Cutting the fringe
I have always had an ambivalent relationship with fringes. My first fringe (a haircut) was a thick-cut full-bodied affair, inflicted on me as a socially awkward 8 year old and remained (sometimes frizzy, sometimes greasy, always difficult) dominating my face until, after a particularly ill-thought-out and disastrous self-trim, I finally scraped it back to grow it out around the age of 13. I promised myself I'd never 'do' a fringe again. A promise I kept until a moment of whim at the age of 24 when I cut myself a wispy number - which was fun for a week- but almost immediately reminded me why I had got rid of the fringe in the first place - I'd love to say it was the last time but it seems to be something I forget. Fringes look great, but they are just hard work! The Edinburgh Fringe is, in some ways the same. I attended as an actor in 2015 as part of the cast for a wonderful show that had toured successfully, with critical acclaim and positive reception and then hit the fringe and died - I mean literally, the audiences never appeared, the company was hemorrhaging money and investors were backing out, the show was cancelled before the end of the month & the company went into liquidation soon afterwards. It was terribly sad and the madness was it was a really, really good show. As a cast and company we naturally speculated over 'doing this differently ' or 'that differently ', trying to discern just what went wrong or where it could have been saved, but at its core it came down to the fact Edinburgh Fringe is a Beast. Don't get me wrong, it is big and beautiful; the buzz, the breadth of energy, passion and creativity in one place is mind blowing and very real, well worth the experience, but there are no rules, no formula for success (or everyone would follow it). EdFringe is a Beast and it will chew you up and spit you out without so much as a thought and as someone who is naturally cautious I promised myself I would never 'do' the Fringe. It was too much risk. So why? Why? When I took this first tentative step into producing did I find myself leaping into the jaws of the very Beast I had promised myself never to be lured into, booking two weeks at the 2019 Fringe before our play was even written?
Partly because I believed so much in this project, a little-known prequel to such a famous character it was both new and familiar - a potent mix for a Fringe audience I hoped. Still the financial outlay for the EdFringe itself was the largest proportion of this venture by far and a sizeable chunk was required upfront - but maybe this was part of what I needed, to take a leap that I knew I'd have to see through to the end, like the moment you take a pair of scissors to your hair and make that first snip; Cutting a Fringe is not something you can turn back from once you've begun - even if all you want is to start growing it out again you are committed to see it through.
So how did Betwixt-and-Between fare in the belly of the Beast? Well, we survived. I knew the two and a half weeks would be intense whatever they threw at us, but nothing quite prepares you for how it feels. The closest I could compare it to is when you're standing in the sea, trying to push through the surf and getting battered by wave after wave breaking over your head - it's tiring and it can seem endless. Still, although we may not have 'got through' the break this year I could feel the potential of reaching a place you could catch a wave or two and ride in and still, like tiring days fighting big waves you can't help but feel alive and IT IS fun. Exhausting, gut-wrenching, nerve-testing fun.
As producers and performers Dan and I had every kind of experience - small audiences quickly grew to a steady number and although we never sold out, financially ticket sales covered what we needed to cover to keep the company on an even footing, so we were lucky. Having to work for our audiences meant we were grateful for everyone who came and so thankful for all the kind feedback and comments that followed. We had a critical review (from our very first show) which tested our resolve and our faith in the show we had created and the story we were telling but thankfully both were strong. There was the day that the tree was knocked over by our puppet, Mistress Thrush and was quickly righted by Solomon Caw (much to the amusement of our audience) and the day Mistress Thrush caused trouble again when she was not in the right place and had to be replaced (in a split-second save) by a brown paper bag (our audience never knew and in fact praised our 'junk puppetry'). There were standing ovations and the guy who fell asleep in our last show and left before the end. There was Black Wednesday, after the 241 days at the start of the fringe when suddenly and disconcertingly we had no-one booked for the next days show, tired and despondent we were just on our way to cancel so we could concentrate on boosting the next days numbers when we came across the wonderful Antonia from Box Tale Soup who out of the blue told us, 'don't cancel', both Dan and I were a little taken aback as we hadn't mentioned cancelling. Antonia told us everyone, even established companies, struggle on Black Wednesday and wisely advised 'don't cancel': 'If you turn up and there is no-one, take yourselves to breakfast. If there are two people, perform to two people, they might love it and tell two more people'. As it happened overnight 21 people booked in to see us the next day AND of those 21 we had one invite to take the show overseas and one licensing request - which just shows Edinburgh is a Beast but there is no predicting her mood. Antonia was dubbed our 'don't cancel' angel and what I took away from the encounter was to keep faith in your show even if the numbers don't change, something which came in useful later in the run when we encountered a day with 3 people, by far our lowest audience in what turned into one of our loveliest shows. We didn't get many reviewers, but got lots of interest from theaters and companies interested in taking the show forward. On the whole our fringe lay an exciting foundation for the future of the company and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (news of which we will hopefully expand on in a later blog). We didn't cancel, we stuck together and we survived. With brilliant technical support from Sweaty Palm Productions, regular emotional support visits from our amazing friends and families, we met lots of inspiring creatives and companies along the way. After it all we escaped to the west coast and watched wild otters and swam in turquoise seas, reminding us that 'Cutting a Fringe' is not forever, hair will grow back ... and I think it's fair to say we will go back and soon.