What was comedian Matt Roper doing climbing astride a fibreglass cow in the wee small hours? Letting his hair down after performing, a few years ago, at the Edinburgh Fringe which kicks off again this week...
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe kicks off again this week and my thoughts are with every act heading up there to perform. It’s a marathon which lasts a little longer than three extraordinary weeks and – like all the great challenges – it’s both an exhilarating and an exasperating experience. The energy of thousands of performers descending on that beautiful city really makes you feel like you're part of something truly special. Which, of course, you are.
The Fringe, for most solo performers, is the final presentation that follows several months of writing, performing, discarding, writing, procrastinating, rewriting, work-in-progress gigs, anxiety, occasional reckless drinking, sleepless nights, more rewriting and finally the previews. Some of the hardest working comedians I know go back home once the festival finishes, and start working on their show for the following year. An enviable work ethic, some of these people have.
The biggest arts festival on the Planet is also a trade fair for the comedy industry. Producers, agents and all kinds of industry folk head up there – and all the comics are thinking of resourceful ways to get audiences into their shows (and mostly they’re pretending not to read their own reviews).
Some nights you play to capacity audiences who shower you in laughs, applause and collective approval. On others you’ll play to three Norwegians and a dog on a damp Tuesday night.
But there are times at the Fringe – roughly about two thirds of the way into it – that you begin to feel like one of those fish in a tank at a Chinese restaurant where the diners get to choose which one they want to eat. Will they choose you, perhaps? And will they find you delicious?
The Fringe has two tiers – the ticketed festival and the free festival. The latter isn’t strictly true as the audience is expected to make a donation in the bucket on the way out and – this is for those of you headed up there to enjoy it this month – nobody likes to hear the sound of a coin hitting the bucket.
If a performer is selling their wares on the ticketed side of the festival, they’re likely to be renting a black-box theatre. The smallest rooms are rented for several thousands of pounds. Then you have the cost of the design of your posters and flyers and the printing of those materials; maybe a PR person to help get the press in to review you; flyerers; a technician to run your sound and lights; your accommodation; your living expenses; then finally the fee to the Fringe itself for participating and having your show listed in the programme.
Things have become considerably more affordable for the artists in recent years, thanks to the non-ticketed side of the Festival – securing a venue that doesn’t charge a hire fee – but it’s still an expensive venture.
The Fringe not only costs money – it costs you sleep and sometimes dignity, too. Climbing a fibreglass cow while half-dressed at quarter to four in the morning with two girls from Lancaster (and an accountant named Henry) after a few drinks is exactly the sort of thing I always promise myself to avoid during the festival. Yet, alas, there on top of a fibreglass cow I found myself a few Fringes ago. But you must unwind somehow.
Then there are moments when you have to pinch yourself, lest you be hallucinating. For example, backstage at the BBC tent I once found myself sharing a dressing room with Gyles Brandreth and Nicholas Parsons at the same time. Who the hell needs Mick and Keef?
Backstage at the Gilded Balloon a few years ago, I ran into Madge from Neighbours who was standing in the corridor right in front of me, ironing something. She told me she was up there doing a play called Matchmaker and she asked politely what I was doing. I started to explain what my show was about then I noticed her eyes glazing over slightly; she smiled and nodded and went back to the ironing.
If a week in politics is a long time, then a week spent working at the Fringe is an age. Changes can happen at great speed. Somebody with a high profile might give your show a shout-out on social media, or you might get a five-star review, which all helps to draw a larger audience. Word of mouth is everything, and it’s exciting to see a hardworking act get the Fringe “buzz”.
Yes, Edinburgh in the month of August is a marathon. To all those people opening at the Fringe this week: eat well, drink a little, work hard and sleep properly. I salute you.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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