Mary O’Connell

Mary O’Connell

A runner-p in the 2020 Funny Women Awards, Mary O’Connell's TV credits include BBC Presents: Stand Up for Live Comedy and Comedy Central Live.
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The gamble of the Fringe

Mary O’Connell on throwing the financial and artistic dice at the festival

So, you want to do an Edinburgh Fringe show about something kinda niche.

Maybe it’s a one-woman-show about your favourite serial killers, or an interpretative dance about your grandad’s funeral. Great! The Fringe is the perfect place for niche.

Or, at least, it used to be.

Now the programme is flooded with so many other niche shows and you want to make sure that yours has gimmicky-enough marketing to not only stand out but attract the audience that this particular niche is perfect for. It’s a chaotic dance performers do every year. 

Each year, Fringe shows get more and more ‘outrageous’. Every year there’s a show called A Young Man Dressed As A Gorilla Dressed As An Old Man Sits Rocking In A Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes And Then Leaves. That was definitely a gamble when it started but, when we now have shows like Making A Murderer: The Musical, it feels less scandalous.

Another year, there was a performance art piece where a guy on the Royal Mile sat on a bollard and handed out flyers in the most disinterested way; if you read the flyer, you’d find out that this was, in fact, the show itself and, if you received the flyer, then you had most likely already seen the show.

All of these shows were definite ‘gambles’. But maybe they’re too wild as examples. If we’re thinking about the regular comedian, the truth is you don’t really need to be all that idiosyncratic a performer for the Fringe to be a gamble. It’s equally risky to go to the biggest arts festival in the world and compete for attention alongside 3,500 others doing a vanilla guy-in-a-suit-does-some-jokes-about-dating-apps-and-queuing’ show.

The Fringe has inverted what it started life as. Originally, it was a place where you could grow your show. Now, it’s often the grand finale of a tour instead of the birth of one. It’s gone from a nursery to a debutante ball.

And, because of how the nature of the festival has changed, performers have understandably changed their approach to it. Given how much money, time and energy is required to perform there, you’re much more likely to see something finely tuned and polished. It makes less sense to take a risk on a show that isn’t ready. There’s a lot more pressure to have a perfect show.

Doing a show at the Fringe, especially an hour-long one, is always going to be a bit of a gamble because, unless you have a massive following, you probably won’t have tested your hour out on too many people beforehand.

Your audiences may have been largely made up of supportive family, friends and other performers. Now, though, you find yourself having to engage with a ‘real audience’; people who don’t know you and have no reason to root for you in a hot basement room.

Now’s really the test of whether your show is a good idea or not. Creatively, it’s a gamble worth taking. Strangers give the most honest feedback, they don’t need to care about your feelings, and, with stand-up, the feedback is immediate.

The point of this profession is to gain approval from strangers so it’s not as much a gamble as it is an occupational hazard. Your show will look better by the end of the Fringe than at the start. And yet there’s still that immense pressure to have worked out all the kinks before getting on the train to Waverley station.

One of the issues is that the sheer scale of an Edinburgh show is much larger than what many comics on the circuit are used to. You’re faced with all these options: which is the bigger gamble: hiring a director, and getting a production company, or going it alone? The last one, surely, but what if you can’t afford such a creative entourage?

My show is called Money Princess, so talking about the Edinburgh Fringe being a financial and creative gamble is pretty apt.

In fact, the negatives to gambling in general are pretty much the same as taking a show to the Fringe: you could make a loss, it’s addictive, and could well count as grounds for divorce. But they also share the central positive: the thrill. That unique anticipation of trying out something for the first time to see if it’s going to work and the celebration when you do triumph.

And, in any case, performers are well-equipped to gamble (creatively) because they do so every time they go on stage. That’s the nature of the game, and the Edinburgh Fringe is still probably one of the best places where you can take those risks. And it’s the place you’re more likely to find punters who will take a gamble on you; on a performer they haven’t heard of before.

However, financially, it’s a gamble that rightly may not seem worth it to many performers.

If I was a businessperson in a meeting, and someone presented to me the finances of a project that required months of effort, time, energy and money where the result of said project was almost guaranteed to make a loss (especially for newcomers), I’d say, "Get out of this meeting room with that nonsense talk! For I am a respected businessman!".

The Fringe is definitely a financial gamble because it doesn’t really make financial sense. It’s, at the very least, a risky investment. But you could argue that not going at all is the biggest gamble of all. The great thing about gambling is that there is a chance you could win big. Your show could be a hit and could lead to something greater.

You could well have the next Fleabag.

Or, at the very least, the next A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves.

It is the most unpredictable, pressurised, glorious, creative, ego-rollercoaster of a month. And, without the thousands of talented artists rolling the dice every August, we would all be the poorer for it. 

(Well, culturally poorer. Financially, we’d all probably be better off.)

Mary O’Connell’s debut Edinburgh Fringe show Money Princess will be at the Pleasance Courtyard at 6pm from August 2.

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Published: 23 Jul 2023


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