Many years ago, a wise and slightly weary theatre producer* told me that in his opinion, Shirley Valentine was the best play in the world.
“It’s a one-woman show! It’s perfect, made for touring.”
Or, in other words, it costs basically nothing to put the show on and move it around the country, or the world. If you have an excellent product with low overheads, then with a bit of luck you can start making money.
Not every theatre company wants to put on Shirley Valentine though and shows usually have more than one performer.
But most companies want to make money, or to at least break even, and like a lot of small businesses, they want – and need – to grow.
Leo Gene Peters is the artistic director for Wellington theatre company ‘A Slightly Isolated Dog’. With producer Angela Green, the company makes all kinds of work but have found success of late with two comedic shows, Don Juan and Jekyll and Hyde, which they have performed across the country.
But you can only tour New Zealand so many times and the company needed to move to the next stage of its life. That inevitably meant looking offshore.
“In terms of the sustainability and longevity of our company and the people in it, we wanted to look for opportunities to sell the show elsewhere,” says Green.
So about two years ago the pair sat down and asked each other; where do we go next?
The answer was the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, or Fringe Festival, runs every August at the same time as the Edinburgh International Festival.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘Fringe” tag, though. This is the largest arts festival in the world. More than 3800 different shows played there this year and three million tickets were issued. The Fringe dwarfs the International Festival, possibly because it is open access. If you want to put on a show on, and you can afford to, then you are in.
But affording it is the trick. Especially if you are not presenting Shirley Valentine.
For their first attempt at Edinburgh in 2018, Green and Peters needed to fly eight people from New Zealand to the UK. They had to hire a venue, pay wages, per diems, publicity costs and pay for a month’s accommodation in a city expecting 500,000 visitors. How much did all that cost?
“I will not give you a figure,” dodges Green,” but there are many zeros in it.”
“For the most part you don’t go to make money,” adds Peters.
Which is just as well. The company raised the funds needed through hard slog; more touring, fundraising shows, a Boosted campaign, making savings, cutting costs and stuffing as many things into as few suitcases as possible.
They also received 40 percent of their funding from Creative New Zealand, or CNZ. CNZ began a major push towards Edinburgh in 2014 and for the last two years has run an intensive programme to ‘build artists international experience and capability’.
“It’s important to encourage our artists to grow their capacity to work internationally,’ says Jude Chambers, who manages CNZ’s international team, ”To increase their touring ability and to receive additional fee-paying opportunities off the back of Edinburgh.”
Those opportunities come in the form of presenters who travel to Edinburgh looking to buy works to put on at their own venues or festivals. Because the Fringe, like every arts festival, is also a giant arts market. It is a trade show.
“That’s how we see it,” agrees Chambers.
Off the back of their 2018 visit, Peters and Green were offered a short tour of the UK and a licensing opportunity in China. That would not have happened if they had stayed home. Their big gamble had somewhat paid off.
The Fringe is renowned for the career boost it gives to artists like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose one-woman show Fleabag was a runaway hit in 2013. A cult TV show followed, and Waller-Bridge is now established as a top-tier writer for TV and film.
That would be nice, says Peters, but it is not the plan. With nearly 4000 other shows going on, your chance of standing out and being noticed are only slightly better than that of a snowflake in Antarctica.
And success is hard to measure in Edinburgh.
“Edinburgh is full of hype,’ says Green. “It’s impossible to tell how people were really doing. Somebody’s show might be sold out, but their capacity is 20 seats. Or somebody might have 10 five-star reviews but three people are coming a night.
“You’ve got to be really clear within yourself about what it is you’re measuring yourself against.”
And you need to stick to your long-term plan. For Peters and Green, that was to get alongside the presenters who matter, make themselves known to them and hopefully have a conversation. Peters likens it to starting a friendship, one that will only grow if you work at it. That means making the trek to Edinburgh more than once.
“You’ve gotta go a number of times,” agrees Green, “to build a reputation in order to build opportunity.
“And then those opportunities build more.”
The company returned to Edinburgh again this year and again, they have offers from presenters and they expect more to come. The pair are weighing-up another trip in 2020.
So has all the money, effort and travel been worth it? Green says it is too soon to tell.
“The jury is out on that one. Ask us again in 10 years’ time.”
*None of your business.