Self Producing I: Venues & Festivals
Picking a venue for your show is the first major step in self-producing. It is also a very key step in the success of your show. The tips and recommendations I make here will be based on having worked both in London and across the UK. As most people live and work in London, I’ll be highlighting specific aspects to pay attention to in London. However, I recommend that everyone leave London. Make work outside the mega-city. It may seem daunting, but many aspects are easier. And cheaper. Oh, so much cheaper.
Venues hold a lot of power, particularly in London. As a result, they can afford to be picky about what they program. Approach them with a clear plan and research. Look at their programming history to determine if your show fits into their identity. Look at their audiences: are those the audiences for your show? You need to pick them as much as they pick you. A key aspect that is overlooked is how well a venue has developed a local audience. Do they have a large online following? Do they have a dedicated crown that comes to see most shows? Are they easy to get to? Are they doing to depend on you to bring the audience in? It’s incredibly difficult to create an audience and following; it takes years. If they are established and don’t have a dedicated audience then you will need to make room for a hefty marketing budget. In London, sometimes even that doesn’t work.
Be honest with yourself about the number of tickets/seats you can sell. You may think your show is absolutely amazing and will certainly bring tears to Lynn Gardner’s eyes, but if you are relatively unknown you will more than likely only sell a few tickets no matter what your show is. Don’t rely on family and friends to sell those tickets. Your aim should always be to attract people that don’t know you. All of this culminates in picking a venue with a reasonable number of seats. Aim for 25-40 seat venues for your first shows. Once you get the hang of marketing and attracting audiences, you can move up to more seats. Also, aim for fewer performances. Having one sell-out night is always better than three undersold nights.
Approaching a venue can seem daunting, but remember that you are ultimately looking for a collaborator. Go talk to the small pub theaters near you. Start developing that relationship early. Starting thinking outside of the box: can you run a workshop in their space? Can you co-organize any audience-building events with them, such as a street party? Are they a pub with a space looking for someone to help them program and fill it? The worst thing that they can say is “no.” In that case, you move on and no harm is done.
Obviously, the big festivals, like Edinburgh and Brighton, are what consume most people’s attention all summer. The aim we all have as fringe theatre makers is the Phoebe Waller-Bridge effect: have a successful fringe show that eventually becomes a West End show, BBC show, and sky rickets us to success. I want that dream for all of us, but it ain’t going to happen, gang. When considering whether or not to bring your show to these festivals you need to consider the cost versus the reward. I don’t just mean financial cost, either (of which there is a lot!). As the producer, it takes a lot of unpaid hours and energy to produce a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It requires a year of planning to get a show up there and do it right. Be sure you are aware of the realities: the average audience for an Edinburgh Fringe show is 2. TWO PEOPLE. AVERAGE. You are competing with literally thousands of other shows. These are not exaggerations.
I’m going to give a few suggestions on the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as my thoughts on other fringe festivals I have been to or participated in. If you want to know “How to Edfringe” the Edfringe website has oodles of guides that are better written than mine.
Edinburgh Fringe: First you have to apply to a venue. Everyone goes for the “Big 4” - Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, Assembly, and Pleasance. These venues are better known, but the competition between shows at these venues is harsh. A lot of them have a lot of money behind them. They also offer complicated financial deals (see financials below). I recommend going for more straightforward venues such as Greenside and theSpace. I always go with Greenside because they program on a first come first served basis with a simple financial deal and, most importantly, they have a real sense of community. Everyone with a show there comes to see everyone else’s shows. There’s no feeling of competition, but rather one of support. Much love for Greenside.
Marketing is an actual nightmare, so find a way to make flyering fun. You must flyer, it’s part of the deal with Edfringe. Wear silly masks, busk, flyer in pairs: anything to make it less soul-crushing! Word of mouth and Twitter are your best friends. Use them. Don’t waste your money with sponsored Instagram posts or anything like that. Fly-posting is also a waste of time. If you have the money, pay for some Out of Hand marketing.
Brighton Fringe: Here’s where I have a hot take: Brighton Fringe is not actually worth it. There isn’t a big-enough audience to support a festival of this size. Not many tourists come down for the festival, the locals don’t care, and the uni students are indifferent. Plus, there has been a couple of controversies in the past few years with Brighton Fringe venues not paying out to companies. This is a classic case of the hype being bigger than the reality. Even companies in the larger venues have a hard time selling tickets.
Smaller Festivals: Here’s the best-kept secret: the smaller fringe festivals are where it's at. Ventnor Fringe, Exeter Fringe, Camden Fringe, and Bath Fringe all have better audience reach, more realistic financial deals, and better opportunities for smaller companies. Consider leaving the big festivals out for a few years while you cut your teeth at smaller festivals.
Here’s the stuff you’ve all been waiting for: the low down on the money stuff. The best deals you can hope for from a venue is a straight split. The standard is 60/40 in your favor. That means the venue gets 40% of ticket sales and you get 60%. If someone tries to give you less than 50%, they are trying to take advantage of you. The company should never get less than 50%, and even that is not an amazing deal. It is always better to take a deal where you don’t have to put money down immediately. It loosens the financial pressure off of you and encourages the venue to be as invested in promoting your show as you are.
There are other deals that don’t require you to put money down immediately but are still not good. For example, certain festivals/venues will have a minimum guarantee ticket deal. This means they have calculated how much it would cost to rent your venue slot and they will be paid that amount no matter that. They won’t require you to pay that money upfront, but they will take it out of your ticket sales. As a result, you don’t actually see any of your ticket sales until after they make their minimum guarantee. After you reach that amount, you might be able to keep all of your ticket sales or they might still take 40%. With this deal, you can end up owing the venue money if you don’t sell enough tickets. The venue often won’t care about promoting your show as much either because they know they will get their money in the end anyway.
There is also a straight hire, in which you pay the venue a hire fee and you keep 100% of your ticket sales. This is a good in-between option. You can budget easily for this and the venue usually gives you a bit of freedom with how you sell tickets (i.e. ticket deals, comps, etc) because they have no right to any of your sales.
As a general rule, always make a budget with room for the things you don’t expect (such as promo photos, a recording of the show, a broken costume, gas money, etc). Be clear with venues about their ticket deal and know what you are getting into. If you’re not comfortable, don’t be afraid to back out. If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, then bail. Artists are the only part of the theatre industry that doesn’t make any money.
And here, at the end of a very long blog post, we finally get to marketing. To be completely honest, marketing seems to be a matter of money. Lots and lots of money. Which isn’t great for fringe theatre where you can expect to make almost no money. The best way to create your marketing budget is to determine what percentage of your ticket price you are willing to spend on marketing. For example: your tickets are £10 and you have 50 seats to sell. For each ticket, you are willing to spend £2 to sell that ticket. £2 times 50 seats and your budget will be £100. If you end up spending more on marketing than it costs to sell the tickets, then you need to reconsider your budget entirely.
As for marketing methods: social media paid marketing is not as effective as it used to be. You need to create one post that will encourage people to click on it and there’s no real way to confirm the analytics Meta gives you are real. It’s a gamble. Having a social media presence is definitely important, though. Remember to shout out your social media handles after every event.
As for posters, audience members are drawn to images of faces. The eye is drawn to it immediately and our monkey brains file away that as an important piece of information. Make sure you have a face on your poster. Put the rest of the information on there clearly: time, location, and where to buy tickets.
The most important thing to remember about marketing is that someone is more likely to see your show if they meet you in person. That isn’t always possible or realistic, but when you can do marketing in person, do it. Talk about your show to everyone. Be proud and excited by it! Have flyers or stickers in your bag or pocket all the time to give people.
Recommended venues & festivals
These are my favorite places to put on shows:
Bonus: Cheap rehearsal spaces in London