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.

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