Be good, Be nice, Be present
Barry Church-Woods is an independent live arts producer based in Edinburgh. He’s worked in areas of cultural provision for 20 years, most recently with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society 2008-2016. This year his company Civil Disobedience is supporting 9 shows during the Fringe including The Gray Cat and the Flounder and INTERBEING as part of the Assembly programme. He wants nothing more out of life than to dance in one of Sia’s music videos. Here he shares his wisdom, considering how to make the most out of the Festival experience…
‘I’ve been working with artists for most of my adult life. In the 90s I studied acting and was one of the lucky ones, working steadily for a number of years before finally diversifying into producing and directing.
Out of everything I’ve done in my various creative roles over the years, nothing comes close to presenting work at the Edinburgh Fringe to test your grit.
Yes, there are many benefits to delivering a performance or show back-to-back for 27 days straight, not least the opportunity to fine-tune your craft in front of diverse audiences. But there are many potential pitfalls along the way, and they’re not always immediately obvious.
For nearly a decade I worked with the Fringe Society, supporting an incredible range of participants, from novice companies to international artists of reputation. In that time, I’ve chaired approximately 80 panel discussions about how to take part in the Fringe, and without exception three core ‘rules’ were raised in every discussion. Simple, really. These three principles can inform your whole festival experience, if you apply them across each stage of the process.
• Be good
• Be nice
• Be present
Whether it’s Assembly in Edinburgh, the Garden of Unearthly Delights in Adelaide, or the Public Theatre in New York, your work has to be the best it can possibly be to make whoever is programming a venue consider taking you on.
It’s true that there are a million different motivations to take part in the Fringe, but if you really want to have a great time, you have to bring great work.
Of course, you could take a mediocre show to a pay-for-play venue that doesn’t curate and is happy to take a fee for their space. But halfway through week two, when no one is coming to your show, the highly anticipated ‘good times’ can easily turn to anxiety. If you’re haemorrhaging money through poor ticket sales and licking wounds inflicted by a scathing 2-star review in a national paper, a good mood can be hard to come by.
I know it sounds bleak, but it is true. It’s a sentiment echoed by everyone, on every single panel discussion I have ever hosted about bringing work to Edinburgh.
Bring your best work.
If you’re a decent person, this shouldn’t be too much of a stretch – but bear in mind that the Fringe environment can be more chaotic and stressful than everyday life. No matter how frazzled you feel, always do your best to be nice. Be nice to everyone. Even terrible people. You’ll sleep better for it.
Apart from the general sense of well-being brought on by being a good person, the Fringe community is a tiny world. The festival ecologies are intertwined globally in ways you would never believe. Everyone knows everyone, and there really are only a few flimsy degrees of separation at any one given point – so being a terrible person (even once, after a particularly bad day) is the professional equivalent of playing with fire while wearing polyester.
This one can be tricky to nail. It’s difficult to stay focussed when you’re tired – and you will get tired. So you need to drink lots of water and – contrary to popular belief – less booze.
Also, treat the festival like a fat camp. Foods that bloat you with excessive carbs and sugars also tend to rob you of energy and dull that sparkle in your eyes. It takes a bit of work, but going on a health kick while participating in a festival will make you the best version of yourself. And you need that to be present.
Now what exactly do I mean by being present? It’s not just about being in the room, but being open to suggestions and opportunities. It may seem like festivals exist in a microcosm, but they don’t. At the end of every festival, you hopefully still have a company and a tourable show. If you play your cards right, that show and company can live a long and fruitful life.
Most festivals now have some sort of artist’s hub. A place where you can meet like-minded individuals living the dream, while looking for a laundrette. You’ll normally find arts industry professionals in such hubs. Not by fluke, but more by design – most festivals make sure that buyers need to come to their artist’s hubs, to collect tickets or get accreditation. It’s a way to get you in a room together.
So regardless of where you are, find out who’s in town, and engage with them if you get the chance. The great thing about Fringe festivals is that any industry people you do come across will be in town looking for work – so they should be open to you!’