Profile: Ian Fox
Followed by “Ian Fox – One Man Defective Story” in 2007 (total failure). Also produced “Merle Handsome’s Late Night Comedy Extravaganza” Late night compilation show.
Tuesday 31st August 2010
I arrived back from Edinburgh at 1.30am this morning. I spent my final few hours wandering around Edinburgh with a slight feeling of depression as venues slowly closed down. All around posters were being torn down, drama students were emptying boxes of unused flyers into recycle bins, and venue boards were being placed back in cellars until next year. Outside the Gilded Balloon an ice cream van was giving out free ice creams as they tried to get rid of all of their stock before the end of the business day, and the last remaining shows were trying to get one last drop of blood out of a stone. Dozens of shows were listed on the “2 for 1” ticket boards and there were a few suspicious entries on the “sold out” board suggesting that the shows in question had phoned up from Tebay services to inform the venue they wouldn’t be doing the last show. All around the city all you could hear was the sound of suitcase wheels on pavement. Someone who lives in Edinburgh told me that even they have the overwhelming urge to leave the city once the festival was over. Likening it to your home after Christmas when you take all the decorations down.
This was the 9th fringe I’d been to the 8th where I produced a show. With all that very much in mind I suggested to Alex Petty that we should get a few of the usual suspects from the Free Festival – those that have produced shows up here for the last few years – to compile a guide for next years applicants now based on our own experiences at the 2010 fringe whilst everything was still fresh in our minds to help next years applicants try to avoid the most common mistakes.
So in no particular order here is the benefit of my experience.
Have a show
That might seem obvious but it’s surprising how many people book a slot in January with no idea of what they’ll be doing in August. If you’re a new comedian and you regularly do 10 minute slots don’t sign up for a full hour slot thinking that you can set yourself the challenge of having an hours material by August. Over the last few years I’ve seen loads of new acts try and fail at this. Mainly because putting together an hour is extremely difficult, forty minutes is hard enough but it’s that last twenty where it all goes wrong.
Instead best thing to do is find some other comics in a similar position and put on a showcase. Where you do 10-15 minutes each and rotate as headline and compere. There are enormous advantages to doing this. Firstly you get all the benefits of performing everyday such as increased confidence and becoming more relaxed and loose on stage without the downside of having to endure the painful sight of audience members getting up and walking out on you. Plus you don’t get a mauling from what ever press turns up to see you. It’s also much cheaper as you split the costs between you. Any press reviews you pick up will be likely to be positive – unless you’re completely rubbish – and you’ll come out of it with one or two decent quotes for your CV.
Also and this is worth considering it leaves you out of the Fosters Comedy Award. You’re eligible for the newcomer award if you’re doing your first show of over 50 minutes in length, which means that if you’ve been in compilations you’re still considered a newcomer down the line. Successful examples of this strategy include Sarah Millican who did “The Big Value Show” in 2006 before doing her own show in 2008 and winning “Best Newcomer”, Josie Long who also did “Big Value” and then a double header the year later where she did 30 minutes, before doing a solo show in 2006 and winning “Best Newcomer”, and the star of the Free Festival this year Imran Yusuf who in previous years compered the “Laughing Horse Pick of the Fringe” shows before being nominated for “Best Newcomer” this year. Each of the these guys went up to Edinburgh to see how it works for themselves before jumping in with both feet.
Finally on this point, the first year I came up I produced a show with about 12 other comedians in it. Some of whom have gone on to star in films and sitcoms, become circuit regulars, one sadly passed away in 2009. We had a great time while we were up there doing shows and felt like we were definitely part of something. It’s a time I look back on fondly. We had a guest headliner in our shows which varied each day just to give the show a good finish. During 2003 and 2004 they included Alan Carr, Jason Manford, Mick Ferry, Anvil Springstein, Alfie Joey and Seymour Mace. Great acts will happily do guest spots for as it’s a good way for them to promote their own show. So if you’re a new act I definitely recommend this strategy.
List in the fringe guide and have tickets
You’re obliged to list the show in the fringe guide if you do a Free Festival show. It makes your show look legitimate. I usually allocate the fringe office tickets when I list the show with them. This might seem daft as they are free shows but it’s an extra way of advertising your show which doesn’t cost anything and is certainly worth doing. It also means that audiences that turn up in this way have an idea what show they are there to watch.
Life after the fringe
Some of the most successful shows that go up there aren’t the ones that win awards. This is worth considering when you plan out your show. In 2003 Mike Gunn did a show at the Pleasance Dome called “Mike Gunn: Uncut”. It was true life account of years spent as a drug addict and the slow recovery process. It was dark, funny and poignant. It didn’t get nominated for any awards but since then Mike has been paid to perform the show in prisons and schools. In terms of financial success he’s still reaping the benefit of something he did eight years before.
In 2006 Toby Hadoke’s show “Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf” went on to become a BBC7 series, toured in comedy venues up and down the country and Toby now regularly tours the show at science fiction conventions. As well as a sell out show at the EICC this year during the 2010 festival.
Get the name of your show right
I don’t wish to single out people here for making good and bad choices but the name of the show is important. In some cases it’s going to be potential audiences only piece of information about your show. In it’s current format the Free Festival booklet is essentially just a timetable. There isn’t the room to put 40 words describing what your show is about. So you need to make your show title is as punchy and informative as possible. A good example of this would be “Shaggers” – comedians do shagging material, “The Jocks and Geordies” – Comics from Scotland and Newcastle, “The Laughing Horse Pick of the Fringe”, “The Monumental Joke Disco”, “The Laughing Penguin Comedy Show”, “Granny’s Gone Wild”. A snappy title helps you sell your show.
The venue board outside your venue listing the shows is a major way of getting people into free shows. Quite often festival goers who have tickets for paid shows will try to squeeze in free shows between shows at the paid venues. So your title needs to get across an idea of the show in about six words.
This year I designed the Free Festival booklet, the biggest problem I had was fitting everything into 8 pages. Once you lose a page for the front cover, inside page of explanation, back page and map that basically left four and a bit pages to get every show into. In 2010 Laughing Horse printed 60,000 copies of the Free Festival booklet. In those volumes you can’t just add another page to the booklet without increasing the printing cost by about 20%. I had to try to get everyone’s details into the same sized space consequently the only way to fit “Don’t Be a Comedian in Northern Ireland While Drinking Your Buckfast Under a Bridge” into a box the same size as everyone else’s was to shrink the lettering, which made it really hard to read and I don’t think it helped them sell their show. Which is a shame because the Free Festival booklet is one of the easiest ways to sell your show whilst out flyering. Calling the show “Irishfellas” might have been more helpful.
I list the show in the Fringe Guide as “The Great Big Comedy Picnic – Free”. For the Free Festival Guide I drop the “- Free” bit as obviously all the shows are free.
Shows earlier in the day are more likely to get press reviews as there isn’t as much competition to get reviewers in, but shows later in the day are more likely to get punters in. If you’re on your own and want reviews it’s worth thinking about going early in the day. If you’re in a compilation then later is probably better.
If your show is past 9pm chances are you’ll get a boozier crowd. So make sure it’s suitable. Compilation shows are good or anything crude, rude or adult themed. A one man play about the struggles of a Catholic priest probably isn’t great for 11.30pm slot at Espionage on a Saturday night.
All shows have to flyer in one way or another. First thing you need to be aware of is that successful flyering isn’t just pushing a piece of paper into a stranger’s hand. You have to engage them in conversation. Offering people a guide to free shows whilst all the whacky drama students and people in printed hooded tops are trying to get them to part with £8 for a ticket is incredibly easy. All you have to do is explain what the Free Festival is and them hand them the booklet with one of your flyers in it. It’s a great way to get bums on seats in your show and push the Free Festival as a whole enterprise.
At Espionage I simply stood outside the venue waited for people to start reading the listings board and then engaged them in conversation. Some days I ended up getting them into someone else’s show instead of mine but then once they’d seen that show they often came to my show because I’d been so helpful. I handed out all kinds of recommendations, great places to eat, drink, which shows to watch and the cheapest place locally to get a cup of tea. Salesmanship isn’t always about pushing your product.
If you’re going to get into costume and go on the Royal Mile and this can be a lot of fun, just make sure what you’re doing fits in with the show you’re trying to sell. I know a guy one year who used to dress in full desert camouflage and walk up and down the mile handing out flyers to anyone that asked him. This was mostly Japanese tourists, he was then always bemused by the fact most of the audience he got didn’t speak English. That’s not good for stand up shows.
The best piece of advice you can get though for flyering is don’t be a dick . If you annoy people by trying to be whacky you’ll just alienate them. If you’re too pushy you’ll alienate them. If you’re trying to be ironic by sarcastically suggesting “the show is rubbish I wouldn’t bother watching it” you’re just wasting your time. Listen to what people are asking you, answer their questions truthfully and honestly and talk to them not at them. On one night of the festival I nipped into a venue to ask them if they had a venue map somewhere as I was trying to find a venue to watch a specific show, the guy flyering out front answered me with “don’t bother with that show, come and watch ours it’s much better”. Guess whose show I went to watch and which one I didn’t go anywhere near for the rest of the festival.
Don’t bother swapping flyers with the other flyerers, you’re not going to watch their show, they won’t come to yours. It’s a waste of paper.
Be respectful of other shows and flyerers. If someone is having a chat with a prospective punter don’t but in offering one of your flyers, chances are the prospective punter won’t come to either show then.
Don’t ever walk into a room with a show in progress and start handing out your flyers. You would think I wouldn’t need to say this but it happens every year.
These need to be designed properly by someone who knows what they’re doing. As a prospective punter if it looks like someone hasn’t bothered taking the time and effort to put a good poster together, it makes you wary of what their show is going to be like. Alex Petty can recommend people to do the job for you cheaply. If you think you can knock one together yourself using Microsoft word you’re wrong.
Dates and times need to be clearly visible, as well as venue name, number and address. The simplest way of doing this is to have bar at the bottom of the poster with the relevant information. You also need to include the Free Festival logo. I’ve included an example of posters I’ve designed in the past. The advantage of using a black bar at the bottom is that if you’re previewing you can simply paint out your Edinburgh details and paint in your preview details or indeed after the fringe if you’re performing the show again at another festival or home town gig you can simply stick on those details.
Posters need to be eye catching and if it’s comedy funny in some way. The shots of posters up in the “Three Sisters” and “The Hive” show how posters are displayed next to each other. How close they are in proximity and how they need to stand out against a number of other posters.
You shouldn’t need any more than a 100 or to put them up anywhere other than Free Festival venues. Fly posting is a £75 fine and sticking them up anywhere on the royal mile is nothing more than a waste of paper. Ten minutes later and someone will paste over them.
Also I think that A3 should be the maximum size for Free Festival posters as there is limited space inside the venues. They also get torn down quite often in venues that are night clubs in the evening and have to be replaced. Bigger posters are more expensive and so your replacement costs are higher. Portrait format will make your life easier when it comes to putting them up.
One more point about posters. Don’t spot trains or be John Malkovich. Every year at least one company does versions of the “Trainspotting” and “Being John Malkovich” posters, it’s the most over used design idea.
No one ever knows what to put on the back of a flyer. Most go for a map to the venue and some more information about the show. It’s a good idea and makes it easier to tell people where the show is. My favourite flyer of the 2010 fringe didn’t do that. Kunt and Gang created a handy “Have you shit yourself guide” a series of yes know questions in boxes with arrows getting you to the answer. Not only did this fit in the tone of the show it was hilarious, like something from Viz. It sold the show better than any press quotes or competition wins.
I’ve never managed to get round to doing this yet. You can get good deals on t-shirts and hoodies. To get the best deals you need to order them well in advance of the festival as some places like vistaprint can take up to three weeks to deliver. They make a nice souvenir once the festival is over. As for whether these items help you get punters is anyone’s guess. I’d recommend having something waterproof made.
You need to be in your show space 15 minutes before you start so as you can check the that the sound system is working and do any technical set up.
If you’re in a show on your own you need to find someone to help you out setting up for your show. Mainly just to take the pressure of you as you’re the one whose going to have to be on stage for the hour. Best thing to do is find someone else doing an hour long show and help each other out. You basically need to check the equipment before the show starts and then get someone to act as front of house manager, making sure the audience find the room and sit themselves in roughly the same area. I recommend closing off one section of seats so as you get the audience into the same place. If someone is doing this stuff for you, you can mentally prepare for the show.
Your assistant once the show has started can then sit outside stopping latecomers from entering, unless you need them to do technical stuff and then they can also help do the collection at the end of the show. In return you do the same thing for their show.
In the Comedy Picnic we use a run in CD. This a ten minute CD which announces “10 minutes till show time”, “5 minutes to show time”, “2 minutes to show time” and then finally the pearl and dean music to indicate the start of the show. This is the easiest way to let the audience know what’s going on and let them prepare for a show. On days when we’ve had CD problems and not been able to have the music before the show, the audiences are noticeably colder at the beginning of the show and take longer to get going. Shows where the performer just wanders in at start time and shuffles on to the stage and starts talking, rarely get good write ups. Run in CDs are easy to make, if you want audio files with the announcements on just email me and ask for them. You can easily mix tracks together in various freeware/trial versions of programmes such as Goldwave.
Start on time and don’t try to steal punters from other shows at the last minute by guiding people into your show rather than the one they came to see. I‘ve seen it happen loads of times “are you looking for the comedy?” and pointing people into your show instead. Start times in the Free Festival are staggered to stop this from happening. If you’re doing this it’s means you’re starting late and any punters you do have in won’t be pleased if you’ve left them sitting in there for 15 minutes while you try and round up some more punters. Plus the punters you trick into coming in will work out quite quickly they’re in the wrong place, and they’ll leave. Plus the ones you did have and kept waiting will be inclined to follow them.
Personally I’m not keen on them. In my experience they disrupt your show on entering, aren’t inclined to give you any respect as a performer, after all they didn’t get there on time, they’re also more likely to cause a disruption by using phones, and usually leave without giving you anything.
When we run the Comedy Picnic one of us is on stage and the other is minding the door. We simply ask people not to go in once the show has started. We find more than anything they affect the atmosphere of a show when they walk in a cause disruption. It keeps your show the same as ones in the paid venues. We also ask people who just say they’re only going to come in for half hour not to bother coming in. As again they’re disruptive when they leave and won’t give you anything in your collection.
This is where working in a compilation show is much easier because you can alternate these tasks among yourselves.
We don’t let them into the Comedy Picnic. In the fringe guide we list the show as 18+ and quietly tell anyone trying to bring their kids into the show that “it’s a licensed premise and that no one under 18 is allowed”. We find this makes things more comfortable for everyone.
That said shows that are family friendly can often make more money in their collections. So it’s worth thinking about making your show family friendly.
Most shows have a day off. If you’re in a compilation you have the advantage of being able to take a day off, either to rest, or simply see a show that you want to see but is on at the same time as you, without affecting your collections. As the show can still run just without you in it.
If you’re on your own I’d stick to just one day off in the middle of the festival. Every day off is effectively costing you money.
Keep it simple. “this a free show, free in, not so free on the way out…”, remind the punters that donations aren’t compulsory, and thank anyone giving you anything. If you’re embarrassed about asking for a collection you can simply say that it’s a contribution to the Free Festival. In the Picnic we normally place the Free Festival booklets in the collection bucket. That way if people are taking something out of the bucket they’re more inclined to put something into it. This also a great way of distributing the Free Festival booklet which helps everyone.
The fringe is one of the world’s largest arts festivals. The population of Edinburgh goes up about seven times during the festival with people coming from all over the world. Not all of them speak English and not all of them understand really localised references. So you have to tailor your material to an international audience. You have to recognise if you have none English speakers in the room and know how to deal with it. Japanese tourists will often watch comedy shows out of cultural interest. The same way as a tourist in Tokyo you might go and watch sumo wrestling. They might not be able to follow what is going on but they sit happily in your show for the duration. You can’t let this put you off as a performer and you certainly shouldn’t be getting angry with them. They are there, they have every right to be, be nice to them.
There’s the possibility it can happen in free shows as there quite often aren’t doormen or anyone from the venue watching the show. As a performer you have to be careful not to inflame any situation by being overly aggressive, piss taking or sarcastic. If you’ve got a problem you do have to deal with on your own. My advice is to charm your way out of the situation.
Not that I’m trying to worry anyone. In six years I can only think of one incident where there could have been a problem and there wasn’t.
You need to rent either a room or share a flat with others. There are no two ways about it. I’ve seen people attempt to beat the system by using camp-sites or camper vans. I myself ended up staying in a hostel for the duration of the 2003 fringe. It’s awful. You have no privacy, you’re in a room full of farters and snorers, the showers are the most amount of privacy you can get. You need somewhere where you can relax and unwind before bed time or dare I say it somewhere you can go back to for an early night. Somewhere to just sit in front of a TV and watch crap for half an hour. It will help keep you sane.
The camp-sites are all miles away from the city, so you end up having to get a taxi back to them in the small hours and living in a van for nearly a month is quite simply dirty and unpleasant. You either have to find a swimming pool or gym you can use to shower in, and you’ll have to keep moving the vehicle due to the strict parking regulations in Edinburgh. I used to let one guy who lived in a camper for a month use the shower in my flat in 2009 which he really appreciated. He was in a proper state at the end of fringe 2009 because he wasn’t able to ever just go back somewhere and sit down with a cup of tea of listen to his own thoughts. As for camp-sites it’s Scotland and rain is inevitable. You can’t have all the gear you need for a month in a tent when the living compartment starts to leak. I’ve had every weather eventuality during the fringe from two heat waves to summers of nothing but rain.
You have to pace yourself at the fringe it’s the only way to survive it. You can’t be drunk every night. It’s too expensive and you just end up tired all the time and on auto pilot through the shows. Which isn’t the reason you’re up there. You’re at the fringe to get better as a performer not scrape your way through it.
I’ve paid about £450 for the month in a flat in Edinburgh. This is for a flat that is close enough to the fringe action to walk back to without the need for buses or taxis. I share a room with my girlfriend who also pays £450. This is based on a flat of four double rooms with 2 bathrooms. On a cost per night basis this works out at around £15 per night. Actually cheaper than a hostel and considerably more comfortable.
Cash. How much of it do you need while you’re there
I try and live on £10 per day at the fringe. I usually eat out once a day for convenience but stick to the cheaper outlets such as Auld Jock’s Pie shop (£3.50 for pie and mash) or the Mosque Kitchen (£4 for chicken curry and rice). Everything else I try and eat in the flat. The rest goes on beverages.
The Free Festival discount cards are helpful but not brilliant. If you’re in your own show you can just keep your collection money and this can help you out but you can’t rely on having great collections everyday. So you need to be prepared. £10 is a reasonable figure per day to get by on. So if you’re there for the whole month you need to make sure you have enough cash on hand when you arrive.
As mentioned already 100 posters is more than enough as is 5000 flyers. Unfortunately 5000 is the standard unit for ordering flyers in. If you try and order less it ends up costing you more. Based on 24 shows, an order of 5000 means you’ll be handing out 208 per day. If you’re targeting your potential punters and actually engaging them in conversation and not blindly passing out bits of paper then this should be about right.
What to bring with you
Obviously you need clothes and any creature comforts with you. You can pick up most items from the Bargain shops and supermarkets but they don’t always tend to be the best value. So a decent sized umbrella is something you could do with bringing with you as is a water proof jacket for those days when you have to go out on the royal mile flyering in the rain. Blue tack for putting up posters, blank CDs for burning new copies of your run in music as yours get lost or scratched, marker pens and a roll of gaffer tape is always useful. I’d keep a spare copy of your run in CD with you as they have tendency to get misplaced.
You usually pick something up at some point. My girlfriend reckons First Defence is helpful at warding off colds but it never really worked for me.
Be wary of a lot of the people contacting you about additional advertising. Firstly if the person is using the press contact list from the fringe office to contact you, they’re not that reputable. The press list is for press interviews not selling advertising.
This year a friend of mine bought an advert on a fringe related website for £50. He was told it would be on a rotation basis with about 4 other adverts. I had to reload the web page 12 times before his advert showed up. I doubt that advert sold £50 worth of tickets for him.
Good advertising should pay for itself. The adverts in the fringe programme are very expensive and I doubt that the collections for the free shows that had them recovered the advertising costs.
Get a decent image in the fringe guide and be prepared to go out there and charm people into your show. That’s the best way to get people in.
I’d spend some time reading reviews from previous festivals such as on chortle. I never read my own reviews whilst I’m there in Edinburgh in case there is stuff in there I don’t like and end up fixating on. It’s helpful to read the one and two star reviews to try and avoid making the same mistakes, and to read the four and fives so as to see what works well in those shows.
Don’t expect to get any more than 3 stars for your show. In the whole time I’ve been going to the festival I’ve only ever seen one show I would describe as a 5 star how. That includes shows that have won awards.
Those numbers in full
Fringe entry fee in 2010 was £289, £40 entry free into the Free Festival booklet, accommodation £450, living expenses based on £10 per day and 26 days in Edinburgh £260, posters and flyers through Tenfold £120. Excluding travel to the fringe and any additional expenses you might incur. Estimated cost for a full run at the fringe is £1159 for a solo show.
Plus add all the costs of living normally. Rent, credit card payments, bills, direct debits, council tax, everything. Mike Belgrave says “I put all my expenses into a spread sheet round about January. I go back to it sporadically and add and subtract various costs. I’m also able to see where I’m unnecessarily spending and making cuts. Putting aside 10% of your earnings as soon as you can alleviates the costs. It also makes you aware of how much you need closer to August so you’ll automatically try and tighten your belt. Whatever you do avoid putting it on credit cards.”
Have some whilst you’re there. That is after all the whole point. You’ll meet people there year after year, you’ll sit and catch up with them, exchange stories, people will come back to your shows year in year out, you’ll bump into people in the street and just start chatting.
It’s a fine balance between taking it seriously and taking it too seriously. If you’re taking it too seriously you’re not going to have any fun. Don’t take it seriously enough and you’ll put on shambles of a show which isn’t in anyone’s interest.
If you have questions or comments you can either make them here on this site or through my website
Main article written by Ian Fox. Additional material supplied by Mike Belgrave.
If you enjoyed this article then I’m pleased to announce a full length book is now available.