Tips for putting on a Fringe show from the audience perspective

by Megan Mooney

This is a re-post of an article I wrote after the 2008 Fringe, but it seemed worth repeating, *before* Fringe this time. I’ve done some editing and additions in this version, but it is still based on the post from last year.

After going to many many many Fringe shows at the Toronto Fringe Festival I’ve noticed some challenges that seem common among Fringe productions. I thought I’d share some observations and hopefully impart some useful advice. Or, you know, annoy people. Whichever…

This isn’t going to be about how to cast, or rehearse for a space you don’t know, or anything like that. It’s going to cover length, show descriptions and promotion, all from the perspective of an audience member.

Show length
Most Fringe shows run around the 60 minute mark with no intermission, but there is no hard and fast rule. But here’s the thing to remember, it doesn’t HAVE to be an hour.

I saw too many shows that should have been shorter. It’s always important to have every moment in a play be there for a reason, but in Fringe this is doubly important. Many people are going to several shows in a row, so, not only will your show be being compared to others, but it also means that their time is precious.

If you don’t have enough material to fill an hour, that’s just fine, run the show for half an hour. A perfect example of this was A Girl Named Ralph, it ran around 35 minutes and was great. It left me wanting more, which is way better than leaving me wishing I could get out of the theatre earlier.

Show description
Make sure your show description tells the audience what they’re in for. That was you get the people that want to see that type of work attending, and the people who don’t will stay away, so the word of mouth that gets sent around is way more likely to be good.

I realise that a lot of people apply for Fringe based on a play title alone and hastily write plays when they find out they’ve gotten in. This, of course, means that the description may not be the most accurate thing in the world, since it would have been written before the play. If this is the case then your press release is key, as are your posters, and the little flyers you hand out to people in line. It is VITAL that you make the descriptions of these accurate. Do everything in your power to get the most up-to-date information out there – make it accurate and specific, let people know what they’re getting into.

Also, it’s not just about getting the right audience, it’s also about how they will enjoy the show. So, for instance, The Mom and Pop Shop was good, but very much on the stand-up comedy side of things. I was expecting, well, I’m not sure what, but not stand-up, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have if I knew I was going to stand-up. A quick line in the description that said something like “this cross between stand-up comedy and a one-man show explores…” Or, Wild About Harry, which was really just a concert of music, but I went in expecting a musical, a story, a plot line. Again, I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t expecting something different.

Promoting yourself
Okay, if we’re taking the Toronto Fringe as an example, people attending the festival had almost 150 shows to choose from in 2008. Something has to set you apart, and that’s going to be your promotion.

During the Fringe creating “buzz” around your show is very important. At the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, Gemma Wilcox promoted her show The Honeymoon Period is Officially Over by attaching a big sign to her backpack, so wherever she went around town, people knew she had a show.

It’s a good conversation starter, and here’s the truth, people you talk to are more likely to come to your show because there is a personal connection to it. So, if you manage to talk to 50 people and 30 of them go to the show, and 20 of them really like it, those 20 will likely tell others, who will tell others and so on. So, you talking to 50 people may translate to 1000 people coming to the show over the course of 5 shows. And that’s not including the folks who are just coming based on the program.

Also, be sure to check out what else is going on with the Fringe festival you’re attending. There will no doubt be a publicist, pick up the phone and ask them for a lay of the land. There’s all the normal media stuff, sending out press releases etc., but ask them about other things.

In Toronto Eye Weekly did coverage of all the shows, with areas for reader comments, and so did NOW. In fact, the Toronto Star had coverage you can comment on. So, find out where these things exist, and then, at the end of the show when you thank your audience, don’t just say thanks and ask them to tell folks if they liked it, ask them to go online at one of these sites and comment about the show in the show write-up section.

For bonus points (I know this is unlikely, but it’s worth mentioning) you could even print up little flyers with the URLs of the pertinent sites on it (and, of course, the URL to your own website) and let people know they’re available at the stage or on a table on the way out. Also, include these URLs on the front page of your own site while you’re at the Toronto Fringe.

Websites are important
If you don’t have a website, get one. You don’t have to have a fancy design, just content. Don’t rely on Facebook, I know it’s hard to believe, but there are actually people who don’t Facebook, and those people can’t get the information. The easiest way to make a quick and easy website for free is use a blog. The most common place for that is blogger. You don’t even need pictures. Just a quick flavour of the show as a write-up, and the information of when and where to see the show. In this day and age a website is pretty vital. A lot of people get their info that way.

One last thing – from the perspective of media (well, me as media anyway)
Please, please, please, in your press kit, don’t give me a CD with your images. Put them on a website, I don’t care if it’s just on flickr, give me the link, I’ll go there. I just want to be able to download them, I don’t want to have to sort through 40 CDs from 40 shows to find images.

In case I’m an outlier on this (although I doubt I am) you can make it an option, have a few CDs of images available at the box office. Let people know it’s an option, but don’t automatically include it in your kit. The bonus in doing this is that less CDs means lower costs, and a URL is far friendlier to the environment than a plastic disk in a plastic case.

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Late-breaking added information based on my experience today (Sat, June 20, 2009) of trying to set up postings from press releases from companies with Fringe shows.

Include the word “Fringe” in your subject line. Otherwise it will be missed when I go back and do a search based on the word “fringe” in order to start posting announcements.

It’s very important that you make your press release copy-and-paste friendly. This includes putting your URLs in a format that will automatically create links, that means include the http:// in front of the address.

Once you’ve written your email, copy and paste it into notepad, or some kind of straight text editor (NOT a word processor). If it is still clear and readable you’re good to go. If it looks weird and scrambled, well, you have an issue.

As a media person we’re dealing with hundreds of press releases and requests. If you don’t make it easy for us, we’re more likely to ignore you. I am not going to invest time in fixing over a hundred press releases, so if it doesn’t work, you’re likely to not get posted.

Also, think about what order you want to put your press release in. I have been getting several press releases where the times are at the front of the release. Personally, my take on this is, let the people find out what the show is and if it’s something they might be interested in before you tell them when and where to see it. People expect those details at the end and will be willing to scroll down to see them, but if there is only ‘teaser text’ and then a click to the rest of the article, when you’re show is playing isn’t likely to whet the reader’s appetite.

Oh, and something that most people will already know, but apparently not everyone does… Good practice dictates that when you’re sending an email to a large group, you should blind copy the participants.

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The bottom line
Far too often promotion ends up being the last priority for people putting on shows, but it’s actually one of the most important things. You could have the best show in the world, but if no one knows about it, well, it doesn’t matter.

You need an audience if you’re going to at the very least recoup the $700 entry fee into Fringe, and at very best make a profit, make a name for yourself, build a reputation, and be successful enough that you end up with a show like ‘da kink in my hair that followed a path starting with Fringe that made it’s way to Mirvish (not to mention the television show).

So, no matter how pressed for time you are, find a way to do a bit of publicity. Beg help from friends, hire someone, find a student intern who wants some experience, ask your parents to help you, I don’t care how you get it done, but don’t neglect the publicity side of things, it’s almost as important to success as the quality of your show.

I think that brings this to a close for now. If you have any comments or questions, or, if you’re an audience member who has some additional tips, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Tips for putting on a Fringe show from the audience perspective”

  1. Oh yeah, also, don’t send it in a PDF. It’s part of the previous copy and paste commment. You can make it pretty in a PDF, but I can’t easily pull information from it.

  2. Hey Megan

    This is a great article – I’ve been wanting to do a theatre show for some time (having not done any since leaving the UK) – this article is just what I need to start planning for 2010. And the advice you gave us all at the Shehori Brothers seminar on Sunday was so useful. Thanks again!

  3. a few other thoughts…

    putting a bunch of flyers in front of me at the tent and walking away is not promo. Talking to me about your show is promo. and I do want to hear about it. It’s why I’m there.

    Fan pages, not groups on Facebook, if you must. Because the Fringe run is so tight, groups tend to slam their group members right in the inbox with an email a day. Multiply that by how many companies and you’ve got me mass deleting because I’m actually looking for a message from a friend.
    Fan page updates go somewhere separate from the FB inbox, so I won’t delete you out of pique.

  4. My first comment in this comment thread, the one about don’t put it in a pdf, that’s not a problem anymore.

    As long as you still do the copy and paste test.

    PDFs have all sorts of settings and stuff, so just make sure that it’s easy to copy and paste from it, and it’s fine.

    To be on the safe side, a text version at the bottom of your email is always a good practice.

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