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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
How I took Belly Dancing In Leeds to Edinburgh Fringe 2007
by Siren Turner
I never envisaged a career in catering. Those silly tests at school predicted I would be a nurse or a social worker. But from an early age all I've ever seen myself doing is being an actress. What I didn't quite realise though was that actors don't often make their living actually acting and while I've cultivated a CV with some decent credits (critically acclaimed Jacobean heroines, leading ladies in short films, five-liners in Dalziel & Pascoe) my hospitality CV, until last year, was unwittingly more impressive. Not content with ordering cabs for Kristin Scott-Thomas or with serving lunch to Jamie Oliver, I decided that enough was enough. I was sick of waiting for 'the phone call'. So I took control. I wrote my own show and took it to Edinburgh.
Being half Turkish I wanted to challenge the way people see me. A lot of the time, due to my apparently exotic looks I'm often seen for parts that involve pigeon-English and a fake passport. But inside I feel very British and more specifically, very from Leeds. It's where I was brought up, and just because my father looks like Omar Sharif it doesn't mean I don't have a mouth like a toddler's toilet. My central message was to be a journey of self-discovery; of how learning to love ourselves is empowering and integral to an emotionally-healthy life. This is how 'Belly Dancing in Leeds' came about. It combines my Middle Eastern heritage with my matter-of-fact Northern sense of humour and while most of the material is creative embellishment - I 'find' myself in a belly-dancing class - the story is based on my own situation and touches on my own relationships, both with people and with myself.
In the beginning I didn't even consider Edinburgh. That was something comedians and proper theatre companies did. But after trying out my stuff at a London scratch night, a friend encouraged me to get involved. I had to be quick as the deadline was only days away. I was to get in touch with Alex at Laughing Horse and I could get a comedy space for nothing. Still buzzing from my scratch night success, I emailed Alex, decided on a slot during the final week of the festival (Edinburgh Fringe 2007, Linsay's Bar 1.50-2.50pm) and downloaded the form from the official Edinburgh Fringe site. I sent off the £300 or so submission fee and off I went. Into total meltdown. I'd booked a 50 minute slot only having ten minutes written. Plus I had to think of a flyer image to market the damn thing and ultimately how I was going to finance it all.
Luckily, that catering CV had landed me a pretty good job in a posh Tapas place on Goodge Street that was very busy and therefore suitably lucrative. I called in on some friends in various areas of the business to help me with ideas and after a few months of hard graft - both at the computer and in the restaurant - 5,000 flyers, 50 posters (Tenfold Printing £118.50), an advert in Three Weeks (a sixth of a page every day for the final week cost £260) and hostel accommodation (£23.50 per night) were all organised. I bought a suitcase from Chapel Market, packed it with my favourite clothes and boarded the train to Scotland (GNER £50 return, booked 3 months in advance).
To throw in added pressure, I thought it would be a great idea to use my self-penned work to showcase my talents in front of industry people. So I organised the hire of the Studio space at the Soho Theatre which was to take place the following October (£400 for 4 hours' hire). With this in mind my Free Festival experience, for me, was about trying things out and seeing what did and didn't work in front of a live audience. Looking back now, this was an expensive experiment (£900 approximately) that sadly didn't see me take full advantage of the experience. Not only had I done just one preview performance - in front of friends at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden - I hadn't taken heed of the Fringe Office's advice regarding the best time to send out your press release to better your chances of a review. Edinburgh's all about star-ratings, and I wasn't prepared in the slightest. The competitive nature of the festival makes sense of course. Thousands of shows, most having to recoup costs much larger than mine, use as many attention-grabbing methods to promote their work as possible. Hence the men in leopard-print leotards on the Royal Mile.
I don't know whether it was the title of my show, the poster, the fact that it was free or just an indication of the popularity of belly-dancing, but despite my Three Weeks ad not going out until the following Tuesday, my first weekend's audiences were pretty big. Having been warned that the average Edinburgh Fringe audience is seven people, my first two shows pulled in a combined number of about forty - almost three times that average. And they paid. Well, some of them did. At the end of each show I'd grab a pint glass, mention that I was a poor actress with no business sense and that, if they'd enjoyed themselves could they spare a couple of quid please? Again, the first weekend was brilliant and I took approximately £40 on the Sunday alone, all adding to the feeling that somehow I'd managed to pull it off.
It probably had a lot to do with my time slot, but you forget during the festival that people have to work as there's such a great sense of community and of everyone being involved. From the Monday until the Friday I'd say I averaged that statistic of seven audience members. Goodness knows what might have happened had I not had that ad in Three Weeks. On the Friday - my birthday - I performed to three people. (It was four, but halfway through this bloke's mobile rang and he left to take the call. On the fire escape outside the room. Didn't think to close the door either.) The audiences never returned to their former glory of the opening weekend, which was a shame as the show kept getting better.
Small audiences I can take though and after all, it's all part of it; proving a great test for a performer. But I was disappointed that I didn't get that much-sought-after review. It's really worth asking people who say they enjoyed your work to put their comments in writing so you can use them to promote further performances. I say this, as apart from a glowing report from an audience member on edfringe.com, my lack of planning and slapdash attempt at advertising resulted in not so much as half a star coming my way. I also had to dispose of masses of unused flyers before I left; a huge waste and as I recycled them I berated myself for not taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I was determined not to let my minor failures get in the way of preparing for the Soho Theatre performance. Determined to be seen by agents, casting directors and a few theatre people (I thought Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola would appreciate the Turkish connection) I dusted myself off to try again and began writing letters - 127 of them. In my mind the timing had to be right so I sent them off four weeks before the show, following them up with an email two weeks later. Each pack contained a covering letter, CV, photograph, flyer and SAE. Again I went to Tenfold for the printing and paid £100 for 100 A5 flyers. Gordon Bishop provided my repros at a further £100 and to keeps cost as minimal as possible I ordered all my stationery from an online office supplier. Postage came to over £75 for the whole thing, including SAEs.
With the administration in hand I began rehearsing and hired out a great space at the Islington Arts Factory for £12 per hour. I rehearsed for over ten hours in total, bringing in my friend and director, Peter Benedict towards the end to tie up loose ends and plot the technical side of the show. My requirements here were simple but effective and I'm very grateful for Peter's generosity and expertise.
The day before the performance I was out of pocket (about £800) but sure I had a winning show. I hired one last hour's rehearsal space for a final run through and went home for an early night. On the morning of the performance I was nervous but excited. I had no idea how many people were going to turn up, but I'd made sure I had a few enthusiastic faces dotted amongst the intimidating masses by inviting a few friends. I empowered myself, first by blasting out Aretha Franklin, singing along as though I was commanding an audience at the Albert Hall and then with a few squirts of Rescue Remedy. My boyfriend then drove me to the theatre two hours early, to go through the lighting and sound cues with the lovely technician who came as part of the hire.
Twenty minutes before the performance, my man took his place by the door next to the wine and soft drinks I'd provided, and generously played the part of host whilst I went backstage to gather myself. When the opening music began I walked on stage and took my place - ready, willing and able. The music faded, the lights came up - and there was an audience of twelve, eleven of which were the enthusiastic plants. Anyhow, I wasn't going to let this shake me. I had a great show and I was damned well going to perform it. Plus, there was one person I didn't recognise in the audience. I later discovered he was television producer Cameron Roach, a friend and colleague of my friend Nicola. Thanks to my stubborn nature, the show did go on (and if I might say, it was pretty brilliant).
(c) Siren Turner 1 August 08
Siren Turner is is currently writing her first TV pilot. She performs Belly Dancing in Leeds as part of the Branching Out season at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, London - 31 October to 3 November 08.
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013