ve ended up doing more slams in my first year of Not Doing Slams Anymore than I did in my last year of Still Doing Them. One of these was an accident – I turned up as audience and they were a slammer short, so I agreed to make up the numbers – but the rest I can only ascribe to my penchant for volunteering for mad shit when I’ve had a few drinks.

It’s hard to keep away, because I LOVE slams. Yes, I know all about their shortcomings (the scorecreep, the tendency for judges to penalise material which is subtle or which provokes or challenges the audience in any way, the danger of being viewed as an eternal amateur if slams remain your principal focus), but I’m basically the most competitive person in the whole world and when those scorecards flip over and there’s a 10 on them, I feel like Nadia Comaneci competing in the 1976 Olympics. I have always been epically crap at sport. My PE teachers had to entirely redefine the parameters of what “being crap at sport” meant when they met me, because I was ten times crapper at sport than the crappest student they’d ever taught previously. I never learnt to swim properly. I never learnt to ride a bike, at all. I couldn’t do a handstand or a cartwheel. It was only in about Year 9 that I finally managed to do a forward roll. My body just didn’t do what I told it to. Poetry slams are the closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it feels like to be good at PE.

When I first started doing them, in my naivety (but I suspect I’m not alone in this), I assumed that slams were the spoken word equivalent of the Civil Service Entrance Exams: that you couldn’t have a career in that field if you didn’t do well in them and if you did very well indeed in them, you were guaranteed a fast-track career trajectory. There then followed an agonising couple of years, during which I won almost all the slams I entered, but still couldn’t get booked for a 20-minute set anywhere, while all the people I’d beaten were being given feature slots all over the place, and I realised I was wrong. Fact is, some of the best poets I know are rubbish slammers and how you do in slams is pretty much irrelevant to anything, at all (unless, possibly, if you win the Roundhouse or the Hammer and Tongue National Final). I know people who have managed to use regional slam wins as a springboard to success, but it has generally been in combination with a ruthlessly efficient promotional campaign and world-class networking skills.

That’s not to say I haven’t done well out of slams. They can be a great way to get your work seen. I have recently been offered two fantastic opportunities by people who saw me compete in a slam and were impressed enough to want to book me. The thing is, though, it didn’t happen in a hurry – one of them had seen me in a slam a year previously, the other one had seen me in a slam THREE years previously. And in neither case had I actually won the slam. I’ve got no complaints.

I do think there’s a lot of double-think around slams, though. Yes, yes, we all know “it’s not about the winning, it’s about the poetry”, “the best poet never wins” and every other saccharine cliché that is trotted out by the hosts on a regular basis. But if it really all is totally arbitrary and a bit of meaningless fun, why do some slams offer big performance opportunities as prizes? And why do poets regularly describe themselves as multi-slam-winning in their biogs? Either it means something, or it doesn’t.

Many spoken word nights and literary festivals want to include a slam because they get bums on seats – they are popular with audiences and they attract a lot of wannabe performers, most of whom bring a vast entourage of friends and family along to support them.  Organisers usually do very well out of it. In return, though, I think they owe it to entrants (especially ones who are new to spoken word, naïve and/or impressionable and who may have unrealistic expectations) to give them an honest idea of what, if anything, a win will lead to, and, possibly, also help and advice on what they can do next to move forward in spoken word, beyond slams.