This month at the Edinburgh Fringe, I subjected myself to a novel form of torture: I watched the same play 22 times.
It was my own play, Sugar Baby, a one-woman show performed by the mesmerising young actress Holly-Rose Clegg. After months of preparation with Holly and director Katie Haigh Mayet in Paris, I brought the show to the vault of a church in central Edinburgh, converted to a 40-seat studio theatre at the Paradise Green venue.
Looking back on our first experience on the Fringe, which ended today, it would be an understatement to say it’s been a rollercoaster of emotion. Watching the hugely talented Holly perform the first few shows in front of an audience, I was gripped by an irrational terror which was akin to a fear of flying. I was aware of my total lack of control with her in the role of pilot – if she decided to crash land the plane, there was nothing I could do about it.
We’ve had the full Fringe experience, from an audience of two for our world premiere (and both of them were my friends), to 34 at the end of the first week. Over the first three weeks before the box office began to trail off in the final week, the theatre was half full on average. That’s way better than we’d been led to expect. I heard it said that the average Fringe audience is 6. But the venue had told us, as newcomers to the world’s biggest arts festival, to budget on a third full.
I knew before we arrived in Edinburgh that I was going to lose money – everybody does unless you’re here with one of the shows that arrive already garlanded with stars. The expenses included accommodation for the three of us, in a grim Edinburgh suburb that makes Trainspotting look glamorous, our travel, and paying the venue for the month. Even with a crowdfunding campaign behind us I was looking at a financial black hole. I realised I was not alone when casual conversations with other participants quickly moved to the question: how much have you lost?
It comes down to how you get noticed amongst the 3,300 plays vying for punters’ attention – even our own venue was running a total 65 plays. I heeded advice and hired a PR agent who secured us press attention and (positive) reviews in a couple of major outlets. But the first thing you discover on arrival in Edinburgh is that “flyer” is a verb and that word of mouth is king. For me, our daily flyering – often in the pouring rain – was one of the most daunting, but also the most exhilarating, of our Fringe experiences.
For every person who brushed you aside, or explained that they were already completely booked up, others would engage. The Royal Mile was a mob scene of flyerers and tourists. Every day I would join the crowds flyering at the Half Price Hut, where sometimes there were more Fringe participants than potential spectators. Then there were the free tickets handed out near our venue as the witching hour of our performance grew nearer. My phone told me I was clocking up an average 15,000 steps per day.
So why did I do it? I felt that the subject of my play, the role of the food companies in the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes, had plenty comic mileage and deserved a wider debate. That leads of course to the next question, would I do it again? I’ve said to friends who made the journey to support us in our adventure, Never again. The most distinctive memory for me is the clatter of hundreds of empty bottles being collected around the clock by the Edinburgh binmen, invariably outside our theatre when Holly reached the most poignant part of the play. But the Fringe is like a drug – as I pack my trainers and anorak I realise that you can leave Edinburgh, but Edinburgh doesn’t leave you.
What’s the date of the next Brighton Fringe?