I became a performer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005. I brought a rotating team of comedians from San Francisco to perform with me and together we handed out flyers, put up our posters and encouraged, cajoled and tried to trap people into coming to our performances.
We managed to get one or two people at every show and once we actually had an almost full house. I decided that the next year I would go it alone and put on a storytelling show. And in year three I put on a 50-minute stand-up show at Holyrood Two with Vicky DeLacy, the best and most encouraging venue manager on earth. I hired a lovely publicist who tried very hard to drum up an audience, but it was only three of us working against shows that had a dozen people out on the street and connections with all the press who had either known them before or covered the venue they were in.
That year, I made the headlines in The Times as The Stripping Granny and my free cabaret show Aging Is Amazing filled every night, but literally no one came to my comedy show and I was devastated.
I returned home and tried to analyse what went wrong. My comedy is solid and what audiences I did have seemed to love the show – although who is going to tell an old lady she is worthless?
I decided there were three factors that created my lack of both press and audience: show time, cost and support. There was an admission charge at Holyrood Two and although people are willing to take a chance on a free show they can exit if it offends them, once they have paid, they think they have to stick it out. My show was at lunchtime, which was another bad decision. Comedy always goes better after dinner and a few (or more) drinks.
Many people told me that my biggest challenge is that I am too old – 76 – and the wrong sex – female – to attract an audience for stand-up, but I disagree. A joke is a joke and funny is funny. The trick is to convince people that you have those jokes and will make them laugh.
After five years in Edinburgh, three at the Rogue Festival in Fresno (no, you don’t want to go there) and two at the Brighton Fringe (definitely try it if you can) I have concluded that the fringe experience offers the same challenges to all performers.
However, I do think the major obstacle I face is that I am alone. I do one-woman shows and have no relatives or band of friends with me to cheer me along.
I think that the performer who comes with a team or a spouse and family members has a huge advantage in receiving support for the show (free technical and networking help) as well as assistance with publicity.
All of us who put shows on at the fringe have limited budgets and I remember the cost of my publicists that one year was astronomical, even though I paid them bottom wages. That was when I realised you have to have more than someone you employ. You need a committed network. You have to have a fan base that loves you and follows you and spreads the word about you just because you are you.
I have always felt that because I only have two legs and two arms and cannot seem to create a 30 hour day, putting on a well attended show at any fringe festival is an uphill battle. I am from across the pond, so although I know many people in Edinburgh and love them all, they are not people whom I have met and nurtured as an entertainer. They are friends – and in many cases too old to stay out past 8 pm.
However, I have stuck it out now for five years and my base is growing. My name is familiar and I do Alex Petty’s Free Festival, not just because I can afford his fees but because I believe that people should have the right to pay after they have seen a Fringe show.
I can remember the early days of the Fringe when we paid a pound to see some of the most dreadful and some of the most charming shows I have ever enjoyed. The Free Fringe gives you the option of saying ‘This is all the time I am giving you.’ I firmly believe that my performance will keep you in that seat for the full 50 minutes. Don’t we all?
That is why I think that the more you return to a fringe festival the better your audience response will be. Like anything else, you are building your name. It is foolish to expect to make a fortune and bring down the house the first time you appear.
You also have to be clear what your goals are. My main goal has always been to learn from audience reaction and to get reviews I can use to promote my shows at paying venues. Fringe festivals are not for top stars nor are they vehicles to get you to Broadway or the West End. They are stepping stones to refining and improving your performance.
If you go into the process with that in mind, and understand the audiences will happen if you are patient and give it time, you will enjoy your fringe experience. I did not say you will earn money. For me each year has been better and better audience-wise and performance-wise. I also make more money every year. Persistence and belief in the quality of your work, that’s all you need… and an optimistic heart.
- Lynn Ruth Miller appears in Granny’s Gone Wild at 18:30 and Aging Is Amazing: A Cabaret at 10:45 nightly. Both at Espionage, and both part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.