|reporting the edge||credits|
home | about | news | contents | gossip | photographs | venues | brighton | dublin | edinburgh | film | features | interviews | awards | fashion | recipes | no more drinks | newsletter | links | contact
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.
Camden Fringe 2008 - Michelle de-briefs
by Michelle Flower
|Michelle Flower||Zena Barrie|
The 2008 Camden Fringe was a great success for a festival still in its infancy. The event is growing in a slow and steady way that we hope to maintain; the reputation of this small event is also blossoming. But the summer of 2008 was not without its lessons and problems.
We started the Camden Fringe in 2006 with one venue, increased to 2 venues the following year and yes, you've guessed it, added a third in our third year. This year, the number of performances at the Camden Fringe was up 68% on the previous year at 301 over 4 weeks. This works out at an average of just under 11 shows per day.
Our ticket sales were up 88% on the previous year, which sounds hugely impressive, but obviously a lot of this is accounted for in the increase of shows. All the same the audience per show was up 12%. (These figures are based on the number of tickets sold, not on takings.) In real terms this means that there was an average audience of 19 paying customers per show. Admittedly not a huge number, but to anyone familiar with the London fringe it isn't a bad achievement. Particularly when you consider that a number of our shows took place in the early afternoon and late at night.
As a festival we attempt to hold true to the principal of Fringe. The venues are all about 50 seats and we encourage anyone and everyone to take part. We keep the cost of taking part low, and set the ticket prices at £7.50, which is hopefully cheap enough for people to take a chance on.
The Camden Fringe is programmed rather than curated – we don't vet shows or read scripts before the Fringe. We don't have a vision or a theme for the Camden Fringe, beyond wanting to produce an interesting varied selection of shows. If you have a show and we can fit in you, then you can take part in the Camden Fringe. This means that, despite all our work in the lead up to festival, when the Fringe comes around the shows are as much of a mystery and surprise to us as they are to the general public.
As all good fringe festivals should be, the Camden Fringe is made up of the good, the bad and the ugly. It's all about taking a gamble - the quality of the show you are about to see is unpredictable. At worst, working on the Camden Fringe and seeing shows quite arbitrarily, this can mean watching 5 or 6 quite uninspiring or perplexing shows in a row (the sort in which you end up subtly checking your watch every 2 minutes) which make you doubt the validity of what you are doing. At best this results is seeing something completely uplifting – an unexpected gem of a theatre show, a great new sketch group, or a hilarious stand-up that you are certain will go on to greater things. But a balance of the two is what it is all about – being there are the start of something brilliant, and watching your fair share of the genuinely awful. (Actually, it's the boring, average shows that you need to watch out for – the truly terrible can be fantastically entertaining and are actually what you end up talking about for weeks afterwards.)
Keeping the costs of participating in the festival low had two noticeable consequences this year. The one that took us by surprise was the number of shows that dropped out at short notice. We printed our brochure in early June; the festival started in late July. Anything that cancels once the brochure has been printed and the press releases have been posted out begin to cause us problems. This year we had a total of 7 shows drop out. 3 deserted before the festival started and we managed to find replacements for two of these. 3 more shows dropped out a matter of days before their first performance, which is frustrating as it means turning away audience members and putting up depressing posters announcing cancellations.
The most extraordinary case was of the 7th drop out show – Fringe The Musical. This show didn't cancel; they simply didn't turn up to tech or perform their show. There were no calls or emails to inform us of any problems they were having or any decisions that they had made. The waters were slightly muddied by the fact that the show was produced by separate company to those who were performing, but the production company went up to Edinburgh as ignorant as us of the fact the show wasn't going take place. I've never experienced a disappearing show before, and it was a bit awkward explaining to customers who'd bought tickets in advance why the show wasn't taking place ('I don't know, they've just not turned up') and hugely disappointing to let down genuine punters (not friends or family, but random, chance-taking customers) and give them such a negative experience of the Camden Fringe. If anyone knows Dawn Walters (the director) or Hannah Martin (actress) please let them know they still owe us a show.
I can only put the number of drop outs down to the fact that, as the cost of taking part in the Camden Fringe isn't particularly high (between £100 and £225, depending on how many performances you do), there isn't much incentive to sort problems out. Unfortunately this does mean we're forced to reconsider the pricing structure for 2009 to filter out the time wasters. Sadly, this may also filter out some great shows by very young performers who don't have a lot of money to put behind their dream.
For 2009 we're seeking sponsorship so we can employ a bigger staff to help run the fringe, and to expand on our marketing campaign. For the Camden Fringe to continue and expand we need a financial injection so we don't flog ourselves to death.
The other consequence of keeping prices down is the sheer amount of hard work it takes from two people to get the festival together and keep it going. At the moment the whole of the preparation for the Camden Fringe is done by me and co-director Zena Barrie. Not just the programming and marketing, but the press, the contracting, finding the venues, organising launch parties and volunteers, distributing brochures, making tickets and endless spreadsheets. Come the 4 weeks of the festival we take on a few extra staff – this year we were blessed with our brilliant team of 3 box office staff and a fantastic production manager Schirin Boudny. We also took on a number of volunteers who helped with front of house and technical needs.
But still there was a lot to do on a day to day basis; it was still down to me to clean the toilets and mop the stage. (There is a satisfying anonymity to vacuuming – nobody bothers to talk to you if when you are cleaning.) We also had show programmed throughout the day and a lot of jobs needing cover, so frequently Zena I could be found working front of house and at the box office of the Etcetera or Liberties. (Not to mention keeping up with our day job of planning and programming the next season at Etcetera Theatre.) My dream was that one the Camden Fringe was up and running that my day to day activities would be simply made up of watching shows, drinking cocktails and carousing. This was not the reality, though I did manage two cocktails one night. It was not enough.
Being hugely busy with the Etcetera and Liberties, I completely failed to see any of the shows at Camden People's Theatre, which is really disappointing.
Working the box office and front of house is actually hugely interesting. You get to spot immediately patterns in attendance of shows, and more importantly, to meet the people buying tickets. More than statistics, this is where we learn about our core audience and where they come from. It is undeniably the case that the majority of each show's audience is made up of friends and family (they usually announce themselves as such), but it is also great to meet random punters and our very favourite – the regular customers who come and see a few shows over the course of a day or week. The king of the regular customer is Chris, who lives locally and has, over the past two years, seen a huge number of Camden Fringe shows – possibly more than me and Zena.
On a personal level, the sheer hard slog of working 12+ hours a day for 4 weeks has big consequences. 6 weeks later I am still recovering and operating about 50% brain capacity. It's probably my age. The benefit of festivalling in your home town are that you get to go home to your own bed each night and have the comfort of familiar surroundings. The disadvantage is that, unlike Edinburgh, there isn't quite the same surge of adrenaline and collective madness to keep you buoyed up through the month. However, as shows run for only a few nights each, there are constantly new faces and challenges to keep things lively. Even the last weekend bought new shows and a bunch of fresh faces. (The other side of this is that if any particularly annoying individuals will always be out of your hair in a few days, instead of entangled for the whole festival, as in Edinburgh.)
Please note that the above paragraph contained the first mention of the Edinburgh Fringe, which brings to me another other of the big lessons of our third year: just how large the shadow of the Edinburgh festival looms over the summer and all other cultural events.
The Camden Fringe was established as an alternative to the enormous Edinburgh Fringe, running at the same time as the famous cultural icon. Last year, in explaining the origins and aims of the Camden Fringe, we made many mentions of Edinburgh and were keen to highlight the downsides of performing there. This year we made a conscious decision not to mention Edinburgh in any of our promotional or press material – not only did we want the Camden Fringe to stand up as an event in its own right, but it also seemed disrespectful to point out the weakness in a hugely successful and beloved institution.
However, it soon became clear that the Edinburgh Fringe was impossible for us to escape. 90% of the articles published about the Camden Fringe mentioned Edinburgh – from Time Out's 'Is the Camden Fringe really an alternative to Edinburgh' to the Camden Gazette's 'It's Fringe Fever - and no bagpipes in sight'. The E word loomed large over Camden. In interviews, as soon as we were asked why we set up the Camden Fringe, the existence of the other festival could not be denied.
This wasn't without its advantages – the Camden Fringe was honourably mentioned in both The Financial Times and The Guardian in columns about the Edinburgh Fringe. This is the sort of national attention we could never hope to attract on our own.
Mostly though the shadow of the Edinburgh Fringe was cast too long – reaching all the way down to London and its local press. When setting up the Camden Fringe we hoped to capitalise on the dearth of new theatre and comedy shows happening in London in August enabling us scoop up lots of the audience and the press. This year it seemed even the London press was obsessed with Edinburgh. Though I am very happy with our press coverage overall, it was really noticeable how dominant Edinburgh is.
Here I would like to single out the comedy section of Time Out for scientific analysis. In the period from the 17 July to the 28 August, there were 7 issues published of 'London's Weekly Listings Bible' (issues numbered 1978 – 1984, number fans.) In the 7 issues, the comedy section published 5 full articles about Edinburgh. Just to clarify – there is only one article a week in Time Out comedy section. The first of these, oddly, nominally promoted Robin Ince's gigs at the Camden Fringe, but was actually all about why he wasn't doing Edinburgh. Then came two weeks of Edinburgh previews, shortly followed by a report of the highlights and to round off a summary of the 2008 Edinburgh fringe.
I do understand that Edinburgh is of some interest to London punters – a lot of the shows preview in London first and many return to do runs in London theatre after the Edinburgh Festival is completed. I also understand that in terms of comedy, Edinburgh Fringe is a crucial event. But 5 full pages of Edinburgh stuff in 7 weeks? This is London's self proclaimed 'listings bible'. A guide that Londoners subscribe to so they can keep up with what is going on in their home town, and which tourists buy when visiting London to find out what fun is to be had whilst they are here. Are any of these people that interested in what's happening in a festival 400 miles away, in a different country? (The final article, incidentally, summarised the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe as 'very floppy' and spent 6 paragraphs on why it wasn't actually much cop.)
The Edinburgh Fringe is a fact that we will have to live and deal with. And please note here how I haven't gloated at all about the Edinburgh Fringe's well-publicised problems. Did I mention our sales were up 88%?
(c) Michelle Flower 7 October 2008
Michelle Flower and Zena Barrie live in London. They are co-founders and co-directors of Camden Fringe (www.etceteratheatre.com), and co-artistic directors of The Etcetera Theatre (www.etceteratheatre.com)
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013