A Comedian’s Guide to Doing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is happening August 3rd through the 27th in 2018, is the largest performing arts festival in the world. Every year, thousands of performers go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to showcase their work, build a UK following, make valuable connections, sell their shows to producers, and seek out local and worldwide representation. In 2017, the festival lasted 25 days and showcased 52,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 different venues. Let that sink in.
Though it seems overwhelming, if you’re a comedian, it is an incredible opportunity and a rite of passage to hone your craft and push your career forward.
How the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will affect your career
In the best-case scenario, you’ll go and get a manager and agent, sell your show to theaters around the globe, get positive reviews, and figure out a way to sustain your career. Many American comedians come back to the US from Edinburgh and have exponentially better careers.
Many comedians, however, go and fall flat on their faces. They get completely wiped out by the demanding performance schedule, don’t meet any powerful people who can help them out, go into massive debt, and come back to the US completely drained and pessimistic about their career trajectories.
If you’re a healthy person, you’ll probably feel a mix of both the highs and lows. Even if you have a huge career or the Edinburgh Festival Fringe sets you up for success, you’ll still get worn out and need a few weeks after the festival to relax and recover.
Doing your first Edinburgh Festival Fringe
2017 marked the first time that my husband, comedian Danny Lobell, and I went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I’m his loving wife, manager, and support system, and we learned together just how crazy, fun, exciting, angering, frustrating, sad, and amazing the Fringe can be. Like everyone there said, you cannot truly know what it is like until you do it. It is madness.
Our typical day looked like this:
- 11:00am – 12:00pm: Wake up
- 12:00pm – 1:00pm: Eat, shower, and take the bus or an Uber into town with hundreds of show flyers in our backpacks
- 1:30pm – 3:55pm: Hand off flyers to our street team of two young college kids. Danny would stand outside the venue with flyers and try to get people passing by to get tickets to the show. I would send emails to people whose business cards we collected.
- 4:00pm – 5:00pm: Danny would do the show, and I would do the tech
- 5:00pm – 7:00pm: Get an after-show coffee and get a late, late lunch
- 7:00pm – 10:00pm: See shows, and send off more emails
- 10:30pm – 3:00am: Danny would perform on other people’s shows and then we’d go to the industry hangouts, meet people, collect contact information, get a late night bite to eat
- 4:00am: Collapse in bed
We did this for a month straight. Danny did 30 shows total while he was there – 19 of his solo show and 11 different standup shows. While it’s impossible to mentally prepare yourself, you can logistically make sure you do everything right when applying for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There are many mistakes we made along the way, and lots that we did right our first time around.
I’m here to share what I learned, and help you succeed at the festival in 2018 and beyond.
1. Do your research
You’re reading this handy dandy festival guide. Fantastic. You’re already doing the necessary research.
Next, go to EdFringe.com, read about the history of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and visit the “Take Part” section of their website. There are a number of guides you can read on how to put on a show.
For more information, simply google “Edinburgh Festival Fringe” and tons of content will pop up.
2. Decide on a show concept
Some comedians choose to do one hour of straight standup, while others make their shows more theatrical. Decide what your show is going to be. The shows that do the best will bring out a mix of emotions from the audience and have a purpose. They will also have a theme. Danny’s show, Broke as a Joke, was all about hilarious things he’s done for money, like breeding hairless cats for rich people and selling Jackie Mason’s audio cassette tapes on Broadway. Alex Edelman won the Best Newcomer award in Edinburgh for his show Millennial, which was about exactly what the title suggests. Natalie Palamides’s Laid, in which she laid an egg every day and had to decide whether to eat it or raise it, dealt with motherhood and womanhood, as well as coming-of-age.
The UK audience likes a show with a little more meaning than your typical Netflix standup special. Find a trusted friend or professional director who can help you find your theme and purpose. Once you figure out your show concept, write and perform it for a few months, or at least perform a snippet of it. You’ll need to record a clip to send along with your Edinburgh Festival Fringe application.
3. Reach out to producers
Before you apply, or during the application process, you should get in touch with comedy production companies like Off the Kerb Productions and GetComedy. Look at what companies produced comedy shows in the past that are similar to yours and ask if they want to work with you.
These production companies will either foot the bill to send you out there or you will pay them to help you find the best graphic designer, street team, venue, etc. It’s helpful to connect with them, and they can offer you valuable advice.
4. Apply early to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Applications for the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe open up on January 8th, 2018. You want to apply as early as possible so that you have your pick of venues. You’ll have to apply to each venue individually and send them your information and a tape of a part of your show.
5. Apply to venues
The best venues are the Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms, and the Underbelly. However, they will cost you a lot of money, as in thousands and thousands of pounds. If you don’t have a production company behind you or tons of money saved up, they are not going to be the wisest options.
The advantage of springing for these rooms, if you get in, is that they carry a lot of prestige. It’s going to be easier to get producers and the press to come and see you. Audiences will be more likely to trust that it is a great show if it’s in a highly regarded venue.
Bonus tip: Apply for a time slot where you’ll get an audience that will like your show. If you do it super late, past 10:00pm, you’ll get a drunk crowd. They’ll laugh a lot but might want dirty jokes and have less of an attention span. If your show is geared towards families and kids, do it earlier in the day.
The sweet spot is between 6:00 to 9:00pm. You should get a room you can realistically fill at your ticket price. For example, Danny and I decided to go for a nine-pound ticket price, and we ran two-for-one specials many days for our walkup customers. Our room sat 30 people. On a good day, we got 10 to 20 people. #loweryourexpectations
Also, make sure your room doesn’t have bleed-through noise. You don’t want your show being ruined by a loud party next door.
6. Apply to the free Fringe festivals
If you’re new to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and/or just starting out in your career, you may want to go for the free options instead.
There is The Free Edinburgh Fringe Festival and PBH’s Free Fringe. Instead of paying thousands of pounds, you will pay less than 100 pounds in some cases, or just a few hundred pounds for your venue. You cannot charge your audiences, but you can raise money at the end of your show by asking attendees to contribute to your “bucket.”
Yes, this is an actual bucket, and you will need a great “bucket speech” to get that money. After your show ends, prepare a speech that goes something like, “If you enjoyed my show, please contribute a few pounds to my bucket. I’m here all on my own, and I’d appreciate your support.”
You’ll refine the speech once you get there to see what works. You may even have to guilt the audience a little bit. Some Free Fringe performers will make a few hundred pounds per show if they have a great bucket pitch.
7. Start saving money
Edinburgh is incredibly expensive. And the dollar is always weaker than the pound.
You can survive on cheap deep fried haggis balls and Indian food, but you’ll probably feel sick after every meal. I know that during the month, I ate way too many french fries (because they are incredible in the UK) and ended up feeling bloated.
A healthy and cheap alternative to all that fried food is Indian buffets. There are plenty around Edinburgh during lunchtime and you’ll only end up paying $10 for a decent meal. I recommend Kalpna. You can also go to the grocery stores like Marks & Spencer and Tesco and get takeout there.
And because Edinburgh is so demanding, you’ll need to stay healthy. Save up what you can from every paycheck, because you will need it.
You can do Edinburgh on the cheap, or you can make it an incredibly expensive endeavor. Here is a rough guide to all the costs there might be:
- Room and board: This is a big chunk of change. For a one-bedroom apartment in Edinburgh, you could spend $3,000 for the month in a nice part of town. If you’re just renting a room, it could be around $1,000. Many comedians will share rooms to lower costs.
- Food: If you’re not cooking, on the cheap, you could get by with spending $30 a day. But then you’ll be eating a lot of meat pies from Greggs and might feel a little gross.
- Transportation: This depends on how far your apartment is from your venue. Edinburgh is very walkable, so you could just get around by foot. The bus is cheap. I don’t remember spending more than $2 each way. Ubers are going to be very pricey because of surging. Uber is constantly surging during the festival, so try to avoid it.
- Registration: Last year, it cost us about 400 pounds to register for the festival. When you register, you also get a listing in the official Fringe program.
- Flights: Flights from Los Angeles cost us $1,200 roundtrip for one ticket, and we got them three months out. Don’t wait to buy your tickets.
- Publicist: A publicist will help you get reviewers in the door, so this is a necessary cost if you want those reviews. Publicists range, but typically, they will cost $2,000.
- Advertising: Advertising is not a necessity, but it can help you stand out. Prices greatly vary. To buy an outdoor ad, it usually starts at a few hundred dollars and goes up to a few thousand. You can get away with a cheaper ad in your venue’s booklet.
- A street team: To get people to come into your show, you need to hire one or two people to flyer for you. It cost us about $800 to do this for the month.
- A tech person: If your venue doesn’t provide a tech person, you need to hire one. You will have to work it out with the individual, but there are tons of people searching for tech jobs on Facebook before and during the Fringe. It shouldn’t be hard to find someone who is affordable.
- A graphic designer: You can design your flyer yourself, but it has to look awesome. It must stand out. It’s smart to hire a really great graphic designer to do it for you. We spent $500 on our graphic designer, plus a few hundred more to have her format the flyer for our ad, roll-up poster, etc.
- Printing your flyers: You will need to print thousands of flyers to hand out to people on the street. We spent a few hundred dollars on 5,000 flyers for the month.
- A venue: A venue is either 90 pounds for the month for the Free Fringe, or it can go up to several thousand dollars for the month if you’re in a bigger venue. Remember: If you’re not established in the UK, don’t waste all your money on the venue.
Our grand total for 2017 was just under $15,000. But next year, we will definitely do it cheaper. If you budget for it and prepare, you can save a lot of money.
8. Fundraise for your show
Aside from saving money on your own, it’s a good idea to start a fundraiser for your Fringe run.
To figure out how much you must raise, look at the costs mentioned above and calculate your budget. Of course, lots of other things can also come up while you’re there.
Kickstarter is a great option if you are comfortable calling up everyone you know and asking him or her to donate. It’s a little more legit than the other fundraising platforms, and the time constraint will push you (and your friends) to raise the money.
We did GoFundMe, because we didn’t like that high-pressure situation. We ended up raising a good amount on there from our family and friends and it helped us pay for advertising costs.
9. Connect with friends who have done the Festival
If you haven’t already, go to your friends for advice. When we were going through the process, we reached out to the amazingly talented Liz Miele for tips like which venues were the best and who the good publicists were. Without her help, we wouldn’t have known what to do.
If you aren’t sure who among your friends did the festival, just google “American comedians, Edinburgh Festival Fringe” and tons will pop up.
10. Join Festival Facebook groups
There are a number of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Facebook groups out there that will also offer you advice and help you through the tough times. For example, you can join Edinburgh Fringe Performers Forum and USA to Edinburgh Fringe.
Just a warning: You will get overloaded with group notifications once the Fringe begins, so you may want to silence them if you’re already feeling overwhelmed.
11. Run your show
At this point, you’ve applied, chosen a venue, networked, and connected with valuable contacts. Now you need to run and refine your show.
Find a local Fringe happening near you, for example, the Hollywood Fringe, and sign up for a space. You could also rent out a local theater and do your show there. Remember to sprinkle your bits into your standup act as well.
Then, invite your friends. Record your shows. Get feedback from your representation and your audiences. Keep running and running and running it some more until it’s just how you want it. But also, be flexible. It’s going to change in Edinburgh, too.
12. Find accommodations
You should be seeking out Edinburgh accommodations in late winter or early spring. You can either go for your own place, which can cost upwards of $3,000 for the month, or rent a space with friends.
Make sure you are close to where the festival is taking place. We were about three miles from our venue, which cost $13 each way in an Uber, because Uber jacked up their prices during the festival. The bus is only a few dollars, but can be very slow.
You may save on accommodations by living farther away, but you’re going to spend that saved money on travel. Plus, if you’re out until 4:00am every night, you want to get home as quickly as possible and be able to hop right out of bed in the morning and get to your venue.
13. Hire a graphic designer
You need to have an amazing poster and flyer that’ll stand out to audiences. It needs to demonstrate what your show is about and be colorful. Make sure you list your credits on there, too.
If you’ve done Edinburgh before, you need to put your “stars” you’ve received in the past (if you’re a newbie, you’ll learn all about the “stars” deeper into this guide).
If you’re not a Photoshop pro, don’t do it on your own. You need to demonstrate that you’ve invested in your show. Otherwise your audiences won’t care to invest in you.
14. Buy advertising only if you can afford it
The biggest shows in Edinburgh have advertising all over town. If you can afford it, you’re going to need to spend thousands to get your ad everywhere.
You cannot go and stick your poster just anywhere. It’s either illegal or a waste of time. If you do that where it’s allowed, it’s just going to get covered up anyway… probably within 20 minutes.
Danny and I bought an ad in the official Edinburgh Festival Fringe booklet, one in our venue’s booklet, a huge outdoor billboard, and one big poster spot at a park. You know what it did?
Nothing. It was all for vanity purposes in the end. So don’t worry about it unless, of course, you have a lot to spend on ads.
15. Hire a publicist
If you want to get an audience, prove your worth to producers, and have a chance at succeeding in Edinburgh year after year, you need reviews.
The big media outlets that need to review you are Three Weeks, The Scotsman, The Wee Review, Broadway Baby, The Telegraph, Chortle, Ed Fest Mag, The List, and The Skinny.
The official Edinburgh Festival Fringe media office provides a list of publicists who can get you reviewers in the door, but be warned: Not all of them are great.
We learned this only after we spent nearly $1,000 on a publicist. She did nothing of value. She was a scam artist, and there are a lot of them at the festival. It set us back big time, since a publicist is what you need to truly get recognized at the Fringe, aside from your talent of course.
Ask your friends and the media office which publicists have good reputations. And reach out to them early, as in right after you secure your venue.
The way reviews work in the UK is that you will receive a “star” rating for your show. Audiences will go to shows with four or five star reviews.
Once the reviews start coming in, print out papers containing the four or five “star” rating with reviewer’s quotes, cut them out, and staple them to your flyers. That’ll help get audiences in the door.
16. Hire a street team
Your show will not get any people in the door without a street team. You need two energetic people to go up to people in high foot traffic areas, hand out your flyers, and enthusiastically promote your show.
You need your street team to see your show opening day or as soon as possible so they know how to pitch it. And remember to treat them well. Buy them water and even snacks if you can afford it.
You can find a street team with the help of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe office. After you’ve registered, sometimes the street teams will come to you and pitch themselves. Just make sure that they’re actually doing their jobs.
17. Reach out to comedy show bookers
When you’re at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, you want to get as much stage time as possible. Thankfully, there are tons of other comedy shows going on every night that feature booked lineups.
Reach out to the people you know and see if they can help you get on shows. Otherwise, attend these shows and see if you can network your way into a booking. Late ‘n’ Live and Set List are two of the biggest booked shows at the fest.
18. Apply for awards
Various organizations give out awards for the different categories during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. If you win an award, you can garner prestige and perhaps a booking in another country and/or a cash prize.
The comedy awards have differing requirements and application procedures. In June and July, you should start applying for these coveted awards. Then, if the organizations decide to come see your shows, they will show up unannounced and watch. So be nice to your audience members always. You never know who is there.
19. Go to other shows
During the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Danny and I saw many great shows including America’s Got Talent’s Tape Face, comedian Genevieve Joy’s touching and relatable play Like Blood from a Cheap Cigar, Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan, and a one-man show about Israel called Knock Knock.
Edinburgh is where all the world’s top comedians perform during the month of August. We saw the biggest comedian in India, the best comics from the UK, some funny Australian sketch comics, and more.
You can get into tons of shows for free. Take in as much as you can to learn about the other acts and see what you’re up against.
20. Go to the Fringe-sponsored events
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe office puts on many events every single day.
For example, there’s Meet the Press, where you stand in line for many hours to get a chance to talk with members of the press and pitch your show. If you choose not to hire a publicist, this is what you’ll have to do to get some publicity. They also host an event where you can connect with producers from around the world and pitch them.
There are classes on publicity, marketing yourself, playing other festivals around the world, and other valuable sessions where you will learn tons and tons. The classes will be online before the festival, and you need to register. Or, you can grab a brochure from Fringe Central, the building where most of the events take place.
21. Network at the industry hangouts
There are industry hangouts happening every single night. If you’re in a big venue, you may get a pass for these hangouts. If you’re not, you’ll have to figure out another way in through your connections.
These hangouts are where all the after parties take place, and you’ll need to get in to meet face-to-face with the heavy hitters. Ask fellow comedians where they are, and go to have a good time.
You can do this.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe is going to be exhausting and tough. But it will also be exhilarating and make you awesome at your craft at least. You may even get some great career opportunities out of it.
Go in with an open heart, enjoy the beautiful country of Scotland on your days off, drink some good whiskey, and have a trusty loved one/friend/therapist you can call when you get overwhelmed.
As they say in the UK, cheers!
Photo © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.