Hello! Welcome back! How were your summers? Hope you all had a blast. I am, of course, back from the Edinburgh Fringe, the first full-scale one since the Great Pause of 2020. I’m well aware that the month I’ve had has given me enough stuff to think and talk about – both in terms of exciting, inspiring ideas and more sombre reflections on what does and doesn’t work for me about a wholly Fringe-centric career model – to fill many newsletters, and perhaps the thoughts I’m currently trying to gather together now I’m back will bleed into subsequent newsletters as well as this one. So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll try to keep this one focused on “the headlines.”
Things To Be Proud Of
First up, if you’ve been following this year’s Fringe only casually from the outside (if at all), you might have picked up on various bits of noise about it being a total disaster. From well-respected Fringe producers like Owen Donovan or Martin Willis tweeting about how hard it was and how unlikely they are to come back, to press releases about ticket sales being down by over 25%, to veteran Fringe critics like Brian Logan openly calling for the Fringe to change or die, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Edinburgh Fringe 2022 had been a total train-wreck. Elements of this side of the discourse have chimed with me, and I’ll move onto my thoughts on all that in a bit, but first, against that stark backdrop, it makes me all the prouder of everything that my team and I achieved with Blink this year.
We sold 83% of our tickets for the run, selling out pretty much every show for the first two-and-a-half weeks, and quite a few of the shows in the last week too (when apparently numbers took a dip across the Fringe). Previously my entire reputation at the Fringe was as an independent maker in Pay-What-You-Want venues, where people only needed to pay a fiver, or nothing at all, for my work. I had also done my best to stay active and visible during the two-year gap resulting from Covid, but certainly hadn’t build a huge viral online following like some of the other acts that sold out their entire runs. As such, it was my first Fringe in many years playing a paid venue, where tickets were over £10, and I was also playing a room about 20 seats bigger than any I’d played before, other than an ill-advised year where I played a very empty 100-seater in 2015. Finally, I was entirely self-produced, with no big production companies supporting me or helping to market or produce my show (though of course I’m hugely grateful to the amazing Flick Morris for handling press and PR, and to my agent Hollie Ebdon for all her help and support with the show). The fact that I took on all these potential obstacles and setbacks as an independent Fringe artist and sold 1600 tickets across the run is an enormous source of pride.
We also did really well in terms of reviews in a year where press coverage was lower than usual, racking up a total of 9 4-to-5-star reviews. You can have a read of our full crop of reviews here if you like! (Not even that bothered by the two 3-star ones – the Broadway Baby one was perfectly nice, although the review from the Skinny does feel needlessly personal in some places and also spoils the show a bit, so feel free to skip that one if you wanna avoid spoilers. Hey ho). Incredibly selfishly, I feel a tiny bit sad that none of the bigger papers came to review the show, although Bruce Dessau’s lovely review meant that he included it in his top picks of Fringe shows transferring to London for the Evening Standard. I’d love to get one of those bigger critics into the show’s Soho run in a couple of weeks to find out what they thought of it, but that’s a pretty small, privileged wish to come away from the Fringe nursing, so I’m choosing to not consider it a negative in the slightest, but simply to take stock and be proud of all the above and consider it a thing to work on in my next steps.
Above all these external markers of success, the thing I am most proud of is the way that we worked as a team to address all the internal measures of success that we put in place for Blink ever since we started work on it. I know from many years of putting on work at the Fringe that losing your mind to external metrics – awards, stars, sold-out shows, etc – is a one-way trip to misery, and that the most important thing you can do is to set goals you’re completely in control of, so that none of those external factors can end up having any influence over whether your work is “successful” or not. Our intention was to make a show with the same originality and strangeness and silliness as my previous work, but to present it in a way that made it more comprehensible and accessible for a wider, more mainstream audience. Certainly, not everyone loved the show – we had a lot of people coming in expecting a traditional magic show who left very confused – but we succeeded in presenting a very weird, theatrical, absurdist show in a very commercial venue and succeeding in communicating the originality and the weirdness of its ideas to a very new audience for me. We aimed to shine a light on collaboration and teamwork in show-making, and may be contributing to a major press feature on that subject in the coming weeks. We aimed to combine different theatrical approaches, sensibilities, and tones in the way we assembled the show to make something that felt like a genuinely different proposition to the solo, direct-address format that most Fringe shows take. A lot of the responses to the show singled out a specific sequence, conceived and created by Miranda Holms, as easily the highlight of the show because of the way it flipped the tone on its head and shifted the context of the show from knockabout silliness into something much more considered and theatrical. I’m told that the show really found a bit of a cult audience in the comedy underground who responded to the sense of something being made using different methods, and exploring different formats. The idea that this show, that we laboured over as a team with all our love and care, found a place in the hearts of people who also care about innovating and exploring uncharted territory within comedy, means more to me than any of those other traditional external measures of success. I am a very proud team leader!
Miranda, Ben and I walked the bridge to North Queensferry on our day off. Best day of the Fringe, actually
Things To Reflect On
And yet…and yet. It was difficult. I think we all went up there expecting it to be just like it was in 2019, and found that A. It was very different from 2019, in terms of how big the audience actually was and B. We had all forgotten how hard 2019 was in the first place. From listening to some of the other horror stories about this Fringe, I think I was one of the lucky ones, but that doesn’t meant it was plain sailing. My brain, it turns out, had largely rewired itself in the last 3 years so that this time it really struggled with the constant sensory overload and burnout that comes hand-in-hand with working flat-out in such an intense environment for 26 days in a row. The Fringe is a place where you bump into someone you know on every street corner, and end up having the same conversation with them in an endless loop, and it often ends up being one that reignites the significance of toxic external factors – stars, awards, sellouts, etc – that you’re actively trying to remove your emotional dependence on. I found I simply couldn’t handle this in the way I once could, and ended up shouting “Leave me alone!” inside my head everywhere I went because I was so tired and so desperately wanted some headspace.
I also found it harder to find that headspace because the landscape of the Fringe has changed since 2019. Heroes of Fringe, the programme I was always a part of, used to be a haven for outsider artists who valued the Fringe as a creative opportunity rather than as a trade fair or industry showcase, but now no longer exists. The Pleasance, whose programme I was part of this year, were incredibly kind, supportive, resourceful, welcoming and hard-working and I would love to keep working with them, but they are ultimately a business more than they are an artists’ collective, so it’s hard to find that spirit there as well. Monkey Barrel, the venue that grew out of the Pay-What-You-Want movement and now essentially has a monopoly over Fringe comedy, has done great work in pioneering that Pay-What-You-Want model and providing value for audiences and artists alike, but are in the unique position of being able to do that because they own their own venues and run their own bars, whereas organisations like Pleasance have to pay huge sums of rent to Edinburgh University. Simply copy-and-pasting Monkey Barrel’s model across the entire Fringe is therefore unfeasible unless it comes alongside much bigger changes in the structure of the whole festival, while Monkey Barrel’s status as an inaccessible venue where disabled audiences or acts can neither watch nor perform comedy, means it still has problems to solve before it becomes a venue that has truly cracked the Fringe.
There’s so much more to touch on here – the sudden emergence of the conversation about short runs as a result of Sam Campbell winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award after a 10-day run (I have so much to say about this, largely the fact that people should not be using their eligibility for an award as the deciding factor in what they do with their creativity, and that Sam Campbell’s show was the funniest thing I saw, and that if he deliberately gamed the system in order to perform the minimum possible shows then that just makes it funnier); the growing awareness of the Fringe’s chronic lack of diversity when it comes to race, class, disability, and so on, but this newsletter is getting long and I promised to focus on brevity. Perhaps these will be subjects I return to in the next couple of weeks.
The biggest thing all these confusing factors taught me this year was a growing certainty in the pit of my stomach that I no longer need to build my life around the Fringe. That it can still be a place that offers rich creative rewards and inspires and moves, but that the days of my going there every year in pursuit of some nebulous form of external approval are over. I feel deeply uncomfortable about the idea of trying to put on an Edinburgh Fringe in 2023 in the midst of what looks increasingly likely to be an impending economic disaster. If audiences were down this year, then I dread to think what they will be like next year, and what that will mean for the Fringe’s slow transformation into a playground for people with disposable wealth. I was aware this year that the risks of doing the Fringe every year – financial, emotional, etc – get bigger and bigger, while the potential rewards – both the creative ones and the more career-focused ones – either remain the same, or get smaller. Change does need to come to the Fringe, but it will probably take a couple more years of those with financial stakes in it seeing their bottom line being hit by circumstances before that change happens, because money is ultimately always the thing that ends up driving change, sadly. I’ve realised that a lot of the things I get out of the Fringe are things I can find elsewhere, without risking so much, so perhaps while that festival I have loved for so long goes through this necessary period of shrinkage and change, I will remove myself from it to explore what other kinds of work I can do, and then see what state it’s in in a few years when perhaps I have a new idea that would fit in well there. I know for a fact that it takes me at least two years to make a good show, so doing it in 2023 was never on the cards anyway, but with all the doom-mongering going on around it, perhaps it’s time for me to concentrate on other creative avenues and see what sort of Fringe awaits me as and when I’m ready for it, rather than putting myself back on the treadmill as soon as possible.
It feels like a good year to start making those sorts of changes, because I get to kick off the academic year with The Dream Factory, my original sitcom for BBC Radio 4 which we’re recording next week! Perhaps that project might steer me towards more scripted, narrative, authored projects on the radio, or online, or in film or TV mediums, as that’s a world I’ve always wanted to do more work in. The Fringe has held a huge place in my heart for a decade now, and I will always care for it. But this year as I navigated it I had the keen sense that it was a part of my past. Whether it plays some role again at some point in my future I don’t know. But I do feel, now I’m back from it, that it needn’t play a role in my present for a little while now. I’m excited about all the things I will do to fill its place.
Long live the Fringe, and all the lessons it taught me. It’s time for me to put it to one side for a little while.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I’m gonna be a dick and say – my Soho run! It’s very soon, so I really don’t have much time to promote it. I would love it if any of you could share it online to help spread the word if you know people who might enjoy the show, and obviously if any readers didn’t make it to the Fringe, I’d love you to book a ticket and come and see what we made!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Over the last month? Probably Sam Campbell’s bit about that deep-sea fish with a light on its head. What’s incredible about Sam is how his absolute, awe-inspiring confidence in exactly how funny he is, and in how he is funny, means that potentially quite ordinary ideas transform themselves into brilliance. I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of pedestrian stand-up routines about that fish over the years, but something about Sam’s take on it made me howl. He is the funniest human.
Book Of The Month – Been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport all month. Was I reading that in the last newsletter? I think I was. Sorry, not much time for reading at the Fringe. Might try to finish it tonight. Good book!
Album Of The Month – I tried listening to Harry Styles’ Harry’s House this month, because John-Luke Roberts told me it was like Peter Gabriel. It is a bit like Peter Gabriel, but it’s not as good. I thought it was ok, though, and if you’d told me a month ago that I would listen to a Harry Styles album and think it was ok, I’d have thought you were mad. So perhaps a bright future as a Harry Styles super-fan awaits me!
Film Of The Month – Fire Of Love, which is a film about the volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, who expressed their love for each other by exploring volcanoes, and were eventually killed by a volcano (this isn’t a spoiler, this is the premise). It’s all edited together out of their own archives, and it’s a really beautiful and gently funny film. It’s a magical thing to just watch two people in love.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you have any thoughts on everything I’ve been banging on about, I’d love to hear them! Please send me your thoughts, or your own Fringe experiences if you were up there. Also, if you’d like to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Take care until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s Miranda and I on top of Arthur’s Seat celebrating a month’s hard work