Edinburgh Fringe Diary: David and Goliath

When I first began writing these blog posts from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I promised a David and Goliath story. Well, here it is. Goliath is not a bad metaphor for the Edinburgh Fringe, because the Fringe is a behemoth, the largest arts festival in the world, with over 2,600 shows packed into every conceivable performance space. In order to stand out at the Fringe, they say you need a well-known somebody (actor, playwright, theater company), and a ton of money. They say you will need a ton of money for a Press Representative who will get you feature stories and reviews; about half the shows at fringe don't get reviewed, and even fewer will garner a coveted feature story. If you don't get press or reviews, how will the audience know that you, little David, are out there somewhere giving a performance?

They say if you want an audience, buy expensive ads in the official Fringe booklet. Still more money will be needed to print several thousand flyers and pay teams of young people to personally hand out these flyers to potential audience members along the Royal Mile. Several hundred posters, carefully designed to catch the eye, must be designed, printed, and displayed; often there's an extra fee to have posters displayed in particular high-traffic areas of Edinburgh. Many restaurants and bars will only display publicity materials from a given company that's paying them a fee for the privilege.

And what if you don't have a ton of money, and/or a big name star? The average Fringe performance will attract an audience of eight. That bit of analysis is based on last year's ticket sales. This year's audience was the lowest in years, according to anecdotal evidence offered everywhere. Blame was placed on the Olympics, the recession, or a combination of both. There was a six percent increase in the number of shows in 2012, just as the audience became even harder to entice in to a Fringe performance. They say this was a very bad year for little David to come to Edinburgh.

But there's another way to do the Fringe, a way that is truer to the spirit of Fringe Theater as an ideal. It's the opposite of what "they" say. You don't need to be at a big fancy venue, with a big fancy star, and a big fancy budget, to run your show as part of the Free Fringe or Free Festival. In this fringe on the edges of the Fringe, performers pay no fees up front to the venues, and no tickets are sold. Instead, all performances are free, with donations taken up at the end, like busking indoors. These venues are really just spare rooms in pubs; basements, alcoves, temporary performance spaces. These pop up all over Edinburgh, organized by two rivals, Peter Buckley Hill and Alex Petty. My little show signed up with Alex Petty, and we performed Made for Each Other in his Laughinghorse Free Festival, in a corner of one of the noisiest bars in Edinburgh.

So, what happened to Made for Each Other? There was no money for press, so I stood in line on Media Day and made my case to reviewers. There was no money for teams to hand out flyers, so I did it, and discovered that I sucked at it. I ended up doing very gentle "flyering motions" for about an hour a day, managing to make contact with fewer than ten potential audience members before each show. But we had one advantage: the show was free! Another advantage; it was described as a gay marriage play, and gay marriage was a hot topic of conversation, as the Scottish Parliament had just decided to bring a gay marriage bill up for a vote.

The first performance, August 15th, was packed. Huge audience reaction; lots of money in the donation bucket! The second audience was a grand total of six, and I thought, well, that's what happens to Davids in Edinburgh. I prepared my actor and director (who was running all our sound cues because we couldn't afford to pay anyone else to do it) for the worst.

Then the third show, and I had to give up my seat so everyone could sit! From then on through the run, we had mostly standing-room-only in our little 30-seat temporary theater! We made enough money in the donation buckets so everyone could eat without using their credit cards! It was grand, but we were still worried that reviewers would not come to see theater done in a bar by unknown Americans in the Free Festival. And without reviews, how could we attract producers, producers who would raise money for future productions, future productions in real theaters?

We opened on August 15th. On the 18th, we got our first review. I was sure, at that point, it would be our only review, but it didn't matter. It would be good enough, because it was a review written by Martin Walker, the former editor of ScotsGay Magazine, a man with years of experience reviewing all kinds of theater in Edinburgh. It would be good enough, because he gave us five stars (the highest rating possible in Edinburgh), and because he wrote this:
"I'm a big supporter of the various Free Fringes that are happening throughout this month. But if you'd told me that the strongest, most powerful piece of theatre I'd see this fringe would be as part of the Laughinghorse Free Festival in the corner of a pub, I would not have believed you. Extraordinary."

Then, six days later, another five star review, this time from the website Fringe Guru. Now, the folks at Fringe Guru have a terrific policy; they won't even show up to review your show if they don't think it will be a good show. They only publish the review if the show is something they recommend be seen. Here is a taste of Jane Bristow's review: "This is no preachy piece of theater, but a frequently hilarious and thoroughly thoughtful analysis of a relationship. Both the writing and acting could not have been better from this impressive piece of free theater... A magnificent play."

The same day, we got five stars from the reviewer at Three Weeks, the grandfather of Fringe media websites, which also publishes in print. A snippet from Katherine Cunningham's review: "A one-man, four character show, Made for Each Other is touching, funny, tragic, and above all, romantic... an incredible performance by the actor John Fico."

Would we get reviewed by the Big Paper, the Scotsman, The New York Times of Scotland? On the last day of the festival, August 27th, they finally published a review. They only gave us three stars, but you can't wow everybody. Reviewer David Pollock still said some lovely things: "This is a bittersweet romantic comedy whose meditation on the meaning of love in the face of inevitable heartbreak is executed with tenderness and dry humor." And he called John Fico "a charming lead." Indeed he was.

I'm writing this from my small study at home in Connecticut, after teaching two sections of English 102, looking forward and backward at my little David of a play. A young and energetic producer I met at the Fringe wants to do U.K. productions of the play; a Fringe venue manager wants to bring Made for Each Other back next year in a proper theater. I am too old to imagine this is the Big Break I've Been Waiting For, but there is a future for this play, directed by the smart and savvy John FitzGibbon, performed like his life depended on it by the magnificent actor John Fico. We didn't win any big prizes, but, in truth, most of the Major Players at the Fringe had no idea we were even there. That's all right. David came to town with everything stacked against him, and leaves Edinburgh with a shy smile and the satisfaction of a job done as well as could be done. Good enough for now. We dream of castles and kilts and Arthur's Seat, the great dome rock of Edinburgh. Next year, somebody else can hand out the flyers!