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Keara’s Murphy's Histrionics of The Fringe

Keara Murphy is a performer who has performed and produced Fringe shows with the Gilded Balloon, The Stand, Independantly,  The Buckley Hill Free Fringe and The Free Festival - read about her Fringe experiences over the years, and why she is now working with the Free Festival. Now, let's go back in time...

KEARA2.jpg (14333 bytes)1998 – My first gig: Blackfriars and beyond

Was it all so much simpler then; or has time rewritten every line.  Hmmm, maybe a just a little… 

In 1998 I saw an advert for a course in stand-up comedy, I had always done impressions and created little characters and things, and   - not thinking of myself as a comedian, particularly - I wondered if this course might help me with my characters.  My plan was simple: I would write a bunch of sketches, try them out on stage, adapt them for radio and pretty soon I’d have my own TV show.  Hurrah!

Hmmm, two weeks into the course my Dad died and that was the end of that silly notion.  In fact, I never would have done stand up at all if I hadn’t accidentally met my teacher, Viv Gee (yes, it’s all her fault), a week before the showcase.  She came up to my house and worked with me on my little monologues and prop-based sketches and the following Monday night, there I was, in front of the family and friends - who had stood beside me a few weeks earlier as we buried my father - supporting me as I did my first ever stand-up gig. 

I loved it and instantly got the bug. 

Comedy was still relatively new in Scotland so we got really, really good press for that graduation show and anyone involved in the small comedy circuit was there in the audience.  A comedy promoter, Billy Bonkers, booked me immediately for a string of paid gigs at his Saturday night club: The Cozy Comedy Café, and I was also booked for a bunch of five and ten spots at The Stand.  The Director there, Tommy Sheppard, saw me, and asked me if I would like to do The Fringe as part of a showcase for new talent that August.  Bingo!  Eight months after I did my first ever gig, I packed in my day job and moved to Edinburgh (I must add I also had an ulterior motive in that I was also undertaking a full-time Drama degree at the same time).  

1999 - My first Fringe: The Stand

Stand-Up Scotland included John Scott, Graham Thomas and Teddy.  We sold out almost every night, got loads of press coverage and a heap of favourable reviews.  We also made some money – a hundred or so quid each, if I remember correctly.  I left with lots of lovely press clippings, some decent quotes and a confident, polished performance.  And I then went on to do gigs across Scotland, Ireland and the North of England.  This was easy, this Fringe malarkey and my career in comedy would be a hop, skip and a jump from here; I knew it.

2000 - My second Fringe: The Gilded Balloon

The following year, I did a showcase of more established acts at The Gilded Balloon with Jason John Whitehead, Dougie Dunlop and Joe Heenan. The Midnight Show ran in the room just above the notorious Late ‘n’ Live and, again, we packed em in.  Karen Koran, being just fabulous, also paid us £25 each a night.  Mind you, she did later say, “I must be nuts!”  So, that year, I made a total of £575.00.  And every night we slipped down the backstairs after the show to watch now superstars like Johnny Vegas, Daniel Kitson and Ed Byrne rip it up.  If only I had known just how lucky I was back then - in the good old days when times were bad.

2002 - My third Fringe: The Stand

Two years - and a BA drama degree under my belt - later, I did a one-woman sketch and character-based show, Silver Scream, at The Stand. Again, no initial outlay – and Tommy covered any losses.  It was not quite as easy to get audiences in and for the first time ever I had to actually flyer.  I covered things with family, friends, university contacts and canvassing in and around the bars and venues of Edinburgh.  And of course, the staff at The Stand worked tirelessly to drum up support for all the shows.  This was in 2002 - in the days of no Internet: absolutely no online marketing, no websites, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Youtube - just Shanksy’s Pony (as we say in Glasgow) and good, old-fashioned journalism.  It seemed easier then to get press and spots on local radio and television.  But I know now it was the tireless efforts of Tommy and all the staff at The Stand - who worked round the clock to make it work. 

I got good houses in on the weekends, but the midweek shows were harder to sell.  I did not make a profit for The Stand and broke no records.  I did, however get press from every major publication and some lovely, favourable reviews.  Tommy also wrote me a beautiful letter enclosing a cheque for £50 to say thanks for all my hard work.  But, I had started to think that doing The Fringe might just be a little bit harder than I had previously expected. 

2003-2005: European Odyssey

Acting work took me abroad for a couple of years and when I returned in 2005 I noticed a marked shift in the competition for audiences and for good Fringe venues.  And it seemed everyone who had once ever looked in the direction of a stage, along with those who once knew someone who once knew someone who once performed something somewhere, wanted to do a show.  - Which is, after all, the true spirit of The Fringe.  I didn’t even consider ever doing the Fringe again, as I was focussed on directing youth theatre and acting work.  So that year I got on with directing some kids shows and watched the triumphs and disasters play out from the sidelines.  

2006 – The Arcade: Independent

In 2006, a local comedy promoter was running a venue above a pub in town and asked me if I wanted to do a show there.  I hadn’t really thought about it till then; I was pretty busy with other work. But, at the last minute I thought, what the hell, so threw my hat in the ring and stuck a show in the programme just in the nick of time. 

I had been running a comedy club in Central Europe so I had done a bit of promoting and had also spend a couple of years travelling, performing and writing, so I already had a show practically written.  However, just weeks before The Fringe began, the promoter fell out with the bar manager and she was going to pull all of the shows.  I was the only one based in Edinburgh so I went down to talk to the manager to see if I could save things.  I ended up agreeing to run the venue and promote all the other shows as well as my own which I didn’t particularly want to do but rather than have everyone lose out, I agreed. 

All of the shows were priced at £5 and so I hired a box office assistant and we did loads of 2for1 offers.  It wasn’t particularly easy to get audiences in but the bar was just off the Royal Mile in ‘tourist central’ so we had a good fighting chance.  I had my one-woman show, Travels With My Hipflask, and also a compilation show later that night, which I hosted.  I hired five acts for each night and paid everyone £10 each to perform there. 

The idea of performing or of asking people to perform for me for FREE was way, way off my radar; it never even occurred to me.   That year - taking 20% from each of the other shows of which I took 10% for myself, paid 10% to a sound technician and £6/hr to one member of staff to run the box office - I still made around a thousand pounds, maybe slightly more.  And although I had run the venue by default, I actually began to think it was quite a good idea for someone – especially making the cover charge a blanket £5 and doing 2for1 offers and making it affordable and fair for performers.  But, as a performer myself, I did not want that ‘someone’ to be me. 

Running the venue definitely meant that I was not as focussed on my own show as much as I would have liked, and whilst I still got some good press, I felt I could have done better.

2007 – The Outhouse: PBH's Free Fringe

I had no intention of doing a show the following year, but again an opportunity presented itself.  A friend of mine had told me about The PBH Free Fringe.  She had packed out rooms every night, barely needed to flyer and at the end of the show her bucket was overflowing with donations. She took in around a hundred pounds a show and there was also amazing camaraderie with all the other performers who all helped, supported and cross-promoted to make sure everyone had full houses and healthy buckets. 

By this time I was teaching drama full time as my day job so I had my summers free and also lived In Edinburgh.  It seemed daft not to do The Fringe when I was at such a major advantage over those coming into town for the month, who also had travel and exorbitant accommodation costs to consider.  I also had a few characters and ideas rolling around and wanted an opportunity to showcase them.   So in 2007 I did a character-based show, Little Love Affairs, with the PBH Free Fringe. 

I have to say, I found the experience challenging. It was a complete shift for me to go from having the tech and door covered to having to manage all of that myself as well as to run the show, court the press, do all the paperwork, explain to people why it was free, be fabulous and funny and have the best show on the Fringe.  And I also found it difficult to get audiences in.  I just was not prepared for the amount of extra work I would need to do.  We also had changes with the management at the venue, which didn’t help.  And, sure, had I spent several more hours a day flyering, I could have got more people through the door.    I also put myself up for ‘Venue Captain’ which is a title akin to ‘Milk Monitor’ so I ended up with loads of extraneous tasks over and above the running of my own show which all added up to far too much work for me and not enough time focussing on the performance.  And at the end of the day, I am just a diva who wants to get on stage and do her thing. 

did have some great nights - and one of my favourite ever reviews from Kate Copstick - but the shows were certainly not packed out and I made on average £10 a night in donations.  So, that year, I took in around £240 minus the Fringe entry fee of £300 and flyers and poster costs of £150 – I made a loss of £210.

I longed for the heady days of the old Gilded Balloon and the warmth and supportive environment of The Stand.

2008 – No Show

The following year – 2008 - I did not do The Fringe, but enjoyed it as a punter.  I must say it was the most relaxing August I’d had in a long time and was actually able to go and see some amazing comics at work.   Bliss.  I also picked up the odd gig here and there, so got the opportunity of performing without any of the supplementary pressure.  

2009 – Espionage; Kasbar: Laughing Horse Free Festival

In 2009, again, I had absolutely no intention of doing The Fringe, I was going through a major trauma in my personal life and the Fringe was the last thing on my mind, however a chance meeting with Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival changed that and he calmly explained to me how to do a free show properly.  He also offered me a great location in an air-conditioned, sound-proofed room at the peak time of 7.30pm.  Again, as I lived in Edinburgh and was available all summer, I reckoned I really had nothing to lose.  Alex explained to me thoroughly how all the press, publicity, selling of the show, flyering and marketing side of things worked and kept in touch with us regularly through detailed mail-outs. 

So, with more of a fighting chance - and with my July practically free to do the promoting side of things - I went in for another round of Fringe madness.  And although the word ‘easy’ will never be synonymous with The Fringe, I did find it somehow easier to get an audience in that year and the camaraderie of those involved with The Laughing Horse Free Festival was immensely enveloping.  Alex was incredibly supportive and the staff at the venue and the other performers made that Fringe one of my best Fringe experiences in years.  I also got some lovely press and made some wonderful new friends and business contacts.

As for the finances, I did not make any kind of great killing.  The outlay of £300 for the programme entry and £150 for posters and flyers was the same.  And I did do better financially, taking in on average £30 a day giving me a small profit of £270.

I do agree that if you are clever at marketing your show - using all the available marketing tools at your disposal and of course a bit of press and, if possible, TV or radio exposure - you can make a killing with a free show; people do!  You also really need a good pitch at the end of your show to explain to the audience the ethos of why the show is free and where you stand as an artist so that they fill up your bucket accordingly. 

I would also recommend getting someone to support you on the sound desk and to keep an eye on the door, as people wandering in and out can be distracting. You also really need to do everything laid out in the guidelines of how to run a free show which includes flyering in all the right locations, daily; getting whatever publicity you can get from whatever source you can muster; working with the other shows around you to cross-promote and support each other and also court the press as much as possible in as clever a way possible.  If you do that, then I do know many, many performers who have done incredibly well from running a free show, made good money, got great press, achieved wonderful accolades and also raised their profiles immeasurably in the process. 

But there are no quick fixes when it comes to The Fringe - no matter where you are performing - and nobody is going to hand you a lovely show in a beautiful venue on a plate (indeed, not even in a bucket).  The Fringe is hard work and it’s exhausting; physically, mentally and emotionally.  And, no matter where you are performing or how big your profile is, everyone weeps at some point.  

But it is also incredibly seductive, a great trade fair, a magnificent networking party, wonderful fun and there is no place like it on earth for the performer.  It can be truly amazing and magical and the secret is to enjoy those moments and exploit them to your fullest advantage when they come – and they will come so stay awake! 

So, if you are willing to put in the hours, the leg-work and have great networking skills; if you have a wonderful imagination and a keen marketing plan; if you are a gifted performer who can fill an unforgiving hour with sixty minutes worth of distant fun - yours will be the Fringe and everything in it, my friend, and you can make it work without breaking the bank.

2010 – The Three Sisters – Room With A View:  Laughing Horse Free Festival

I did marginally better this year with my show, Travelling Circus.  I got full houses most nights and took on average £40 per night.   If I had been better at asking for money I could have done better on my bucket but I guess we all have our weaknesses.  There was also an element of noise pollution in the room which I struggled with.  But, honestly, there are shows at all the major venues that also struggle with noise pollution and sweltering temperatures keara.jpg (16645 bytes)so this is a problem across the board at The Fringe in general and not just in the free shows.   And many free venues have air conditioning unlike some of the better rooms at the established venues.  So another tip is to try as much as possible to know your venue and know your performance space well in advance so you can take steps to overcome whatever difficulties there might be – and there will always be some kind of difficulty no matter who you are or where you are performing – that’s the Fringe. 

The Future?

Will I do the Fringe at all next year?  No, of course I won’t. But then, I have said that every year since I started out and have now done it seven times.  And anyway, I live in Edinburgh: I don’t actually ever do the The Fringe; The Fringe does me…

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