This guide is aimed at science communicators who have done live shows before but never at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
by Florence Schechter
So you’ve developed a science communication show, performed it a few places and you’re ready for the next step… taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But you’ve never done it before, and it seems like way more organisation than a science festival who do all the admin for you. This guide is to help you through the process of taking your own scicomm show to Edinburgh.
What is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world and was started in 1947 when eight theatre companies rocked up uninvited to the first Edinburgh International Festival (it was super petty and hilarious). The Edinburgh Fringe is an “open access” arts festival – this means that anyone can put on a show, there is no selection process (this is precisely why in 1947 the Fringe was created, because the International Festival were very picky with who got to perform and some people didn’t like it and wanted to perform anyway). As long as you can find a venue to host you, you’re in. A few years after 1947, The Fringe Society was founded to organise the random groups who were performing at Edinburgh and give them a face. You don’t technically need to be part of the Fringe Society to be part of the Fringe itself but it has its advantages.
The Fringe runs every year for about three to four weeks in August. You don’t have to do the whole run, you can do just a few days or one or two weeks. Most shows are an hour long.
Why do Edinburgh?
There’s loads of reasons! Here are a few:
- It’s loads of fun
- It is rare to perform a scicomm show so many times in a row so is amazing practise and a good opportunity to refine it
- If you want to reach audiences that don’t normally engage in scicomm, there is a huge audience waiting for you (if you do it right)
- Some journos might come review it which will give you quotes/stars to use on posters/press releases/pitches
- You get to watch other scicomm shows and see how they do it
What sort of show should I bring?
Depends on who you are trying to reach. Talks, panels and lectures tend to attract older audiences who are already interested in science. Demo-heavy shows tend to attract mostly families. There are other formats that are smaller/still emerging such as science comedy, science music, even science burlesque. But most of all, do something you enjoy because you may be doing it 25 times in a row.
Should I do paid fringe or free fringe?
You may be aware there are generally two ways of doing the fringe: paid or free. “Paid” means that the audience pay for tickets and the performer pays venue hire or splits ticket sales with the venue. “Free” means that the audience don’t pay to see your show and the performer doesn’t pay for venue hire. Free shows normally finish with a “bucket speech” where you encourage your audience to donate at the end what they feel your show was worth and help you recoup your costs.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both and you have to know what your priorities and aims are before deciding which.
Advantages and disadvantage of paid and free shows
|Participation||You have to apply to venues who have a selection process to make sure they have a cohesive programme, so you may be rejected||If you apply to a free fringe group they will 100% let you take part|
(accommodation, food, etc is the same in both)
|You will have to pay the venue either a hire fee or a share of your ticket sales with them. If you share ticket sales, you will normally have to pay them a “guarantee”. There may also be extra charges such as being part of the venue’s programme, marketing costs, tech, etc||You don’t have to pay the venue anything at all. You keep all the donations your audience give you at the end of the show.|
|Making a loss||There is the potential to lose a lot of money if your show doesn’t do very well. If a venue isn’t charging a venue hire but is rather doing a ticket split, they may charge you a “guarantee” to protect themselves against this which is a bit like a deposit that you don’t get back if not enough tickets sell. If your show is a sell out, you could make a nice profit – however, the Fringe will always surprise you so never bank on being popular unless you are Phil Jupitus or something.||Even though you aren’t paying for your venue, you will still need to pay for you accommodation, living costs, marketing, etc. At the end of a free show, you will normally do a “bucket speech”. This is very variable and if on average you get £2 per audience member, this is considered quite good. There is the potential to make money but you are at the whim of your audience.|
|Choosing your venue||You get to apply for a specific venue that fits your needs.||You will be assigned a venue according to your preferences but you may not get something that fits your show, may be far out from the city centre, etc.|
|Venue type||The venues are very professional and have proper stages, lights, PA systems etc. They are normally actual theatres or at the very least black boxes.||You may be performing in the store room of a pub or a studio flat (this really happens). You will be provided with a backdrop, a simple PA system, mic, mic stand and chairs for the audience. Everything else you have to bring yourself – e.g. lights, extra mics, music player. Also, they can sometimes be quite noisy as there is no soundproofing and you’ll probably be in a venue which runs its business alongside the Fringe so they may be interruptions such as noise or staff walking through your space during your show.|
|Support staff||You will normally be provided with a ticketing service, front of house staff, cleaners, etc. You may have to bring your own techies though (or they will charge you to use theirs).||You have to do everything yourself – set up the venue and clear it out at the end, set up the tech, be front of house, clean up at the end of your show, etc.|
|Certainty||What you book is what you get, the venues have insurance for when things go wrong.||Free fringe venues sometimes fall through for various reasons and you may be suddenly reassigned a venue. Most free fringes are run by volunteers so communications and organisation can be patchy sometimes.|
|Tech rehearsal||You are guaranteed a tech rehearsal.||It is highly unlikely you will get a tech rehearsal unless you coordinate with the other shows in your venue about when the space will be free (which may not happen).|
|Audience investment||If someone has bought a ticket to a show, they are normally highly invested in it. They will be quiet and turn up on time.||Audiences act more casually towards free shows and tend not to follow normal audience norms. For example, they may leave halfway through or come in late, not necessarily be interested and only came because it was a free way to kill an hour or get out of the rain, may heckle more, etc|
|Audience size||Doing a paid show will not guarantee you a larger audience, audiences have a limited budget and the Fringe is expensive.||Doing a free show will not guarantee you a larger audience, as free shows are known for being very variable in their quality.|
So, now hopefully you’ve identified your priorities and aims, weighed up whether you’d like to do a free fringe or paid. You will likely make this decision largely based on your budget.
What sort of budget am I looking at?
Ok, let’s do this. I’m going to assume you are intelligent enough to know which costs will be reduced if you do a shorter run and which won’t. Budgets are obviously hugely variable based on the type of show you are doing and your lifestyle. The purpose of this budget is to give you an idea of what you need to consider when building your own budget.
- This budget assumes you are not VAT registered.
- We’re going to imagine you are doing a 50 seater for 25 performances
- In the paid fringe column, we’re assuming you’re doing 25 performances plus two tech/previews and it is part of a guarantee/ticket split situation a la The Pleasance venue (you will find a list of venues later where you can investigate the particulars of each, this is just to provide a ballpark estimation).
The Fringe Society has a budgeting tool (read: spreadsheet) that can calculate your budget, breakeven point, etc here: https://www.edfringe.com/take-part/putting-on-a-show/budgeting-and-finance
|Category||Item||Notes||Paid Fringe||Free Fringe|
|Production costs||Venue guarantee||Based off The Pleasance system||2000||0|
|Props/consumables for demos||–||You know your own show, you can put this number in.|
|Techie||You will either bring your techie, or your paid venue can lend you one (for a charge – about £24 per performance)||504||0|
|Fringe Society commission (4%+VAT)||The Fringe Society charges a commission on all sales made through their box
|Venue ticket printing charge||Venues sometimes charge about 10p per ticket sold for the printing||50||0|
|Public liability insurance||Essential, may be higher if you are doing demos||100|
|Living costs||Accommodation||There is a section later about finding a place to stay||1000|
|Food||This is assuming you mostly cook for yourself||100|
|Travel||Travel to/back Edinburgh||This is for an open return from London, adjust for yourself||90|
|Travel within Edinburgh||You may need taxis to transport equipment or buses to your flat if it’s far||50|
|Press and marketing||Fringe society registration fee||Gets you in the official programme||Early bird rate: 295.20
Standard rate: 393.60
|Marketing contra||Most venues and free fringe organisations also print their own programmes||600||0|
|Photos||This is for your poster/flyer. You can get a friend to do it (free) or pay a professional (paid)||80||0|
|Flyer/poster design||Again, do it yourself or pay someone||60||0|
|Flyer printing||For a three week show, you’ll probably need no more than 2000 but more if you have more than one person flyering for your show||120|
|Poster printing||Max 100, depending on how dedicated you are to putting them up, could be even less.||30|
|Trailer||Not essential but could be helpful for online promotion||500||0|
|Contingency||Contingency (10%)||Absolutely essential. Something will go wrong.||640||190|
|TOTAL||~ 6400||~ 1900|
Potential additional costs:
- PRS music licensing
- Venue/flat deposit – you will get this back normally in September/October
- Hire a paid flyerer
|Funding||The next section is about securing funding||Variable|
|Ticket sales (Paid fringe)||Prepare for smaller audiences, about 40% of tickets sold. If doing a ticket split, it is normally 60%/40% in your favour if you are VAT registered or 55%/45% if you aren’t. This figure already takes out the venue share and assumes the guarantee was fulfilled.||2750|
|Bucket speech||Assuming you get about £20 per night, but hugely variable||500|
Can I get funding?
Yes, potentially. Here are some places you can approach. Make sure you do it well in advance.
- Your university’s public engagement department
- Your department
- If you are doing a PhD, are a funded researcher, or something similar, your funder
- If you are involved with/part of a society (e.g. Royal Society of Biology), they normally have outreach grants
- Wellcome Trust – they commissioned The Sick of the Fringe which has been running for a few years now
- Arts Council England
- Start a crowdfunder
Where should I do my show?
Finding a venue is one of the most important things you’ll do. Once you have a confirmed venue, you are officially part of the Fringe!
To do a paid show, you negotiate with a venue to put on the show. To do a free show, you negotiate with one of the free fringe organisations and they assign you a venue. They are very different processes and I will go through how to do each.
How to do a paid show
- Research which venue group you would like to perform with. There are many and each have their own vibe. Here is a list of the biggest ones
- Pleasance puts on lots of comedy and interesting/left-field theatre.
- Underbelly programme lots of genres and it is all very different and cool.
- Summerhall tends to be quite serious but also does lots of children’s shows.
- C Venues is very theatre-y.
- Gilded Balloon is known for comedy but does theatre and cabaret too.
- Paradise Green are a non profit.
- The Stand hosts Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas and do both comedy and serious talks.
- Zoo does theatre and dance.
- The Space does all sorts of genres.
- Bedlam Theatre is normally run by the University but during August does comedy and theatre.
- Sweet Venues are actually all over the country and programme a range of things.
- Assembly is another really big one.
- Just the Tonic does mostly comedy and does a ticketing system where you pay to book in advance or pay what you feel on the day.
- “There’s too many, which should I pick?!?” Each venue group will have a performer’s pack on their website which you can use to glean more information, including:
- The types of shows they are looking for
- How much commission they charge on ticket sales
- Is it a straight venue hire charge or a ticket split
- If it is a ticket split, how much is the guarantee
- If there is a guarantee, does the split occur after or before the guarantee is recouped
- What the ticket split is percentage wise
- If they provide support staff (box office, front of house, etc)
- Whether they provide techies and if they do, how much do they charge
- If they do provide techies, will they be a different person every day or the same
- What other extra charges there are, e.g. for marketing
- How much marketing will they do for you
- If you sell merchandise, will they take a cut
- How much time do they provide for a technical rehearsal
- Accessibility – is it important to you the venue has a hearing loop, relaxed performances, etc?
- How environmentally friendly the venue is
- What happens in the event of a cancellation
- Do they provide a performer’s discount at the bar (don’t lie, you were wondering)
- What you will need to consider when choosing a specific venue within your group:
- Technical requirements
- Audience size
- I recommend applying to a few places in case you get rejected. You don’t have to accept an offer if you get more than one.
How to do a free show
- Research which free fringe organisation you’d like to be a part of:
- Once you’ve chosen, you submit to them what your show is about, your technical requirements, preferred time slot and preferred venue size. They will then assign you the best match they can find from their list of participating venues.
- If you don’t like the venue they’ve chosen, you can negotiate but it’s unlikely they’ll find you something better as they’ve already given you what they think is the best venue based on the information you provided them.
You can also technically organise your own venue for something site-specific and not be part of either a venue group or a free fringe organisation but that is a HUGE job and would not recommend unless you have a person to do all of that for you and who has done it before.
What dates and time?
Dates: If you want to do only one week, I’d recommend doing the first week or the last week. The middle is harder to get audiences.
Times: Mornings and afternoons tend to have more families. Evenings are more adult-focused but if you are on the free fringe, you may get rowdy drunk people coming along, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.
What about teching the show?
This has been discussed before briefly but I want to address if from a scicomm angle. Many scicomm shows will have different tech requirements to other types of shows.
If you do demos, I assume you already know everything about health and safety, licences, etc. You should discuss these with a potential venue before applying to make sure it can accommodate you. If you are doing a demo heavy show, I’d highly recommend doing it on the paid fringe because you will have trained staff to help you out in case anything goes wrong (on the free fringe, there’s just you and anyone you bring with yourself)
If you have slides, make sure your venue has a projector and something to project onto. If you are doing the free fringe, you will have to bring your own projector and white screen (most supplied backdrops are black).
Do I need insurance?
It’s good practise to get public liability insurance (and this may be especially important if you are doing demos) and some venues may require it of you.
How do I get the show in the official programme/join the Fringe Society?
Register with the Fringe Society before the deadline. You’ll need:
- A title
- A confirmed venue, time slot and performance dates
- A square image to go next to your listing
- Chosen category (Cabaret and Variety, Children’s Shows, Comedy, Dance, Physical Theatre and Circus, Events, Exhibitions, Music, Musicals and Opera, Spoken Word, Theatre)
- A blurb that is max 40 words long for the printed programme
- A blurb that is max 100 words long for the edfringe website
Here is a guide to registering a show.
Being part of the Fringe Society means you also get access to lots of help from them like marketing and you also get a cool lanyard.
How do I get people to come (i.e. marketing)?
Here is a list of various tactics you can use:
- Get in the official fringe programme
- Flyer every day around Edinburgh/on the Royal Mile/outside your venue for around two hours before your show starts (this is really really important)
- Pay a hungry twenty-something to flyer for you
- Get an ad in the official programme
- Put posters up around your venues
- Leave flyers/posters in cafes/hostels/etc (always ask first)
- Make a website
- Tweet about your show
- Make a facebook event for your show
- Guest in other people’s shows and encourage the audience to come see you
- Send a press pack to media outlets to encourage them to come review you
- Take part in ticket offers (e.g. 2for1 weekend, half price hut)
- If you get a good review, print it on a piece of paper and staple it to your flyers/posters
- Busk on the Royal Mile (get the right permissions)
- If you were funded by someone, get them to do some publicity
Where will I live?
There are some options:
- Rent an entire flat if you have some people to share with
- Rent a room in university halls
- Rent on airbnb
- Stay with a friend
The Fringe Society has a services directory: https://www.edfringe.com/take-part/services-directory/accommodation
And also a register: https://www.edfringe.com/take-part/accommodation-register
Do this as in advance as you possibly can as places get booked up very quickly.
What is an average timeline?
- Pick what show you would like to do (you can spend now until August writing/refining it but you should have a general idea)
- Research venues
- Most paid venues will open applications in this month
- Put together a budget
- Start writing funding applications
- If on the paid fringe, apply for a time slot and contract with your chosen venue(s)
- If on the free fringe, make your application to one of the free fringe organisations
- Start looking for a flat
- Send off funding applications
- Plan your marketing campaign
- Take publicity photos
- Design posters and flyers
- Negotiate a contract with a flat
- Early bird deadline for registering with the Fringe
- If you want, place ads in the Fringe programme
- Final deadline for registering with the Fringe
- Refine your budget
- Send your press pack to relevant publications
- Get your show slick and adapt it for your venue if needed
- Go to Edinburgh!
- Flyer every day
- Have loads of fun
- If doing a paid show, wait for the ticket sales to be processed and distributed
- Do your evaluation
What else should I do in Edinburgh?
- Network with other scicomm shows (maybe even guest in one!). Every year there is Skeptics on the Fringe and Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. There are also loads of shows every year, do a call out on twitter using the hashtags #edfringe and #scicomm to connect!
- Climb Arthur’s Seat
- Watch the fireworks on the last day of the Edinburgh International Festival
- Visit Surgeon’s Hall and other science/medical historical sites of the city
Where else can I get information?
The edfringe website has tonnes of info and guides: https://www.edfringe.com/take-part
This guide is a good starting point: https://www.edfringe.com/uploads/docs/participants/Fringe%20Guide%20to%20Doing%20a%20Show.pdf
You can also contact me, the writer of this post, by going to www.floschechter.com/contact
Now go forth and bring your wonderful scicomm to Edinburgh!