Edinburgh Fringe – the largest arts festival in the world – runs throughout August every year, and is the ideal summer holiday for wannabe comedians wanting to turn their dreams of a standup career into reality.
A year ago I was bored, unemployed and purposeless. Late one night, while browsing eBay, I found a coach ticket to Scotland for less than the price of a pint. Bleary eyed and entirely on a whim, I decided this was a heavenly sign compelling me to spend the second half of August visiting the festival.
I’d always wanted to be a comedian, but had no clue about how to make it happen. Thanks to that unplanned visit to the Scottish capital, I was thrown into the deep end and I’ve never looked back since.
For aspiring comedians, making the most of Edinburgh Fringe and, most importantly, getting stage time requires some careful planning and willingness to graft. I arrived at the Fringe knowing nothing about the city and no-one in the industry. But while there I averaged two performances a day, met hundreds of comedians, a few celebrities, and even had a couple of comedy promoters ask me to come and perform at their clubs in England.
This guide to getting the most out of your time at the Fringe will give you a head start on all the other blaggers heading up there this year.
NOTE – this advice is being given on the assumption that before you go to Edinburgh, you’ve at the very least written yourself 5-10 minutes worth of comedy you can perform on stage. If you haven’t got that, then by all means visit the festival but don’t bother getting on a stage and wasting audiences’ time.
1. Health and Fitness
Walking is the most convenient and practical way to get around Edinburgh. They built the city centre on many different levels, so expect to spend a lot of time striding up and down hills.
If you’ve got a decent level of physical fitness then you should be fine. Otherwise, it’s worth doing some cardio work beforehand – sessions at the gym or even some power-walking will help a lot. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
It’s essential to get at least one good meal a day. There are plenty of unhealthy food options around the Royal Mile, including the infamous deep-fried Mars bars and Haggis suppers. However, I would highly recommend visiting the Mosque Kitchen on Nicolson Street, and the restaurants around it, for good quality, affordable and nutritious food.
Unpopular as this suggestion may be, you should consider limiting drinking, smoking and drugs while you’re in town. It’s not uncommon to see tired, hungover (or worse!) acts sleep-walking their way through performances as the festival progresses. However, maintain your sobriety and you can use others’ incapacity to your advantage. More on that later.
The Fringe is a tiring experience. It’s quite normal for a comedian to do four different shows in the afternoon – each providing 5 to 15 mins of stage time – then go out on the Royal Mile to hand flyers to punters for a few hours, before finally heading over to their main 30/60 minute show of the day.
Some will repeat this for almost four weeks without a break. So, naturally, lots of performers burn out, get sick or simply have a nervous breakdown halfway through. You can use this to your own advantage.
If you’re hoping to get stage time at the festival then your best bet is to visit during the third or fourth week, when many comedy shows suffer last-minute cancellations by performers, and start getting desperate for replacement acts.
To make the most of your visit, I’d recommend going for anywhere between 7 to 10 days, including at least one full weekend – Fridays and Saturdays being the busiest days for crowds – but ideally two if you can afford it. I’m not going to suggest cheap ways to get there. Which option you choose – train, plane, megabus – will depend on your personal budget. I will say that driving is the least sensible option, as parking anywhere conveniently central will be very expensive. Flying could well be a more affordable choice than you realise, as a regular bus from Edinburgh airport deposits you right in the centre of town.
Staying close to the Royal Mile is highly recommended. It allows you to stumble back to your digs after late night shows. Expect to end up performing at 2am to a roomful of drunk, rowdy strangers who will sap your confidence with their vicious, relentless heckling. The last thing you want after a gig like that is to face a long, lonely journey via night bus to the comfort of your warm, welcoming bed on the outskirts of town.
On arrival, get yourself a free copy of the Edinburgh city map offered by hotels and hostels around town, and always keep this handy.
You’ll need a small rucksack or messenger bag, and it’s worth having the following in it every day: umbrella, water for hydration, simple business cards, copies of festival brochures. Additionally, internet access is vital, so make sure you have a phone or tablet that can get online via 3G/4G. Wifi is spotty at best throughout the city – even at good hotels.
4. Making Contacts
If you’re a wannabe comedian, or very new, your contacts list for the Fringe is likely close to non-existent. However, making contacts is ridiculously simple and the bulk of your work here should happen well before you head off.
Do you know any comedians who live local to you? Google is your friend here. Find out the names of the professional and semi-pro standups from your town or county and add them on Twitter/Facebook. (Many comedians are so desperate for any public attention they will happily accept friend requests from total strangers and engage with them via Twitter.)
Some of your local comedy clubs, big and small, may be running shows in Edinburgh, and it’s worth starting to build relationships with people who can give you stage time at the Fringe, and then at geographically convenient locations after it.
There was a time when the majority of “open mics” (aka “open spots”) were advertised on internet forums. However, the rise of Facebook has left many of these a barren, tumbleweed-laden wasteland. Instead, the action has moved to Facebook groups. Finding them is ludicrously easy, and a simple search using the words “Edinburgh Fringe”, “performers”, “free” and “comedy” in various combinations will reveal the most useful groups. Just make sure you’re adding yourself to the ones that are already populated with a few hundred members already. There will be gig opportunities advertised on these throughout the festival.
5. Know The Shows
In case you need it, here’s a reality check: do not expect to get stage time at any shows that charge an entry fee.
Apart from the offerings by big-name celebrities, most ticketed shows at Edinburgh Fringe fall into two categories. Firstly, you have the ones showcasing the talents of exceptionally gifted comedians, who may well have a small enthusiastic fanbase already. The second type feature painfully unimpressive one hour performances by passionate, but not-yet-competent, hopefuls whose belief in their own abilities is so compelling that they’ve sunk life savings into booking a performance space so the public, promoters and comedy reviewers can bask in their genius. (Reviews are useful pointers, but you won’t really know which category a show falls into until you fork out for the privilege of seeing it.)
Your only hope for getting any real stage time are the plethora of “free” shows at Edinburgh Fringe. There are three main Fringe promoters whose brochures you need to pick up as soon as possible: Free Festival, Freestival and Free Fringe.
All three prosper through the good will and hard work of hundreds of artists, who volunteer their time and efforts for little thanks or reward. However, Free Fringe, run along socialist ideals, has well-documented philosophical disagreements with rivals. For you, as a visitor, none of that matters so don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that all of them have shows where you can blag yourself some stage time.
One surefire way of getting stage time is to attend one of the comedy courses run by Free Festival up in Edinburgh, which have a “graduation” gig as part of the experience. It’s a useful confidence booster, especially if you’ve never performed standup before, and you get to try out your newly-learned skills in front of a real audience at a proper Edinburgh Fringe venue.
Regardless of whether you take a course or not, you should spend a few hours on your first evening in Edinburgh going through the websites/brochures of those three big Fringe promoters. The magic words you’re looking for are “showcase”, “compilation” and “mixed bill” as those will be the ones with multiple, and usually different, acts taking the stage every day. Note each and every one, and where they’re happening, as these are now the shows on your target list. Visit them, speak to the people who run them and politely offer to step in if they ever have any comedians cancel on them. Give out those business cards; add the people you meet as Facebook friends; send reminder messages every couple of days. Persistence pays.
6. Sell Yourself
It’s at this point I can help you no longer. How many gigs, if any, you’re able to get will depend on your people skills, your tenacity and your ability to slightly exaggerate your experience level with conviction.
I spent my time in Edinburgh last year implying I had more than a year’s experience and namedropping other comedians I knew, but not mentioning I only knew them through my Facebook friend list. The people running those free shows are so busy, overwhelmed and fatigued that they won’t have the time or energy to check your story in detail. You shouldn’t need to lie. Just project an air of credibility that gives them enough confidence in you to offer you a short stint on their stage.
If, however, you don’t have the gift of the gab needed to achieve that, then you need to ask yourself whether you’re really ready to face an Edinburgh Fringe audience … ?
You can see Jay Islaam, or one of his many incarnations, performing at Dr. Sicko’s Comedy Vomit every day at 8pm as part of Edinburgh Fringe until the 23rd of August 2014 with Free Festival. Venue: Jekyll and Hyde, The Crypt, 112 Hanover Street, Edinburgh EH2 1DR.