How not to do the Edinburgh Fringe | Robert Garnham shares some hard-learned lessons

How not to do the Edinburgh Fringe

Robert Garnham shares some hard-learned lessons

Gather round, my friends, as I tell you how the Edinburgh Fringe should not be done. As a performer, I mean. A solo performer. And take heed, dear reader, lest you feel that burning desire within to take up to Auld Reekie with the makings of a very fine hour of comedy poetry.

Naturally, it helps that you’re not the quiet, meek kind, for the Fringe is no place for the quiet or the meek. It’s dog eat dog. It’s dog eat everything else. The Fringe will eat itself and then the dog will eat the Fringe. It’s a hole into which money will flow at an alarming rate. And nobody will come to see your show.

That’s what happens when you’re quiet and meek, for this is a place where whoever yells loudest gets the prize. Whoever manipulates the media, or bellows at people in the Royal Mile. It’s borderline rude but it gets the results. And it’s not my style at all.

Or maybe I just didn’t have what they wanted. A poetry comedy show about failing to become famous. Who wants to come and see a failure? Particularly when that failure has forked out to be in the Ed Fringe catalogue, and then put in the Spoken Word section, which nobody reads anyway? Or am I just bitter? Actually, no. I’m just trying to be jaunty and make light of it. And it all started with a fight.

There was a fight in my audience last year. My show was on late at night in the corner of a bar, down in the cellar, next to a corridor where weekend revellers were having a pint and a laugh. And I was trying to perform a show about mental health, because I’d come to the Fringe last year with a show about mental health. And the audience couldn’t hear because of the row from the corridor, so a particularly feisty Glaswegian decided to go and sort out the problem while I was performing away. And the next thing that happened, there were tables being upended, shouts, fists flying, glasses crashing to the flagstone floor of the bar and I was standing there on the stage trying to finish a poem about sideburns. And I decided then and there that if I were to come back to the Fringe, I would Do It Properly.

Because basically I’m not very bright.

But on the other hand, a fight, for goodness sake! How on earth can that happen to a poet? I’d had rowdy venues before, you understand. Back in 2019 I was in a room with such thin walls that I could hear everything from the comedy show that was on the same time as mine. At twenty past every hour there was a sound kind of like an elephant jumping up and down on a Ford Escort. I have no idea what it was, but I could structure my whole show down to when that strange noise manifested itself. I wanted a quiet stage. That’s all I wanted a quiet stage.

I started work the moment I got home. I decided what my next show should be about. It should be about not being famous. It should be about identity, and hopes and dreams and aspirations, and it would be funny and it would have lots of jokes. But it would also have a serious intent, because you’ve got to have a message, haven’t you? And it would have to be performed somewhere quiet. Or at least, a place where it might have a fighting chance of being heard, rather than a place where the audience has to chance fighting to hear it. Which meant, well, paying one of the many companies who programme their stages for the festival.

Now, if I’d lived with someone, maybe they could have talked me out of it. ‘You’re not that good’, they could have said. Or perhaps, ‘Wait a while and . . See if you can come back with a better idea’. Or they might even have said, ‘You’re paying how much?!’ But there was nobody to say these things, which meant that the more I thought of it - or didn’t think of it, as is what actually transpired - the more I could see that this was the right way to go.

And perhaps there was a bit of ego attached to this, too. My name would be in a brochure! I’d have front-of-house staff! And an usher, and a technician! People would need to get a ticket and queue up to see me! Imagine that! I don’t think anyone has ever queued to see me, before.

The show came on well. I learned it, and I took it to fringe events in Barnstaple and Guildford, and I went through it so many times that I felt very comfortable performing it. How could the show not be anything but a major success? I thought it was brilliant. I really did. But then I would do, wouldn’t I?

The company I went with were very organised. They had online forms to fill in, and used a software system which seemed easy to navigate. I submitted everything they needed: Images. Copy. Photos. Social media. And money, of course. I submitted money. A lot of money. Probably enough to buy me a car. I could have used that car to drive to other people’s shows and done some research. I paid for an extra advert in their brochure, too. Oh Robert, I thought, you cunning fool! How can anyone not come to your show, with that extra advert in their brochure! It was all looking good. It was all looking so very good.

I arrived in Edinburgh midway through the Fringe, as my run was going to be for two weeks. Excitedly, I found my venue. It was right in the heart of the city, along an alleyway and up some steps, and my room was at the top of the venue. Okay, so that was the first dodgy thing, all those stairs, but that didn’t matter because it was the only venue on that floor and that meant, oh bliss, it would be quiet! A stage, and chairs, and lighting, and sound equipment. This was no roped off corner of a bar, like that first venue I had all those years before, when I arrived in Edinburgh as a fresh faced  39-year-old with a show which incorporated silent performance art, which I had to perform over the noise of a rugby match coming from the TV in the adjacent bar. This was the real deal!

The next day, I flyered all morning, and one person came to the show. And she was a friend I’d met the day before. ‘I’m coming to your show’, she had said, when we’d met, and I’d thought, oh, this is so easy! Word is getting around already! Maybe not. But on the plus side, at least I had a show.

The day after, I flyered all morning, and one person came to the show. And she was another friend. I was starting to think that something was amiss. I’d only been in Edinburgh two days and I was already a failure.

The day after that, nobody came at all.

There’s a divine madness about the fringe. It’s so big that it brings out the despair in us all. How can one possibly compete with all of the other shows that are on at the same time? At the last reckoning, possibly six hundred going on at any one moment. Or was it six thousand? It couldn’t have been six million, though at times it felt it.

   The venues are tucked anywhere throughout the city. If you stand still for long enough, you become a venue yourself. Underbelly contacted me about using space inside my backpack. It’s a new stage which they want to add to their roster next year, and advertise as The Cow Bag, and then rent it out to theatre companies. But then I moved, and they lost all interest.

There was a piece of wasteland outside my student accommodation. It was overgrown with vegetation and bushes and I stopped and looked at it and I thought, yes, there it is. The last place in Edinburgh which hasn’t been turned into a venue or a bar or a festival village. And just as I was standing there looking at it, someone tried to flyer me.

Because that’s what Edinburgh is all about. The flyering. You can have the best show ever written, and you can perform the best anyone has ever performed, but it’s the flyering which ensures people get in to see it, and it’s the flyering that ensures that the show is a success. 

Which is great if you have a passion for flyering, or if you have a theatre troupe filled with sixteen incredibly enthusiastic and young performers from middle class universities, with floppy hair and high cheekbones and winning smiles, but when you’re a lone operator doing it all yourself, from a seaside town in Devon, then the odds are already stacked against you.

 Which is to say that I hate flyering. People scare me. The general public are frightening. I want to be polite at all times, but the moment I steel myself to smile and say hello, some young buck with an improvised opera jumps in and flyers the person that I’m just about to flyer. It’s incredibly annoying.  And also, my brain doesn’t move as quickly as some. I see someone coming and the words kind of tumble out in a nonsensical jumble. You wouldn’t think that I’m a performance poet.

Robert flyering

 ‘Hello there. Yes, what it is, you see, I’ve written this show, and . . .’, by which time they’ve already walked away.

Yes, I’d had an audience for those two shows. But they were friends. They came because they knew me. I assumed that my show was good, but they probably would have come even if it was just an hour of me on the stage doing armpit squelch farts. But there was a guy from Cambridge University who was already doing that, and he was winning rave reviews.

I decided I needed a flyerer. I had no idea that you could just hire a flyerer. I thought only the good shows with a big budget had a flyerer, because why would a flyerer want to flyer for something that nobody had heard of? But I went online and I made contact with a couple of flyerers. 

We arranged to meet at a certain place at a certain time. I was very nervous because it felt like I was doing something very sneaky, and I had a wad of fliers for them and some cash. And they didn’t turn up. The audience that day was a nice round number.

That evening I got in contact with a different flyerer and I thought, well, I bet I won’t see her. Amazingly, the next day she turned up and I chatted briefly and handed over the money and the fliers, and off she went. I watched her as she went along the Royal Mile, handing out fliers and talking to people, and this incredibly warm feeling came over me that things would be OK. An hour later, I actually had an audience.

This happened for the next few days, and I started to feel a little bit blasé. My flyerer and I became quite close, and we chatted about various things. Indeed, our chatting ate into valuable flyering time. She told me that she would have to have a couple of days off because she was getting married. My flyerer was getting married! The biggest day of her life and she was there flyering for my silly little show. We parted fondly and I wished her all the best. I’ll flyer myself, I thought, save a bit of money. And that afternoon, I had an audience of zero.

So here’s golden rule number one. If you’re no good at flyering, for goodness sake, hire someone. It’s much easier to flyer for someone else’s show than it is for your own, of course, so maybe swap with another performer. But no matter how many times I stood in the Royal Mile with a manic grin on my face, nobody wanted to chat to me about the show. I even went to the bizarre lengths of going to a stationery store, and making a sign which read in big letters, ASK ME ABOUT MY SHOW, and I swear, I got even fewer takers than I had done before. Suffice to say, that people turned up for my show on the days when I didn’t flyer myself.

Which never bodes well.

I became quite good friends with my technician, Matty, while I was performing the show. I mean, I had to, really. He was in control of the lights and the mic, but the poor thing, he heard and watched that show every day that I performed it. I really do feel the most enormous amount of sorrow for him. By the end of the run he knew every moment of that show and knew the exact moment he had to turn the lights off at the end. Not even I could stomach watching something that often. But on the other hand, he was getting paid for it.

He told me that at least he got a rest, during my show. His two jobs during it were to turn the lights on at the start and to turn the lights off at the end. He said that other shows he was having to look after had given him long scripts with sound and light cues and complicated requirements and one in particular not only had a 42-page script that he had to keep track of, but there was a moment when they threw oats around on the stage, which he would then have to sweep up afterwards. ‘It wasn’t even risk assessed’, he explained.

‘Oats?’, I asked.

‘It’s a comedy show about horses’, he explained.

So that was OK, then.

We bonded over music. He had asked me what music I’d like as the audience - ha ha ha - filed in, and I’d replied, ‘Sparks. I love Sparks. They completely fit the whole ethos of my show’, like I knew what I was talking about, like my show even had an ethos. But he agreed enthusiastically and explained that when he was taking his masters degree in music, he had dissected This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Of Us.

‘They were doing things in that song’, he said, ‘That just don’t make sense’.

And I’d agreed, even though I didn’t know what he meant. 

‘In fact’, I’d replied, ‘I do the same with poetry’.

‘I meant, if you analyse the music, it’s kind of . . ‘. I think at this moment, he realised that I just wasn’t very bright. ‘Anyway, Sparks it is’.

My technician became a companion, of sorts. For it was usually just myself and he who stood there, waiting for an audience. Sometimes he would go to the stairwell and listen for approaching footsteps. At such times he would turn to me with a thumbs up, which means, there’s an audience coming. And I’d quickly have to get myself ready for performing even though I’d told myself that it looked like I wouldn’t be performing today. And there was always this smile on his face when he gave the thumbs up, because he could tell that it meant something to me, to have people actually come and watch me perform.

So here’s golden rule number two. Become friends with your technician.

I suppose the biggest thing is that I can’t take rejection. Every time I see someone coming and I’ve got a leaflet in my hand, I think, ah, this could be a new friend, you’ll never know where it’s going to lead! Believe it or not, I do have fans, including a very nice couple from Leith who once took a chance and came to one of my shows, and they’ve kept in touch ever since and every time they see me in Edinburgh, they give me a nice gift. Biscuits, usually. And a card. A lovely card. How nice is that?

But with most people, the conversation goes as follows?

‘Comedy poetry show? 12:50?’

‘No thanks’.

‘Comedy poetry show?’

‘Yeww! No!’

‘Poetry comedy show?’


‘Poetry comedy show’.

‘Dear god, no!’

‘Poetry comedy show? Comedy poetry show? Humorous rhyming show? Anyone? Anyone?’

It becomes psychological after a while. You start to question everything. You can be the best writer and performer in the world, but if you can’t flyer, and you can’t take rejection, then sonny Jim, you’re going nowhere. I’m a writer, not a publicist. I sit down at a desk and I write things to make people laugh. I’m just not built for the mental turmoil of trying to sell my show.

This city had got to me. With its grey turrets and its cobblestones, its grimy alleyways and overflowing bins, the gaiety, the street performers and the bright colours, the festival villages with their fake plastic grass and deckchairs, the fairy lights strung from lamp post to lamp post, it had all got to me, and it had done so years before, beckoned me in with the promise of fame and then laughed at me, and laughed and laughed, and so was everyone else.

Except the only problem was, they weren’t actually at my show doing all this laughing. They were the other performers, the other flyerers, the university a-capella groups with their casts of thirty, there were the loud Americans prancing like gazelles from one group of tourists to the next enticing people into their improvised comedy shows. And everyone, everyone was doing better than me.

So here comes golden rule number three. Be reasonable with yourself and try not to let it get to you.

I’ve always loved performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. In fact, as a performer, there’s something almost symbolic about going there every year. Sure, it has its drawbacks. It’s busy, noisy, expensive and achingly middle class. It’s a long way from Devon. It takes hours to get to. And the accommodation every year is hit or miss.

Every year I get excited about going to Edinburgh, and then while I’m there I think, gosh, I’m having a really miserable time, and I worry about getting enough people in to see my show, and I worry that my show is any good, and I worry about reviews, and I worry about the logistics of flyering and making it to other shows, and then when I get back home again I think, wow, that was actually a really fun time.

Which I suppose is just the psychological justification for spending so much time, money and effort.

Robert on stage

Edinburgh acts every year like a shop window on the spoken word world. It shows what people have been working on for the last year. It demonstrates all the latest trends and subject matters. It demonstrates to promoters and other performers that you have a product which they might like to book for their nights.

Yes, you can get work out of going to the Fringe, but most of all it’s about finding audiences, and making connections with audiences and ordinary people who might then follow you on social media and build up a buzz or, in the case of 2019, buy you some shortbread biscuits.

But it’s mind-numbingly expensive, and more so when you decide to go with a company. You hire a space, and you hire a spot in their brochure, and you hire a technician, and then you have to pay for accommodation and food and transport to get to the Fringe because I live in fucking Devon and before you know it you’ve spent more money than you would have done if you’d just bought a caravanette and driven up and performed the bloody show in that instead.

The thinking, on behalf of the companies which hire out their spaces, is that so many people will come to your show that the ticket money will even out the costs involved. Well guess what, that only happens if all of the stars align in just the right way. Because when no bugger comes to your show, then you’re not going to make any money from the ticket sales.

The company sent me a link where I could generate a sales report every morning, giving me a rough estimate of how many people were coming to the show. Now the thing with a sales report is that you actually need sales. So every morning I’d be looking at a spreadsheet which had loads of zeros on it, so many zeros that it looked like a shape poem in the form of a snooker cue ball factory. I’d never seen so many zeros. And this had the effect of just wanting me to do more flyering.

Because at the back of my mind was the idea that I’d spent so much money on this that I had to get something back out of it. I just had to. And with the combined effort of my own paltry flyering efforts, and those of my actual flyerer, we would sometimes get an audience of, at the most, seven, which made the 52 seat room look somewhat empty, But it wasn’t enough. That’s what I kept telling myself. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Perhaps I expected too much, going with a paid company. Perhaps I thought the world would change, that people would come to the show just because it was with a paid company. Perhaps I thought that people would assume there to be some kind of quality attached to any show that took place in their premises and entered in their brochure. And while I was incredibly proud of the show and the work I’d put into it, and my performances, wasn’t it basically just the same sort of show that I’d done in other years on non-paid models? It made me re-assess what I’d done in previous years.

So here comes another golden rule. Be prepared to spend a lot of money.

The thing is, really, you need someone to speak to. Not only someone to talk you out of making bad decisions, but someone there who’s probably going through the same thing. Someone to have coffee with, perhaps someone to flyer with. Sure, I had my technician, but he was only there to see me during my show. But going with the paid model made me feel that I was somehow separated from the other spoken word artists and performance poets.

In previous years we’d become a little community and hung around in the bar of Banshee Labyrinth, reputedly Scotland’s most haunted pub, and the unofficial hub of the UK spoken word scene.

And even though every year there would be different poets and people and spoken word artists, we’d all somehow end up at this venue and chat till the small hours and share tales of triumph and disappointment. But 2023 was different.

Not only was I not performing at Banshee Labyrinth, but this time, I’d given up drinking. I’d not had any alcohol since the day of the King’s Coronation, and that was only because I’d been to my mother’s house and she’d insisted on toasting the new king, which was sweetly old fashioned and not my kind of thing at all. So I was worried that if I spent time hanging out at Banshee, I’d be tempted into having a wine, or two, or three. And I was on such a long non-drinking streak that I didn’t want to spoil this.

The other thing was that my show was on at lunchtime every day, which meant I’d be flyering from around ten o’clock in the morning. This meant that by the time it got to around nine at night, I was absolutely knackered and intent only on going to bed. I was usually asleep by ten, because I’m such a party animal these days.

I did meet up with friends and go for coffee and one day, soup. But they’d already finished their runs and were getting ready to go home when I was just starting mine. So they weren’t there to see how my week developed, and I hadn’t been there to see how theirs had played out. Looking back, I should have made more of an effort to spend time with the other spoken word artists.

So what I’m saying is that I really needed to be more sociable. The fringe can be a solitary affair yet there were thousands, hundreds of thousands of people there. And I spent most of my time mooching around and lost in my own weird little world. Which is normally a nice place to be.

So here comes another golden rule. Hang out with other people. Share your triumphs. Share your disasters.

One of the smug things that Fringe veterans always say is that you should have a reason for putting on a show in Edinburgh. Do you have a message you want to get across? (This probably won't happen). Do you want to get noticed? (This probably won't happen). Do you want to find an audience? (This probably won’t happen). Do you want to make money? (This definitely won’t happen). It’s a question I ask myself, two or three days in, and I honestly couldn’t answer. 

 Though I’ll give it a bash.

I would have said that I was doing it for fun, but it didn’t feel like fun. On the first day that I was in Edinburgh, I was already having a miserable time because I’d forgotten how much I hated flyering. It always amazes me the different methods people have for saying ‘No thanks’ to the offer of a flyer. They can range from anything as mundane as a ‘No thanks’, to the quite elaborate.

 One lady said to me, ‘I took one of your flyers yesterday, and I put it in the bin’. Even though this was the first day that I was flyering.

Another chap said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that show last week, hilarious’, again even though I was not even playing the week before.

So on that first day I went to the Fringe Artists’ Hub and filled out some paperwork, the purpose of which is to obtain a lanyard. Not only is the lanyard an excellent deterrent against people who are trying to offer you a flyer themselves, but often it feels like this is the only benefit for paying to be included in the fringe. A lanyard! Something physical that you can wear and keep around you, almost literally a badge of honour, except it’s a lanyard.

So anyway, I go to the Artists’ Hub and I fill out the paperwork, for which I need access to an email, and off I go, newly lanyarded. A couple of hours later I realised that I didn’t have my phone with me, and yet I knew I’d had it when I’d left my student accommodation that morning.

 I searched in all my pockets, and every corner of my bag, but there was no phone.

  I retraced my steps and on the way I saw a homeless man, and I thought, if I find my phone, I’ll give him some money. I went back to the Artists’ Hub and the receptionist gave me a big smile and handed back my phone. I thanked her profusely, went outside, and gave all of my spare change to the homeless man, thinking, Oh, what a good deed you have done there! Maybe the universe will now reward you with a big audience for the show this afternoon.

 One person showed up.

 Now obviously, morally, if I was going to give someone some money because they were in an unfortunate position, then I should have done so regardless of whether I found my mobile phone or not. And if the universe was going to reward me, then it should have done so based on my motives. Not on account of my relief. The universe was teaching me a valuable lesson.

  So the Fringe did not feel like fun, so maybe this was not my reason for being there at all. Maybe it was because it was a challenge. And if it was a challenge that I wanted, then it was a challenge that I got. It was a challenge to write the show, to learn it, to perform it, to bring it to the Edinburgh fringe and pay all that money and fill in all those forms, and it was a extra challenge to get people to come and watch it.

But there was another very weird reason lurking beneath the surface, too. And that was that I was in Edinburgh doing the Fringe more out of a sense of duty. I owed it to myself and to my art to be there. This was my 11th year at the Fringe, and my ninth attempt at putting on a show either solo or with someone else. The fringe was an integral part of me and had been so for well over a decade.

In 2017, a joke from my show that year, Juicy, made its way to the Guardian newspaper’s list of top one-liners, and this led to a brief and quite distracting period of media interest. I was in all the papers the next day, and was being interviewed on live radio by the BBC, and Chris Evans mentioned me on his Radio 2 show. And when all the hoo-hah died down after a couple of days, the feeling remained that I owed it to the fringe to be there, because it had been so good for me, and it had been so good to me.

Well, this year it had definitely been acting like an utter bastard. But it brings me to another of my golden rules:

Decide what it is that you’re there for in the first place.

Because those Fringe veterans were right, and, oh dear, perhaps I’m also one of them.

So what other lesson might I impart so that you can have an enjoyable fringe experience and learn from the mistakes of your poor old Uncle Robert? To be honest, my biggest advice would be not to get your hopes up. Don’t think about success. Prepare to do a heck load of flyering, and if you hire a flyerer, prepare for them not to turn up.

By all means put a cracker of a show together, but don’t get upset it nobody comes to watch it. Don’t pay a venue unless you’re very rich or if you’re part of a group of thirteen a-Cappella singers from one of the major universities. Expect to spend a lot of money. Expect to lose a lot of money. Already be famous. Be young. Have a winning smile. Have interesting hair. Have a personable nature. Have a sob story or two. Be gobby. Be loud. Shout. Be physical.

Push flyerers out of the way while you’re flyering so that people can see your flyer and not the flyer of the flyerer who’s also flyering. Be shameless. Be an attention-seeker. Be impulsive. Be impolite. Have a one-syllable name. Walk with purpose. Get rained on and love it. Don’t get tired. Be middle-class. Be thin. Have good skin. Be young. Be entitled. Look good in a t-shirt. Do everything with gusto. Be hyperactive. Be indifferent to others. Act like it all means nothing. Don’t let it be your life.

Pretend not to be pleased when others do badly. Pretend not to be pleased when you get an audience. Act like you’re the only person who ever existed who ever had the idea of taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. Act all the time. It’s all an act. Follow all of these rules, dear reader, and you will learn from the mistakes of your dear Uncle Robert.

Perhaps I’m just exaggerating here for comic effect. I had a good time, honest, I did. I met friends and made friends, and saw shows and had the joy of working yet again in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

On the last day, I thanked my technician, and we took selfies, and then I left my venue, caught the tram to the airport, and then a flight to Devon, and then a taxi from the airport to my flat in Paignton, and I got home still wearing the same clothes I’d been performing in, and I thought. . . Wow, did that just happen? Did that really just happen? And all the time, all that rehearsing and writing, all that money and all that flyering, well, guess what? It had just been for that one moment, that one split second of. . . Wow!

• Taken from the newly published Yo-Yo: Ruminations Of  Accidental Poet by Robert Garnham, available here. For more about his work visit his website.

Published: 31 Jan 2024

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