You're based in the US: why did you decide to bring a show to Edinburgh?
I’m an actor and playwright, and I run a theater company in New York City called Elephant Run District. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is something I’ve wanted to do for a number of years to become a better artist and producer. I also wanted to raise my company’s profile. I think of the Fringe as the Olympics of culture and I’ve wanted to experience what that was like. The piece we took was a solo show called American Gun Show. It was a challenging and controversial thinking person’s comedy.
It’s a very full experience. In general, it was about what I expected but it played out in ways I did not specifically anticipate. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. The amount of both is greater. I equate doing the Fringe to flying a plane. You can ride in a plane and you can take classes on flying, but until you have the controls in your hands you can never know what it is really like. Lots of things can go right and many, many things can go wrong. Things you never would have thought about in a million years can suddenly become your main focus. You will spend much more money than you budgeted. You will not have enough time to see everything you will want to see. The zeitgeist of the festival changes year to year so you can’t count on what worked in the past for someone else.
The reactions to the show covered the gamut. We knew we were taking something that would push some buttons but also delight and surprise people so we were happy with this. Our attendance was very good for our first time there and we had eight reviews, most of which were very positive. We also had a couple walk out and shout throughout the lobby that I was a “gun-hating liberal.” We had people in tears and trembling after my show because they were very moved. We had people yell at us for calling the show a comedy and others say that was a brilliant choice because it surprised them in a good way. We had people talk to us for hours after the show trying to grapple on their feelings about the issue of gun violence.
How did you select your venue? Were you happy with your choice?
We worked with Gryphon Venues. They are located near the Traverse on Bread Street and are in the Point Hotel. (Note: This might go through a name change as the Doubletree is taking over.) I met the Artistic Director Kekoa Kaluhiokalani at the road show in New York. I liked the fact that they were a nonprofit group and asked for a set fee up front rather than a split with guarantee because I knew what we would be spending. From my application through to my final pay-out with them, they were professional, kind, supportive, capable, and nice. Their spaces are really some of the best in the Fringe. They feel like legitimate theater spaces, which is what we wanted for this show. Honestly, I liked their set-up better than most of the big four presenting venue spaces. They give a full fifteen minutes to get in and get out. Their storage spaces are nice and their lobby is spacious. The lighting and sound was excellent. Overall, they gave me a feeling of confidence I don’t think I’d have a lot of other places. The only real downside is that they are a little isolated where they are so you don’t have as much foot traffic but several shows frequently sold-out there. I loved the folks at the Gryphon and can’t recommend them enough.
What would you have done differently if you could have your first time again?
I think I would have gone there with something that was much more fun and had more of a broad appeal. When everything else is so difficult and draining at the Festival, it is good to let loose with the show each day. You really need to enjoy doing your show or it is a very hard place to work. I did a piece that was quite challenging to perform psychologically. Maybe after returning to the Fringe a few times it would be easier to do a demanding piece. Once you have a good reputation and an arsenal of stars, then you can do more interesting work. But I don’t like to do things the easy way.
Did you find UK audiences different from US audiences? If so, how?
Yes. I talked with a Brit there and mentioned how American audiences laugh and react more audibly. He didn’t believe me. A few days later he told me how he was at a late-night comedy show with a famous performer and thought, “This is very, very funny but I’m not laughing aloud.”
My show was vastly different when I had Americans or people who spent time in the United States in the audience. They got what I was doing and I could ride their energy. The UK audiences tended to laugh on the inside and quietly say, “That was quite good” after the show. Many U.S. performers I met experienced this. On the plus side, you can cut minutes off of your show.
In my previous experiences, I could count on responses happening in a certain range. But each performance in Edinburgh was wildly different depending on who attended. I had an amazing twentieth show. My final show two nights later was a tough haul. I thought it would get easier and build through the festival but it was always random play.
I spent a lot more than I expected but it is part of the education of going there the first time. The accommodations were very pricey—more than double my monthly rent in Manhattan!!—and I spent twice as much as I expected on advertising. I hired a publicist; bought an ad in the Fringe guide; got a second ad in a magazine; and online ads on Fringe Guru, Broadway Baby, and the List’s websites. I paid for distribution of my posters and flyers before I arrived. I only saw a couple of my posters around town and didn’t see my flyers in enough places so I won’t do that again. I had to order another round of flyers and I hired a person to flyer. He was excellent and will use him again next time. From my talks with people after the show, most were drawn by my flyer, by my flyering guy, or by the listing in the main Fringe guide.
What was your favourite place to hang out at the Fringe?
You have to take care of yourself there or you will suffer or get sick. I had a flu through most of the festival. I was staying a block from my venue so I found it nice to go to FYUL and Espresso Mondo to have an Americano and read the papers. I’m an aggressive performer but an introvert by nature so it is necessary for me to unwind and have time to myself. New Yorkers tend to steer clear of Times Square and other congested areas so I did the same when I was in Edinburgh. I went to the Royal Mile a few times but was rather unhappy there. I found back ways to get to Fringe Central and spent a lot of time on Lothian Road and areas north of Princess Street. I wanted to forget the festival was happening at times. It is a long three weeks. I got to my first day off and thought, “Whew, I’m glad that’s done.” Then I realized I had half the festival to go. I’ve done long runs of shows and I’ve done many festivals but most festivals only consist of 5 or 6 performances. The adrenaline going that long was new to me. It never really stopped. I had shiatsu a couple of times at the Healthy Life Centre.
When did you start preparing for the Fringe?
We knew no matter what, we would be on a learning curve our first year. Aimee Todoroff, Elephant Run District’s Artistic Director, and I went for a week last year to check out the festival, shop for venues, and to get a feel for thing as a whole. We also took a few workshops on producing there and sought advice from people who attended previously. At some point, you have to take the plunge because you will never truly be ready. Because the decision to do this was done in March, it put a lot of pressure on my company when we were also preparing to start our first Brecht in the Park series in NYC. We had a successful crowd-funding campaign in June, followed by the Brecht production in July, followed by a short run of American Gun Show in NYC to prep for Edinburgh, and then the big event. I do think the decision to go there should be made no later than eight months out. I also recommend doing your show at a few different festivals in diverse places to get an assortment of reactions.
Will you be coming back?
Yes. We got most of our reviews towards the end of the festival so I think our reputation will only grow when we return. I think that is true of everyone who performs there. Aimee and I sketched out a five-year plan initially. I am not sure how that will play out but we will definitely be back. I’m still recovering more than a month after the thing but am really hungry to go back. If I could afford it, I’d buy a place there. It’s a beautiful city.
Did you have any goals for the Fringe? Did you meet them?
Our main goal was to go and find out what it was about with a show that carved a unique place in Edinburgh. We accomplished all of those things well above my expectations.
We hope over time to get our work to other places in Europe and the UK. Nothing tangible happened with this piece on this visit. I expect that will change with future visits there.
What's the one thing you wish you'd known before you arrived in Edinburgh?
It cost much less to withdraw money from an ATM than exchanging it before going over. Don’t bring back coins. You can’t exchange coins, only paper money. So I have to go back to use up this little bag of coins.
The town was easy to navigate once you learn a few misleading things such as George Square vs. George Street and Assembly Hall vs. Assembly Rooms.
I became a vegetarian this year so the amount of bacon and pork product in everything stood out to me.
I could not wrap my head (or mouth) around mayonnaise on pizza.
Vegetarian haggis is quite good. And better in a burrito.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisHarcum