Let’s be honest. We’re silly, silly people.
We spend our Summers travelling to strange towns on our own dime, only to plaster the city with images of our desperate, pandering smiles, and then beg strangers to come and see our new work.
All because our families didn’t adequately love us and we can’t afford therapy. Right, every single Fringe artist? Right guys? Just me?
It’s almost that time again. As the temperatures rise this Spring, so too does our collective excitement, anxiety and dread.
But before we set out Fringing this summer and pack our overweight suitcases with our packing tape, handbills and curl-defining shampoos and conditioners, here are some helpful tips for how to survive out there:
- Bring good shoes. No. Bring GREAT shoes. I’m talking arch support. I’m talking shoes that have ventilation. You’re going to be on your feet all day every day. You’re going to walk to the Fringe Office to check your sales. Then wander over to the tent to handbill patrons for a few hours. Then you’re going to hike over to the vegan burger place. Then, unless you’re Spalding Gray, you’re going to do your show on your feet. After that, you’re going to go see the clown show at the venue that’s in the middle of Goddamn nowhere. Then you’re going to dance the night away. It’s going to be fucking hot. You don’t want to be walking around with damp socks all the time. Remember what Lieutenant Dan told Forrest Gump. “There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks. I want you boys to remember to change your socks whenever we stop.” There exists a photo on my iPhone of a Fringer’s feet after a summer of walking around in damp socks, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
- Fuck reviews. Don’t talk about them to other artists. Don’t worry about them in general. Some of the best shows I’ve seen in my life got 1-star reviews, and I’ve seen complete bags-o-dicks get 5-stars across the board. Even myself, by saying the same words in the same order with the same cadence in the same costume, I’ve received 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews for the exact same show – sometimes on the same night. Don’t get me wrong, good reviews are tremendously helpful. Bad reviews are tremendously detrimental. But it’s a crap shoot. Some of the most talented theatrical reviewers in the country will see your work, and some of the biggest troll hack douchebags alive will see your work. They’ll even sometimes work for the same publication. Some reviewers will worship you. Some simply won’t “get” what you’re doing. But don’t let the star-giving system be the currency by which you measure your art.
- Don’t talk about money. If you like making money and talking about money, you’re in the EXACT WRONG line of work. No one is buying houses or cars or retiring off of their Fringe dollars. We can do okay – as in we can afford to buy name-brand cereal during certain months of the year. But we certainly aren’t making enough where we should be flaunting it. Making money by performing our art is an incredible feeling. A rare feeling in this field of work, to be honest. But don’t fool yourself. We’re poor and we have been given the opportunity to do what we love. That’s enough.
- Take care of yourself out there. Good Lord, take care of yourselves out there. We eat takeout three times a day. We drink every night. We stay up late and are nudged awake by our billet’s dog at the crack of dawn. But I’m tellin’ ya. You got to take care of yourself out there. Eat salads. Buy fresh fruit and snacks. Stay hydrated. Get your eight hours of sleep. Go drop in at the YMCA on your dark day. Keep an eye on your caffeine intake. Drink some tea and take a vow of silence to let your vocal chords regenerate. It’s so important to check in with your body and to give it what it needs. Take care of yourself, and your shows will be better, I promise.
- Help a brother out. Sometimes you’ll be handbilling and someone will already have a ticket to a show at the same time as yours later that night. Lost cause. Time to move on, right? Wrong! Because they have time to see a show RIGHT NOW. You snatch that program from their hands, and you see who’s got a show right now. Find out what they’re looking for. Recommend other shows to them. Find something that they’d like. Because if you send them off to have a positive experience, they’ll regard you as the Guru of Positive Experiences. Another scenario: One of your friends has a shit time slot in a shit venue and is trying to get bums in seats in the hour leading up to their show? Help a brother out. Take a stack of handbills from them and distribute those things. Because y’know why? Next week, you could be the one up against the bad review and bad timeslot and you’re going to need to get by with a little help from your friends. As the great Red Green once said, “We’re all in this together.”
- Get away from it all. Get away from the Festival. You’re a tourist, for God’s sakes! Go see things that have nothing whatsoever to do with independent theatre. Go watch a baseball game. Go get sunburned at a water park. Go figure out what the hell a Tam Tams is. Take pictures. Read books under trees. Go watch a 3-D movie or drink a pitcher in a sports bar. Theatre Festivals might be the closest thing we have to heaven on earth, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Go recharge.
- Put on the green eyeshade (those visors accountants wore in the 19th Century) As I’m sure most of you are well aware this month, tax season is a son of a bitch. Do yourselves a favour and be vigilant while you’re out there. When you’re packing your bags for your tour DO NOT forget to bring a folder for your receipts and a ledger to help you stay on top of your accounting. You’re ultimately a business person on a business trip. Get a receipt for every single purchase you make. It’s free money, guys. We NEED free money.
- Don’t get your ass unfollowed. Twitter has become such a useful tool for the travelling artist. You are going to gain a lot of followers on your tour. But! Don’t be the worst. In other words, don’t have 20 tweets a day plugging your PWYC show in the seniors’ centre in Saskatoon. Because it will annoy the hell out of the followers you just worked so hard to obtain in Winnipeg and they’ll unfollow you. Don’t ONLY plug your show. Keep sharing all your hilarious little witticisms. Keep sharing your Instagram pictures of waffles and your selfies with reluctant Kids in the Hall members. Keep your feed diverse, and you’ll get to keep all your new fans in Winnipeg for next year’s tour.
- Hootsuite. In the same social networky vein: Download the Hootsuite app. Start an account. Watch a YouTube tutorial on how to use Hootsuite. Thank me later.
- Take care of those who take care of you. Write cards and buy gifts for your billets and tech people. Every time. Even if they were the worst people you’ve ever met. They helped you realize your vision, and they asked for nothing in return. You’re lucky that they exist, and you need to tell them that.
- Accept compliments. This is very difficult. Some nights, you’re going to walk offstage and hate what you just did. You had an off night, and you just want to beeline for the beer tent. Then you’re going to come into the lobby and someone is going to corner you and tell you how brilliant you were – even though you’re positive that you weren’t. Look them in the eyes, and take in what they’re saying to you. Really be open to it. Store it away like you’re a squirrel and the compliment is a nut, because before you know it, you’re going to be sitting in your sad-ass apartment during a blizzard in February – and you’re going to need that nut.
- Be visible. Go to the cabaret when you’d rather not. Go see the show that you heard was a trainwreck. Go take the workshop offered by a fellow Fringe performer. Volunteer in the Fringe tent and ask if the administrators need help with anything. Be the artist that you want to see in the world.
- Don’t shit on anything ever. Saw the worst show ever? Hate someone’s poster? Think one of the reviewers is the spawn of Satan? Think that show is overrated? Think your tech person isn’t the sharpest sandwich in the tree? Shhh. It’s a secret. Shut up. Shutting up is the best. Keep it positive.
- Make a new playlist every city. I think it was the great TJ Dawe who told me to do this: Listen to new albums at each Festival you do. This is a great way of journalling your experiences. When I listen to Fun, I think of Montreal 2012. When I listen to Wu Tang, I think of Winnipeg 2013. Edward Sharpe was Calgary 2012. When I put on these albums now, I smell the smells, I see the people, I remember the things I did and the places I went. Feed that nostalgia train.
- Have a routine. It’s difficult to remain disciplined out there. To approach show 26 with the same professionalism as show number 3. You need to prepare for every show like it matters because you know what? It does matter. Be focussed and professional every single time because you never know who might be in the audience that night.
- Make your work better. Challenge yourself to make your work better every show. Is that joke not landing most of the time? Punch it up. Do you dread that awkward transition every night? Fix it. All the strongest performers I know are those who never treat their work as a finished product. The best writers and performers are always striving to improve their shows.
Speaking of “the best writers and performers”, I reached out to some of my favourite Fringe veterans asking if they had any wisdom to pass on. Here’s what they said:
Buy travel medical insurance. I hate insurance, I really do. But if you’re traveling outside of your province or state or country to do the Fringe and you’re not covered – buy it. It’s not too expensive. Injuries are rare, of course, but I’ve seen them happen to artists both with and without insurance. Sucks to be the latter.
Pack a lunch. Our largest expense on the circuit is food. Being on the road means that you’ll eat out way more often than you do at home, which gets really expensive. But if you buy a few groceries and pack a sandwich now and then, you’ll save quite a bit.
Don’t assume you’ll make money. You hope to make money, of course, but if you count on it and end up in the red, you’ll have a pretty miserable time of it. Know for yourself what the implications of all the possible financial outcomes are for you, and be ready for any of them.
I use the Xpense Tracker app for my books and it’s really great. It allows you to take pictures of your receipts and produces spreadsheets of deductions and income while showing you a running tally the whole time.
Branding. I’ve never seen good branding save a bad show but I’ve seen bad branding sink good ones and it’s a damn shame. Good press material gives you a huge leg up. We are competing to a degree for butts in seats and if you hand over a flyer that looks janky because you didn’t spend the money on good pics or print quality you will not look good to potential patrons. In short, every time a potential media outlet or ticket buyer looks at your pics, videos, website, etc. they assess your professionalism first and what you actually do second. Your media kit basically says, “This is how serious I take my work. You should take it just as serious.”
Ensure you have an opening night audience. Giving away comps to your first one to two shows is imperative to build from, unless you have a huge name already. Then it’s all gravy. I approach local libraries (except in Winnipeg where government employees can’t receive anything in the form of sponsorship, which seems pretty mean-spirited to me, but hey ho), businesses in the area and local charities. You get a huge drop off in those who say they’ll come and those that actually do but any bums on seats are worth it. I also have issued signed flyers people can swap for tickets as long as you have someone on the door with a pile of comps as the volunteers can’t do this generally, but you never need to pull all the ones you have RSVP’s for as people drop off. There’s also the giving away one comp to a couple so they essentially get half price tickets. I hear stories of people saying they only had 10 people at their opening and I think it’s a waste. You have gone to the effort of making a show, promote it.
Same goes for publicity, you need to do publicity even if you’ve been making the show right up until the date. Also never accept no answer for an answer from media, keep emailing until you get an answer regardless of what it is. I emailed The Free Press maybe 5 or 6 times before I got an article.
Reviews are merely promotional tools. You hold on to the good ones for eternity, using quotations for your posters, and the bad ones you let go forevermore. As soon as that particular festival is finished, no one (besides your ego) will ever care about the bad ones again. About half-way through a festival, your show’s fate is sealed for better or worse. Accept it. Stop flyering. Enjoy yourself.
Don’t talk about ticket sales. Compulsively checking your ticket sales and then comparing them to everyone else’s steals all the fun for you and everyone around you. It makes people slip into a competitive slump. In a way, I can see how people might see things as if we are competing for the same audience. However, you should just focus on your work. Do great work and word will get out. Compete with yourself to do the best you can and then do better.
Observe and ask the Pros. Fringe is an indie-theatre boot camp loaded with pros. There are performers who tour year round. There are shows that routinely have packed houses. There are shows that have been performed literally over 250 times. Ask yourself how they do it, then go and ask them directly. They’re right over there. Like, 10 feet away with a beer in their hand and ready to feel smart. Also, if you see a genius idea (marketing, interesting show techniques), consider how you might incorporate it into your approach.
Don’t expect to complete other artistic projects. You might have an idea for a whole other show. And you might write it while touring. You might learn to play the mandolin. You might brush up on your Spanish. But don’t flagellate yourself if you don’t. The tour is a leviathan. It’s not one of four things you’re juggling. The show you’re touring is the great big thing to give your time and energy and attention to.
Meditate. A tiny bit each day. Not easy to keep to, I know. I use an app: Insight Timer. Comes with 80 guided meditations. I put on my headphones and listen to someone telling me to focus on my breath and try to calm my monkey mind for five or ten minutes every morning. It helps you handle whatever happens in a day. It’s like taking an emotional multi-vitamin.
When you’re handing out flyers to people – say something different to each person. Don’t just throw a standard line at them. Have a real exchange. If you’re genuine and interesting – and they hear you being genuine and interesting with the person after them in the line – that goes a long way to convincing them to spend an hour with you in a darkened room.
Send critics press releases that they can open on mobile devices. Two huge critics have given me this advice.
Be choosy about whether or not to be a part of Fringe preview shows. Those ones where people do one to three minutes of their show, out of context. Not every show works in those settings. They’re campfires. Would the thing you’re doing work at a campfire? A song, a set of jokes, an acrobatic act – you bet. A dramatic monologue, a comic monologue, a story, a scene from a play – probably not. It’s better not to do one of those than do it and leave people with a bad impression. Not every promotional opportunity has to be taken. Same with super-early TV or radio interviews. Do you really want to be bleary-eyed and barely coherent on the air, and fuck up your sleep for a day or two?
Be interesting and funny with your curtain call speech. Don’t just name a list of shows to go see. If you really want people to see a given show – tell them why. And say so in an intriguing and funny way. And for fuck’s sakes, enough with the “and if you didn’t like it, tell your enemies” line, or any variation thereof.
I originally posted this blog in early 2015 before my 11-city Fringe tour, and a few months later I found myself in Orlando (first stop of the summer) having a beer with Fringe legend Jem Rolls (alumnus of 100+ Fringe Festivals). He told me, “I read that blog post you were sharing on Facebook.”
And I said, “Oh yeah? What did you think?”
“I thought it was a bit too optimistic and positive.”
I laughed, and I decided that when I republished this post this year, I would give the final word to Jem. Here’s what he said:
“i would DOUBLE STRESS that you should keep working on the show
and that… it is not a competition. you are not in a battle with your fellow performers. in fact the best way to look at it is… you want everyone to win… they can’t of course but it’s the best way to see it.
but all this has been said by others so i don’t think you need to add anything from me
it is kinda overly uppish… [it’s canadian]… you could write … THERE ARE GONNA BE A WHOLE BUNCH OF VERY TOUGH DAYS, YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED TO GET SO KNOCKED DOWN YOU WON’T KNOW HOW YOU CAN EVER GET UP… but does that really need saying?”