Presuming I get my act together, 2014 will be my sixth year in a row at Adelaide Fringe. In addition to bringing my own shows over from Melbourne, I’ve helped a lot of other shows over and assisted with venue programming. I am a Fringe groupie. I love getting to introduce Melbourne artists to Adelaide at its best.
Adelaide hosts the second biggest Fringe festival in the world and, being a small city, it completely takes over and it is an absolute joy to be a part of. Totally chaotic but a joy nonetheless.
I get asked a lot of questions by artists wanting to take shows to Adelaide and, recently I got asked via email which means now I have written responses to the questions I keep getting asked so I thought I would share them. Feel free to share or post your thoughts.
Just a bit of background, I come at this from a theatre background and I am specifically talking about bringing shows from interstate to Adelaide but hopefully there is some advice that might help anyone. Enjoy!
1. Regarding venue size / number of seats, am I right in thinking that as long as we feel we have enough stage space, smaller is probably better? My feeling is that a fuller audience, is better than the same number of audience and spare seats. And do you think that location has a big impact on the number of bums on seats?
I go small. You have to expect that you have at least a couple of nights with very low numbers. I tend to book venues with a bit of an ‘I want something will make an audience of ten feel exciting and intimate rather than sad’ mentality. A cosy space for 35-40 people can actually feel just fine with ten but if you have 60 unfilled seats out of 70 that starts to be hard work on the actors. We try to make a habit of relishing those nights and talk a lot as a group about them being a chance to tell a really intimate story but venues help so much. Naturally, the price of producing a show goes up the bigger the venue gets so I would err on the side of caution and stay small and intimate. I think that is something that really works for Fringe audiences: they like feeling that they were the lucky ones who just witnessed something tiny but polished, professional and thoroughly entertaining.
Location definitely has an impact on bums on seats. For Adelaide you must try to be within walking distance of a lot of Fringe activity. This means being down the road from the Gardens or getting in on a space with a bit of a hub feel. Venues like Tuxedo Cat, The Queens Theatre and Higher Ground have done that really well in the past. (Although not all of these spaces will be around this year but it is worth looking them up to see what kinds of things they were doing.) You want to be a part of a buzz. The more shows surrounding you the better. If a punter can make a night of it without moving more than 50 meters, they are happy.
Most importantly you want to be in a space that suits your show. The Garden of Unearthly Delights is a lot of fun but very, very few theatre shows would suit its carnival atmosphere. It is mostly for circus, cabaret, music and sideshows. Bars can be wonderful for some theatre shows but most are expecting only comedians and are set up to cater for this: maybe one par-can and a sound system. If you this works for your show, terrific but you’ll also want to think about noise bleed and if your show will thrive in a relaxed pub atmosphere. Most spaces are happy for you to bring in your own equipment if it is tested and tagged (we’ve done this most years) and you can really transform a space but you must also acknowledge the pre-existing vibe of the place.
2. Venue hire. What’s normal practice? Do they take a cut of the door, or a flat fee – or a combination of both? And would you say that smaller venues usually have lower overheads?
It varies depending on what you are after. If you want a theatre, you will pay a fee that is fixed and based on how many nights you are in there for. Places like Tuxedo Cat also work like this. Prices will range depending on what the space provides. If they come with a lot of gear and decent seats and a bar and an in-house tech, it will be more expensive. Your life will be easier but it will be more expensive. If they are set up more for lo-fi comedy gigs it will be cheaper, possibly funner, but a bit harder to make magical and unique.
The only spaces that will that only a cut of the door/free tend to be bars (and some generous shop fronts) and mostly they are relying on your punters’ alcoholism to make it worth their while. I would probably only beg for free space if I had a show which actively encouraged drinking throughout or had intervals during which you could encourage binge drinking. You have to be able to sell it to the venue as a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Such venues do reduce some of the stresses and risks in terms financial investment but it mean that the venue can’t be expected to help a lot. They want you to come in as a very self-sufficient outside hirer and pull in punters. It is do-able but you should go into the season knowing that there will be a relaxed atmosphere and not a polished theatre vibe.
3. What sort of costs do we need to factor in other than venue hire & registration fee? Accommodation & travel costs for those involved is obviously something that I would like to be able to cover, but is that only possible if we have some kind of successful fundraising stuff going on? Any other hidden costs I may not have thought of (other than set, transport, venue hire, promotional material, accommodation, costume ….)
I think you have the main areas covered. There may also be insurance. We (and pretty much every other theatre company) use Duck For Cover. Insomnia Cat Came To Stay cost us about $350 for The Malthouse season and that will then carry us through our Geelong and Brisbane seasons because the contact lasts about five months. Some spaces will cover you with their insurance but, particularly if it is a non-traditional theatre space, some may want you to provide your own.
We also budget in a contingency stash (usually a couple of hundred dollars), just in case we get any surprises like cars breaking down, set being damaged or broken, projectors or computers getting angry.
Transport: if you can drive and split petrol costs, amazing! Do it. It is also really useful to have a car around.
Accommodation: Relatives are a blessing as is coach surfing for braver people. Backpackers aren’t bad and some people I know have hired a house for a week if they have enough people/people willing to share beds.
I’d also set aside something to buy bus passes for cast members and non-Adelaide-tap-water water, so everyone feels well looked after and appreciated. It is stressful being in a new city. We try to work always with the acute awareness that our actors are barely getting paid and are probably losing money by not working their usual jobs for a few weeks. Most will have such a blast that they won’t mind but we try really hard to let them know how much we love them for what they are doing.
(This has nothing to do with budget) For this reason I would also recommend against having actors perform too many other duties for the production. I know it is hard in indie theatre and we all pitch in where needed but I’ve seen many incredibly stressed artists rushing about printing their tickets twenty minutes before shows or dashing into the city on 40 degrees days to replenish edible props. It is so exhausting. If you can have at least one person with you who isn’t onstage, your lives will be so much easier.
4. Promotion. What’s worked best for you in the past? Constant flyering? Facebook onslaughts?
There are a lot of publicity opportunities through Fringe: opening night parade, interviews at The Caravan and things like that but think about whether it will help your cause before you commit. The Caravan is in the middle of Rundle Mall and is best suited to circus or (clean) comedy. Doing a scene from a play is useless but if there is a couple of snappy but casual stand up bits or a great song, rad. Last year the hosts were amazing at keeping the audience engaged but you do get the feel that everyone is just waiting for the next backflip. Keep an eye on the Fringe website as every year they add new ways to promote your work. Last year there was a bus taking people to venues and you could get on, perform a bit, flyer a bit and point out your stop to people.
Promotional material: we print only about 30 posters. Unless you are paying a distributor, you can’t put them in a lot of places so we just do enough to cover our venue then print a lot of postcards. 400-1000 depending on the run size and how big the cast is. No point in printing if they won’t be distributed. Make sure the image is gripping. (If you are in Melbourne, hire www.sarahwalkerphotos.com, I am only a little bit biased.) The year of Skinhouse, just about everyone we gave a flyer to told us that they had seen our posters and we had only put up twelve. It was just a memorable image and stuck in their minds.
A promo video is terrific for sharing on facebook and there are some stunning artists working to create these. In Melbourne there is (again) Sarah Walker, batchedit.com.au and storybottle.com. There are amazing and really understand theatre.
(For an example: Insomnia Cat‘s trailer, created by Sarah Walker and Roderick Cairns.)
Facebook is really helpful. Less so when you are in a strange city but there will be a lot of artists over there and it is great to be able to share your event with them. On that note, I’d also advise that you offer comps to Fringe artists or at least artists sharing your venue. It just helps to create a community and gives you a guaranteed supportive audience but most importantly, they are the people you want to form connections with. That is the wonderful thing about festivals: you get to know what your fellow artists are doing and who you might want to work with next.
Radio interviews are good. (We love Radio Adelaide.) Flyering is great, particularly if you have eye-catching costumes. We haven’t done it so much with for the shows without exciting costumes as it can be just really tiring on the cast, particularly in the heat. For those shows the crew have just distributed flyers around town and checked every few days to see that they are topped up. Make sure that all cast do have flyers on them at all time so that they can give them out if they get into conversations with people.
Media: Send out media invites no less than two weeks from opening night. Three weeks is great. Your emails should have the media release attached to a (slightly) personalised email inviting the person by name, telling them clearly all the dates and times and a brief description. Media also don’t mind being reminded again if you haven’t heard back from them after a few days. I’ve heard a lot of them say that a polite follow up email is great and helps them schedule their hectic fringe time.
Lastly I just want to say that the staff at the Fringe are just amazing. They are so helpful and really go above and beyond. The venue staff are particularly helpful and, if you are coming from interstate, they will be the people you find yourself really relying on. They have saved us so many times, averting both minor and epic catastrophes.
So that is it for now. If anyone has any other questions, yell out. Fringe is so vibrant and thrilling to be a part of but just make sure you go into it prepared so that you can enjoy the ride.