I’m halfway through my time at the London Fringe Festival and finally feel like I’m hitting a comfortable groove. It takes a while to get into the fringe swing of things. I thought this last year, and London has proved it to me: I really need to start getting in “fringe shape” a month before my first festival of the season. See, life as a touring fringe festival performer is a singularly unique experience, rife with challenges. So if you want to know how my fellow performers and I live when we’re on the road, just follow this simple conditioning plan and you can play along with us…
Pack one suitcase with everything you could possibly need while performing and traveling for weeks on end. Don’t forget anything.
Go to a city you’ve never been to before or don’t know very well. Don’t bother to check the weather report, because no matter what you packed, it’s wrong. The locals will be talking about the “strangely unseasonal, unpredictable” weather while you’re there.
Pick a complete stranger. Move into their house for 14-17 days. This is your billet. They are likely festival staff and/or volunteers, so be a perfect house guest.
Drop 10 random pins on a map. These are the festival venues. Figure out good walking routes between all venues and your billet. Time the routes so you know how long it takes to get to each venue. Walk for so many hours on brutally hard cement that no pair of shoes is comfortable. Do this until you have blisters and shin splints, then do it some more.
Approach strangers on the street with the flyers you designed, printed before you left, and fit into your luggage. Get them to stop and listen to you. Convince them you have something worth paying $10 for, but that they have to meet you at a later date and/or time for the privilege of finding out why it’s worth money. Hope they show up. With cash.
Pick a different random hour every day to be “show time” and make sure you eat exactly 2.5 hours before curtain. Time it perfectly so you don’t feel gross and bloated on stage, but still have access to the energy/fuel from your meal. (Seriously. This is a conversation I’ve had at least ten times so far this festival with other artists. You wouldn’t believe how big of a challenge simply feeding yourself becomes.) Look for fresh, healthy options on your walking routes, and hope you can afford them on your $30 daily budget. Decide that coffee qualifies as breakfast.
For each “show”, go somewhere public, strip down to your underwear, and demand people pay attention to you for a full hour. Beg them to share their feedback on every social media outlet in the known universe. Your sold-out show will be harshly panned by a critic who doesn’t mention you got a standing ovation that night. Your show with five people in the audience is the one that will be reviewed by the biggest paper in town.
Smoke too many cigarettes late at night, even if you “quit” years ago and never smoke at home. Do not lose your voice. (Fringe tip: it’s good form to buy a pack of smokes for the person(s) you always bum from.)
Drink whatever beer is cheapest at any given bar and learn to like it. You cannot afford wine or hard liquor, especially not in Canada. If you prefer pot, pray that a generous stoner comes to your show and likes it enough to smoke you out afterward. If you have any other vices, give them up. Your wallet and body will thank you.
Spend all your free time with talented, amazing, sexy, creative artists, but do not hook up with anyone until the last couple days of the festival. If it’s awesome, they won’t be at any other festivals you’re doing. If it’s awful, they will be at every other festival you’re doing.
Remember that you are never off work. Every person is a potential audience member, so use every opening you can to start conversations with total strangers and sell yourself. If you are rude, abrasive, or otherwise inappropriate, it reflects on your show and affects your bottom line. If anyone overhears you complaining about your venue, techs, festival staff, volunteers, showtimes, audience sizes, other shows, other performers, the weather, host city, or anything at all, no matter how valid the complaint, it reflects on your show and affects your bottom line. If you cough while trying to pitch your show to someone and don’t cover your mouth, it reflects on your show and affects your bottom line. If you get drunk and make an ass of yourself at the late-night cabaret, it reflects on your show and affects your bottom line.
Everything you do reflects on your show and affects your bottom line.
Pray enough people come to see you that you can pay off the credit card you used to cover the costs of your festival application, production fee, travel expenses and promotional materials. Do not count on breaking even. Given the 24/7 nature of the gig, know that you would probably make a higher hourly wage slinging fast food.
Do things that you don’t do at home, like go to a nightclub filled with kids half your age for retro dance party night. Stay up later than normal. Be exhausted no matter how much sleep you get.
So. Why do we do it?
I wouldn’t presume to speak for my fellow fringe performers, but my answer is simple: it’s worth it. Getting to tell my story, to entertain, to touch people and leave them somehow changed, to get them talking…Being able to call some of the most talented people I have ever known my friends and colleagues…Seeing the world, one theatre-loving city at a time…Meeting people- performers, audience members, volunteers- whose passion for live performance is on par with my own…Being reminded that one-on-one, face-to-face human connection is still the most powerful kind of communication…There is no more gratifying feeling in my world.
Also, it’s summer camp for grown ups who still haven’t grown up. You must hold onto a bit of childlike wonder and appreciation for the surreal insanity of it all, or the fringe circuit will chew you up and vomit you back out in a spray of Lofty-But-Misguided Artistic Intention. It’s work. Hard work. Oh my god, sometimes it’s such hard work. But if just one person leaves my show feeling more informed, invigorated, or inspired than they did when they sat down, I’ve done my job.
No, the fringe life is not for everyone. But some of us find the festival circuit and know we are home. This one’s for you, fringe family.