Scicomm at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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.

edfringe

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?

 

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The writer of post saying something science-y probably. Credit: Patrick D’Arcy

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

Paid Free
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
Budget

(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.

Notes

  • 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  

 

Costs

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.
Costumes
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

office.

200 0
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

 

Income

Item Notes Amount
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?

 

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Members of the Agony Auncles Cast being silly at our venue. Credit: Patrick D’Arcy

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:
    • Budget
    • Technical requirements
    • Audience size
    • Location
  • 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?

December

  • 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

 

January

  • 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

 

February

  • Send off funding applications
  • Plan your marketing campaign
  • Take publicity photos
  • Design posters and flyers
  • Negotiate a contract with a flat

 

March

  • Early bird deadline for registering with the Fringe
  • If you want, place ads in the Fringe programme

 

April

  • Final deadline for registering with the Fringe
  • Refine your budget

 

May

  • Send your press pack to relevant publications

 

June/July

  • Get your show slick and adapt it for your venue if needed

 

August

  • Go to Edinburgh!
  • Flyer every day
  • Perform
  • Have loads of fun

 

September/October

  • 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!

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The cast members having a laugh at an Agony Auncles Show in London. Credit: Steve Cross

 

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What makes a joke funny?

I have been performing stand-up comedy for 8 years.  I’ve tried a lot of styles, I’ve performed to a lot of audiences, but mostly I’ve dedicated a not inconsiderable amount of my idle brain power to writing, dissecting, and thinking about stand-up routines and jokes. This hobby has left me with some thoughts about what makes jokes funny and what makes them offensive, or rubbish, or boring. And, seen as how it is my turn to write the blog post, I thought I would attempt to distill some of them down on paper (or screen if you haven’t printed this post out to read on the tube like a normal person).

Before we get started I think it’s worth pointing out the obvious: comedy is subjective. Not everyone finds the same things funny and everyone has personal preferences, be that of performers (I’ve never really liked John Bishop) or genres (nor  the American style of stand-up which involves telling ‘jokes’ one after another). But I think there are two things that inform our personal preferences and they have a lot less to do with the joke that’s being told (by which I mean the literal words coming out of the performer’s mouth) and a lot more to do with who is doing the telling and what we think about them.

So, what do you need to make a joke funny? I think it boils down to the following: trust and respect.

Trust

A lot of the funny lives right next door to offensive and often people talk about there being a ‘line’ between the two. Jokes get funnier as they approach the line and become less funny when they hit it and pass over to the other side. I’m not a fan of this metaphor because I think the same joke can be funny or not funny simply based on who is telling it. The line does not exist in the same space for everybody and, if that’s the case, what’s the point in there being a line at all? (Admittedly the metaphor works better in some non-Euclidean geometries but this post is not about maths or about this metaphor, so who has the time?)

Here is an example, if my friend X makes a joke about how he is included on poster for diversity purposes, I will probably laugh. This is, in part, because X is very funny and he would make the joke in an interesting way, but also because I know that X has dedicated a lot of his time to raising the profile of BAME Scientists in a way that doesn’t involve just sticking them on a poster. The fact that he must navigate the world of institutionalised racism on a daily basis and actively pushes back both explicitly and implicitly in all of his research and hobbies adds a layer of irony to the joke which makes it funny. But it’s not just that. When I heard the same joke told by a white friend in reference to a black person they know (“my friend went to a conference and immediately put her on the poster”) I did not laugh, even though it may be just as ironic to use her as a token PoC.

The difference between these two jokes is that I trust X. Specifically, I trust that the joke he is making is “it is ironic that this institution is using me to look more diverse when they could help me actually make them more diverse by giving a small amount of support to one of my projects” instead of “there aren’t very many black people at STEM conferences no matter who is on the poster”. I trust X to be making a joke about structural discrimination and institutional incompetence, not about a lack of PoC and so I can laugh without worrying that I am condoning racism.

If you don’t understand why I don’t like it if you joke about me hating men because I am gay but still make jokes about hating men because I am gay, this is why. I don’t trust you to not be laughing at me and I don’t trust you to not be buying into that stereotype. If you are a cishet person that I do not know very well (or perhaps one I know too well) I don’t trust that you’re not queerphobic and that you don’t contribute to the  hatred of the LGBTQ+ community. But, I do trust myself and many other queer performers to be able to explore and criticise the queer-women*-are-man-haters stereotype using irony and, where possible, puns. I think, in order to make a joke, particularly one that features a marginalised community, you need to have earned the trust of your audience so that they know you are not a perpetuator of the circumstances that made that joke. Otherwise they don’t feel comfortable laughing.

How much you trust the person making the joke will, most of the time, be entirely subconscious. Either you will feel comfortable laughing at the joke or you won’t and I am arguing that the level of comfortableness you feel will be based on the assumptions you make about the person. When the joke has more than one potential punchline, how much you trust them to be making the joke that you think is funny is a factor in whether or not you laugh.

But, that’s enough about why white, cishet, able-bodied men aren’t funny. Let’s look at marginalised groups now as the next bit, I think, explains why many people “just don’t find them funny”.

Respect

There is a difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. When you laugh at someone the object of laughter is entirely passive, they may have fallen over or said something stupid or done a fart but they didn’t choose to do or say that thing that made you laugh. When you laugh with someone, they need to have actively engineered the thing so that they are also outside the joke looking in.

What does this have to do with respect? I think a large part of seeing a joke is thinking that one is being made in the first place. In order to presume someone has made a joke, you have to think they are clever enough and funny enough to do so. In other words, you need to afford them a certain level of respect.  This is particularly important in those ambiguous situations where a comment might be a joke or it might be serious remark, where the person making joke might be saying something clearly stupid for comic effect or actually doesn’t understand the situation, where you have to decide the intentions of the person before working out how to respond.

Here, our subconscious biases about the intelligence of those around us play a big part in which intentions we presume. I think this is one of the main reasons why a lot of people “just don’t think women are funny”. Women make jokes all the time but if you are more likely to assume that a woman is actually angry at your throw away sexist comment as opposed to trying to diffuse the situation with a sarcastic joke or really doesn’t know what the word deception means instead of pretending to be an idiot for the amusement of her Twitter followers, then that is exactly what you will see.

But aha!, humans have the capacity to change their tone and body language to inform others of what they mean. Well, for starters, if you have the ability to do that then, congratulations, enjoy a life of people not always presuming you are a sarcastic robot. More seriously, from my experience, the deeply entrenched subconscious biases that make people think women aren’t capable of running companies or doing maths also blind you to the body language and tone that screams “this is a big fucking joke, dumbass”. It also doesn’t help that we learn to process the meaning of tone through exposure to scenarios and, if you are told a woman, takes herself too seriously, if you never see people laugh at her sarcastic comments then you learn to process a sarcastic-I’m-clearly-joking tone of voice as a deadly serious statement.

The impact of this isn’t just binary, either, a lack of respect for a performer doesn’t guarantee you won’t find them funny at all, instead it might change the way you appreciate a particular comic’s style. Audiences might view a female performer who focuses on sexism as an “angry feminist who doesn’t even make jokes”. Or maybe see a performer with a disability to be doing “just observational comedy” instead of giving credit to their ability to navigate “the line” or appreciating how difficult it can be to bring on board an able bodied audience and make them feel comfortable and willing to laugh at their jokes. They presume every story actually happened and don’t consider the creativity drawn upon to exaggerate, enhance, or create from scratch tales to make you not only laugh but also think about your own life. Whereas, we all know Stuart Lee’s a genius, right?

Ok, I am now over my word count and should be concluding. I can’t say I really have a conclusion though (just watch my stand up, you’ll see I’m terrible at endings). Perhaps I can finish by saying, to performers, consider whether or not your audiences can trust you to make the jokes you want to make and, to audiences, perhaps finding large proportions of a particularl group of people not very funny is an indication that you have some prejudice buried somewhere? Or maybe I’ll instead finish by saying that I don’t think jokes are funny because of the words that we say but because of who we are, how we say them, and the connection we have with the people we say them to.

*Carefully places microphone on ground and exits, hopefully not pursued by a bear*

Confidence

Unlike some of the other Talent Factory members, I haven’t really got a stage name (which, I feel, has stifled my attempts to climb the leaderboard of the UK battle rap scene). Everything I do as a performance is as Alex.

Including the final of FameLab this year.

Based in the Imax Cinema inside the Science Museum, I was up against 9 others to be the best at explaining a topic (in under 3 minutes) to win a prize of £1750 £500 £1000 and a spot in the International Final.

So mildly stressing as a concept.

Now, I’m not a confident person.

That statement often surprises people. More often than not, it is the outcome of a conversation where it is mentioned that I perform on stage, either doing comedy or rapping or both.

Stage Alex, however, is one of the most confident people out there.

It just so happens that Stage Alex has faked his confidence.

Now most of these thoughts are things that I’ve learned over my life but have been truly harnessed and understood for the first time during my time in the Talent Factory.

The Crowd Don’t Know What To Expect

There’s a very common danger, whenever you are performing, to have the following thoughts:

  • I am going to be very bad at this
  • My performance isn’t going to go how I’d planned.
  • Why did I do this and how do I get out without the promoter seeing me?

For a performance of any kind where there is an audience, I like to think that there’s a general contract. They’ve come to see a show, I’ve come to be part of one. Aside from the general theme of the night and the single sentence that is sometimes provided on the show bill, the audience has no idea what the performer is going to bring to the table.

And that realisation is incredibly liberating.

From the moment that you get onto the stage, the audience don’t know what you’re going to do exactly. So that means that the only person you’re comparing against is your own perception of yourself.

You missed an entire section of a story? It’s fine.

You went off on a tangent and didn’t hit the punchline to every joke? It doesn’t matter.

You spent too long interacting with the crowd and had to finish a song halfway through? Not a problem.

The audience wasn’t there for the hours you spent working on your material. They don’t know what’s going on in your head while you’re on stage. They don’t know that that little notebook isn’t a prop and actually contains your gig notes. They don’t know how you planned to intricately weave one story into another.

You might be berating yourself after the performance that it was only 60% as good as what you practiced the night before. That doesn’t matter. The audience have only seen it once and, as we’ll see, it was the best of its kind.

You Are The Best

Something that gets me through my PhD-based Impostor Syndrome is the idea that there is nobody else working on my exact field and seeing the exact data that I am. And for that reason, I am the best in the (sub(sub(sub(sub))))-field that I’m in.

Coincidentally, it’s the same logic that helps me feel confident on stage.

Unless you are plagiarising a routine from another performer, chances are your performance will never have been done before by anyone else. That means that your performance is unique. That means that, for the time that you are performing it, you are the best at what you are doing.

This logic might sound highly infantile but it is the truth.

Whenever I’m worried about trying something new on stage, it is this logical deduction that gets me through my worries. Even if something doesn’t pan out, I am the best person doing it.

The Audience Wants You To Be The Best

Psychologically, nobody likes to feel stupid. It’s why people share science articles that they don’t understand and laugh at references that they don’t get.

I’ve found this to be extremely handy in 2 ways.

The first is that no audience member wants to feel like they’ve wasted their time in coming to see you. They want to view themselves as being the clever sort of person that makes good choices with their time.

This ties into the second point – they are looking for any excuse to laugh. They want to show themselves (and others) that they make good choices. This is heightened even further if the event has cost money.

So the audience is primed to laugh and are looking for any excuse to do so. It’s not a huge uphill battle to get laughs. This realisation is wonderful for any pre-show nerves.

Own the Stage

Back to FameLab.

A major stress factor for me was the fact that, at the time, it was the largest audience that I’d ever been in front of and I was the first competitor on for the night.

A useful tip that I’ve learned from Steve is the importance of messing around on the stage.

Everything from pacing up and down to just sitting in front of the cameras while tech fiddled with lights. By enjoying the stage in a non-performative manner, I was able to make it feel more familiar.

This was really important as it allowed me to have an idea of just how big the space I had to work with was and made me spend less energy focusing on where I was moving (and more on actually performing).

Psyche Yourself Up

When the Imax began to fill before the performance, I blocked out the outside world with some motivational music to get me in the right headspace.

 

Music, I find, helps me shift psychologically into the more performative version of myself required for the stage. Some people like quiet, some people like sipping on a drink and going over lines – whatever your method is, find some time to do it before a show.

Summary

So in short:

  1. Only you know what you’re doing
  2. You’re the best at what you’re doing
  3. The crowd wants you to be the best
  4. Take some time to own the stage
  5. Psych yourself up.

In the video below, you can see how the above skills allowed me to feel comfortable in a setting that I didn’t have much experience in. 

And it’s these skills, more than anything, that helped me win.

 – Alex

————-

Up on stage a comedian is coming to the end of their 9 minutes. There have been laughs along the way, the tension is rising in the set, and there’s a sense that the room is with them. They gaze out around the room, making eye contact with the audience, inviting them in as they prepare to deliver their final punchline. They’re relaxed, owning the stage, taking their time. The last joke lands and the audience burst out in explosive laughter, followed by a well-deserved round of applause.

What was the performer was feeling as they walked onto the stage?

Tense, nervous, and uncertain. They just hid it well.

Confidence is a tricksy beast. Too little, and the nerves get in the way, blocking the transmission of your jokes and ideas to the audience. Too much and, well, there’s a reason why not only would most people be familiar with the word “overconfident”, but also its close friends “smug”, “conceited” and “foolhardy”. As comedy performers, however, it seems our problems are much more likely to be lack of confidence than coming across as more brash than we wanted. So how can we deal with that?

I’ve found that one of the most important things to remember is that the audience can’t see inside your head. While compering a gig recently I wasn’t sure how I’d done, as it felt like some of my jokes had fallen flat, but after the gig some of the audience members told me that I’d seemed in control and confident. Despite being unsure I’d tried to keep the same tone and body language throughout. Avoiding shrinking into yourself, moving deliberately rather than quickly and sharply, and slowly scanning the audience so that you can make eye contact with them (yes, even if you can’t actually see their eyes thanks to the stage lights) can go an awfully long way. Having the right body language can not only help to convince the audience, but also yourself. If you’re struggling with this, why not try creating a more confident character, like Aimee’s Dr Jiggs Bowson, that you can inhabit while on stage?

Another way of increasing your confidence is to get your prep right. Firstly, just making sure that you know your set well can work wonders. Beyond that, showing your set to other people can help you make sure you’ve got it right. I’ve got a bunch of notes from the Talent Factory team about my sets, pointing out both the good and bad things that I’ve done. Having friends who are willing to criticise when needed (in a constructive fashion of course) means that I can feel more confident about my material because I know that I can trust their positive comments about my sets too. Also, I know it’s inevitable that you’ll compare yourself to other people, but do try not to. They will be at different points in their comedy or performance journey to you, both because of differing amounts of experience and the fact that people develop in different ways and at different speeds. Instead, try comparing yourself now to yourself in the past, and take your confidence from the improvement.

Good luck, and get out there and give things a go!

 – Michael

Stage Personas: Dr Jiggs Bowson

By Aimee Eckert

Disclaimer: I feel profoundly unqualified to adopt an on-stage persona and also to write this blog. I am not a formally trained performance artist, but I shall do this on the ‘no such thing as permission’ principle as coined by the wonderful Scary Boots (@schrodingerskit). You can read all about this here.

 

I’m going to tell you a secret: my stage persona has been developing in a positive, symbiotic way long before I first stepped up to the mic. My stage persona is the colourful, optimistic clownfish to the often fretful & tangled tentacles of Aimee’s brain. Most of the time I am Aimee but when I am fronting the UK’s sparkliest, geekiest cabaret show, I am Dr. Jiggs Bowson. Jiggs for short, DJB for the duration of this post, and Dr. Bowson if you’re nasty.

DJB’s confidence, mannerisms and sense of style were borne out of a form of self-defence during a time where I was recovering from a toxic relationship and work environment whilst finding my feet in my new PhD position. Though I don’t want to at all suggest that suffering is necessary to produce art, I found that being creative helped to pull me out of a dark time.

For me, the use of a stage persona has been useful for the following reasons:

  • A way to battle pre-show nerves and make it easier to shake off self-doubt. E.g. “I may not be so good at X, but Jiggs is.”
  • Getting into the mindset of DJB makes it easier for me to have more energy and makes audience interaction more effective.
  • A stage name or persona sets the tone for the event and is more memorable than my real name which is great for marketing and audience engagement

A stage persona can be wildly different from how someone normally behaves but I don’t feel this always has to be the case. You certainly don’t need to be a trained actor (I’m not, though doing a few improv classes doesn’t hurt)

The creation of DJB was purely serendipitous and wasn’t formed with science communication in mind – it was all thanks to the creation of an inclusive, open mic style drag lip-sync competition in Brighton (a big thank you to Crystal Lubrikunt for establishing the night and to both Crystal and Lydia L’Scabies for their unwavering support). I never dreamt anything would come of it, but I felt a compulsion to have a go at incorporating science into a performance just for fun.

It was my extremely funny and successful comedian friend Sam Lake who suggested the stage name Jiggs Boson. I  added ‘Dr’ because I am an egomaniac and I also wanted to make the academic link obvious since not everyone will get the Higgs Boson joke and tweaked spelling of Boson to Bowson to reflect my love of midcentury style glamour (Bowson….’with bows on’. Geddit?? Yeah, I know. The pun isn’t great if it has to be explained. But perhaps it can be a private in joke for me and anyone else reading this).

DJB has been quite successful at ‘Lip Sync For Your Life’; winning two heats (in different ‘seasons’) to make it through to two different ‘finals’, in one of which I was the runner up. This gave me confidence to take this DJB idea further. I dreamt of a variety / cabaret show involving different science communicators and/or drag acts. It was the Brighton LGBTQ+ community that welcomed me so gracefully into their space and it’s a community that is full of outrageously talented people who deserve their art to be seen so for me it was essential to create space in return. I was then fortunate enough to be receive mentorship from nerd celebrity and comedian Dr. Steve Cross and he was instrumental in developing my scrambled word salad of an idea into what ‘Dr Jiggs Bowson’s Charming Science Friends’ is today: a bonkers, glittery, queer, cornucopia of talent that shows you can communicate science irreverently and unconventionally. We’ve had musicians, comedians, science demonstrators, science historians and drag acts all tell stories and make jokes using science. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but oh my goodness it really does, as shown by our sell-out shows in Brighton and this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival. If you want to keep abreast, pun intended, of Jigg’s gigs – follow me on Twitter (@aimee_e27) and @ScienceShowoff and come see us at one of the following events shown listed below these beautiful photos – though these won’t be the last (or least) you’ll see of me! *evil laughter*

19th & 20th August – Omni Tent, Green Man Festival

8th September – Horatio’s Bar, Brighton Pier (line-up & tickets tbc)

Applying for funding

by Anna Ploszajski

I went through a stage earlier this year of giving talks about the materials science behind money and counterfeit. This was mainly inspired by gazing out of the window wishing I had more of the stuff to live my fantasy lifestyle and also to pursue all of the public engagement projects I had saved in my head for later. During the process, I learnt that counterfeiting money is possible, but it’s quite difficult to do well and it can get you burnt at the stake. Fortunately, there are lots of organisations who give out money to people with good ideas about public engagement, but this requires some convincing, usually in the form of a written proposal.

Around the same time as attempting to form an illegal counterfeit ring with London’s finest science comedy audiences, I was invited to sit on the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious Panel. The Ingenious Fund is a huge pot of money which RAEng distribute annually to people with good ideas about public engagement with engineering – up to £30,000 each! – so the projects that come through are large-scale, ambitious and exciting.

It was my first time doing anything like this and there were very few others on the list without Dr, Professor or FRAEng by their name. I was also about 20 years younger than everyone else, one of only a small handful of women and I spent about 20 minutes sitting in the wrong room before the panel began.

So here are the 10 things that I learnt on that day about getting money for public engagement projects without having to invest in an HD printer and/or a coin press.

  1. Make your summary brilliant

The summary/abstract part of your proposal could be the only part that panellists read. Reviewers have a lot of them to read in preparation for the discussion (over 100 pages in my case!) so they will likely only read on if your abstract is killer. Summarise your project in as few words as possible and make that your first sentence. It needs to be exciting so grab their attention by using words they won’t have seen on the other 100+ pages of proposals.

  1. Next, make your budget detailed and accurate

Imagine if it was your money and you were putting your faith in someone else to spend it sensibly. You’d want them to be as detailed as possible. Including a 10% contingency is a nice touch and shows that you’re realistic about unforeseen circumstances. To me, applying for the maximum amount looks a bit greedy, though I have been guilty of this myself when applying for funding in the past. What are the chances that your project costs exactly £30,000? It’s better to do accurate and realistic costings and apply for what you genuinely think you’ll need, even if that comes to £29,995.95. Says the aspiring fraudster.

  1. Involve as many people in your team as you can.

If the panel are choosing between two equally good proposals but one of the projects will benefit and train one person and the other 20, they’ll go for the latter every time. Which brings me to…

  1. Offer your team training.

This gives the panel reassurance that the project will have longevity in the form of skilled people after it finishes.

  1. Make sure your idea is unique and hasn’t been done by anyone else before.

This means Googling and asking around people who have been in the area for a while.

  1. Evaluation is key

If your idea has been done before (by you), make sure you include how you used the evaluation (which you definitely did) to learn from your mistakes from last time (which you definitely made), and how you’ll use these lessons to make the project better this time. Panels usually won’t fund exactly the same thing twice. Your application will ask how you’ll evaluate your project. There are lots of resources to help with this online, and keep an eye out on this blog for some Talent Factory tips on evaluation.

  1. Geography counts for a lot!

Diversity of audience is important. This includes the usual categories of race, gender and socio-economic groups, but also geography. If you’re the only application from the Isles of Scilly, you stand a better chance than if the same proposal came from Islington.

  1. Panels will Google you

So be aware of your public image. I’m not saying that I voted against a project with four white boys doing “engineering” on the homepage of their website but maybe that’s what I’m saying.

  1. Don’t be surprised if your funding comes with conditions

Sometimes a panel will like most of the elements of a project, but they think you haven’t considered certain aspects carefully enough, such as evaluation or recruitment. This is a good thing as it means the panel liked your idea enough to fund it despite the shortcomings of the proposal and it’ll make the project go better in the long-run.

  1. If you find out you know someone on the panel, it won’t help to give them money/chocolate/sex…

…because that counts as a conflict of interest, so that panel member will just tag out of the conversation when it comes to discussing your proposal. Eat the chocolate yourself, it’s a better use of your time.

So those are my top 10 tips for increasing your chances of getting funded. But how do you find funding in the first place? Here are some good places to start:

  • Your university public engagement team – most have internal schemes for getting projects off the ground as well as funding long-term activities
  • The professional body of your subject area e.g Royal Academy of Engineering, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society of Biology, The Royal Society of Medicine, The Royal Astronomical Society
  • Charitable bodies e.g. The Wellcome Trust

Getting funding looks brilliant on your CV and although the proposal and evaluation forms can seem daunting and be very time-consuming, it’s a great feeling when you get awarded the cash and it’s definitely better than getting burnt at the stake. Good luck!

How Not to Make a Podcast

By Cerys Bradley and Anna Ploszajski

What could two amateur podcast makers tell you, a soon-to-be amateur podcast maker, about podcast making that you couldn’t learn yourself? Probably not very much, but we can tell you about all the mistakes we made and the tips we picked up along the way.

Equipment

I (Cerys) use a Zoom H6, which is a portable recording device which comes with two microphones and has the capacity to take up to four more microphones plugged in. It is adorable, easy to use and great if you want to record at many different locations.

I (Anna) also bought some portable equipment but mostly used a recording studio at UCL. The equipment was of higher quality and had multiple microphones which is much better for interviews.

Having reliable equipment that works is important because, even if your material is solid gold and what you have to say is interesting, if your audio quality is poor, your podcast will be difficult to listen to.

If you’re in this long term and want to make something worth making then investing in equipment is definitely step number one. If £300 is a bit out of your budget and you don’t have a free studio at your university that you can make use of, try looking at what’s available second hand because this technology seems to be made to last. We both received funding for equipment which was relatively easy to acquire from pots of Public Engagement money.

It’s really important to familiarise yourself with your equipment before you try recording. There are lots of fun ways to do this, for example you could follow your housemate around as if they were a minor celebrity asking them banal questions about their day. When testing your recording device you should be trying to work out how to turn it on (obviously), how to record and play back, how to adjust volume and levels, how to store and save recordings and transfer them to a different device for editing, how to check battery life, and learning the difference between using mono and stereo and the various different microphone attachments you may or may not have. Also make sure your device is compatible with your computer and the memory cards.

Recording

Make sure you have enough time because a podcast will usually take longer than you think. Schedule 1.5 – 2 times the length of your finished product for the recording and at least 15 minutes either side for tech stuff. This is particularly important if you are working with guests.

Having a clear idea of the material you want to cover in advance means you are more likely to sound like an interesting person, as opposed to every guy you’ve ever met at a party. Note, this doesn’t mean you have to have a full script. If you want a conversational style podcast then having some notes to prompt you will help to facilitate the conversation without impeding on the tone. I (Cerys) like to write the opening and finishing sentence of each section in full, that way I know where I am starting and where I am going. I (Anna) jot down questions to ask my interviewees remember – having your notes the beauty of radio!

You may want to include other sounds in your podcast to. For example, I (Anna) like to include sound effects from the guests (no, not farts). When interviewing a jewellery expert, I asked them to clank their bracelets for the listeners. This takes the listener from feeling like they are overhearing a conversation to feeling as though they are in the room.

Always do a levels check before you start and try to speak at an even volume throughout. For editing purposes, if you make a mistake, pause in your recording and begin the whole sentence again.

Things that we have done which were silly: accidentally conducting an entire recording through the laptop instead of the aforementioned snazzy recording device and producing garbage, not recording a twenty minute interview, working with someone for over a year who shouted into the microphone making editing and listening to the podcast an unbearable experience, and recording a guest with very clanky bracelets such that there was weird scratchy noises all the way through the interview.

Editing

Some people really like editing, others (we) hate it because it’s really tedious. There’s lots of free software out there that will get the job done. Apple’s GarageBand and Audacity are two favourites. If you really hate editing, get someone else to do it and pay them.

If you’re using music, either write your own or use freely-available stuff. I (Anna) create loops using the software GarageBand on my Mac to make sure I didn’t land a hefty law suit.

Capturepod

Guests

It is important to prepare your guests a head of time on the content of your podcast so that they feel comfortable. Letting them know in advance the questions you intend to ask them or the topics you will cover is both courteous and will enable you to get the most out of them. It is worth pointing out here that not everyone does their homework and, if it is important that they do, you need to be very clear about what is expected of them and why.

After the recording, it is also polite to let them know when you will release the episode and how they can promote it. You should also let them listen to your edit before you release it. It is also important to try to get your recording out as soon as possible, instead of letting it sit on your computer for months (we are both guilty of this). Bear this in mind when planning your show, have you got an afternoon or evening free (who works in the mornings?) where you could feasibly edit your episode soon after recording?

If you are working with people who don’t podcast on the regular, you cannot expect them to have read this blog and, therefore, understand the importance of maintaining constant levels. You may need to tell them how to use a microphone and remind them to stop drifting away from it or to speak up. Pro tip from Anna: I always say to guests “You probably know this, but please try not to move around, scratch yourself, and hit the table”. It’s amazing what these microphones will pick up.

Some Final Thoughts

Podcasting can be a simple and elegant way to communicate science, but I (Anna) definitely underestimated the steepness of the learning curve and time it would take to set up. It gets easier as you gain more experience, though, and the buzz when your phone automatically downloads one of your episodes is awesome. Happy podcasting!


Click the links below to hear the Talent Factory podcasts.

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by Rachel Wheeley

rialtalk3000sq

by Anna Ploszajski

There ain’t no such thing as a performance licence

In two months time myself and the Talented Factorials will be installing our act, Agony Auncles of Science, at the Edinburgh Free Fringe. I’m pretty sure I’m not ready, and someone else would do a better job. After all, just four months ago, we were asking beginner questions about the Fringe to a very patient and helpful Sarah Bennetto in a busy London pub. We asked ‘How do you know when you’re ready for Edinburgh?” She said “Well, it’s not like there’s someone who hands out permits.”

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Eight months ago, I wasn’t sure about applying for Talent Factory, and admitting that I wanted to experiment with drag. 26 months ago, I wasn’t sure about doing my first Science Showoff, and asking a room full of people to listen to me witter on. I knew I wanted to do some performance. I knew some science. I wondered if I could get on stage and make people laugh. I was interested in gender as a variable and a caricature, and I thought (still do) that people who do science probably should know more about the astounding variety of human gender. I worried I was not the best and shouldn’t do these things, that there were other people who knew more than me, were funnier than me, had better bodies and makeup than me, had earned their spurs and had their qualifications and were more right-on and better informed about gender politics. There are. But they were not there.

I was the person who was prepared to write the sets, learn them, perform them, invite everyone down, work the door, do the posters, write, improve, read the tutorials, make the costumes, read the books, rehearse, get the feedback, volunteer for the jobs and ask for the favours. I get my science wrong sometimes. Sorry.  I’m not the most enlightened, or least privileged person in the world (but I’m better than most of what’s out there at the moment). I have fucked up a few times, I will fuck up more. Other people could have done it better, but they didn’t.

If there is noone else who is willing to do the job, it doesn’t matter that you are not the best at it. If you wait until you are literally the best person in the world for the job you will never get the experience to be that good. If you wait until you are perfect you will wait until the universe dies a cold, lonely death, with the relentless vacuum only interrupted by the ashes of dead stars and the occasional glossy page of ’25 celebrities who went out for milk without makeup’.

Also, a lot of white boys from private school who haven’t even stopped to consider if they are qualified for the role will tread on your head.

If you have a chance to do something you want to do, do it. Learn. Sure, take advice (as much as possible), consider if you can bear the cost, emotionally and financially if it goes wrong, do your research about what you’re letting yourself in for – don’t be a child about it – but you need to take responsibility for your own development and that includes responsibility to try things that sound so awesome they are terrifying. The worst that can happen is failure. The worst they can say is no.

Do you think you get a regulation 3 points after finishing each gig (+5 for a good one, -1 for a bad one, +2 if you remained upright throughout)? ‘You must be this experienced to ride’? Is there an extra shield you can equip if you know your gender theories and axes of oppression backwards and forwards? Does giving a totally garbled account of gravitational redshift that gets confused between acceleration and velocity mean you get your science passport revoked? (You do lose 4 points for that one though).*

There is no giant golden hand of comedy that comes down and bops you on the head when you have filled up your skill bar and can level up to doing your own show. Much less a giant sparkly golden hand of science-comedy-gender-commentary. Noone is going to give you permission because a) noone is able to and b) you don’t need it. You try, and you see what happens. That’s all you get, and it’s all anyone gets.

This goes double if noone else is doing your wildly specific interest yet; how can the world know it doesn’t like it if it hasn’t tried? You might not write the best hairmetal-opera about the queer poly love lives of subatomic particles the world will ever see, but if you’re the one who’s prepared to make it happen, you are the one the world wants.

Agony Auncles of Science will be at the Edinburgh Free Fringe from 4-25th August. Scary’s upcoming gigs can be seen on their portfolio page.

*Yup, did that.