Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Feature: Tonya Jone Miller (Threads) on Surviving the Circuit (Fringe: Toronto, Winnipeg)

(photo by Gina Bixby)

Fringe Artist Survival Guide
by Tonya Jone Miller

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the London Fringe festival, I wrote about [the fringe life] on my personal blog in an attempt to give friends and family an idea of what life is like on tour.  I was surprised by how many fellow touring Fringe performers made a point of thanking me for putting it into words.  Travelling the Fringe circuit, especially as a solo artist, one faces a peculiar set of circumstances and challenges.  There's a pretty steep learning curve your first time out, and I was lucky not to have to face it alone.  My introduction to the Fringe came in 2009, as part of a four-woman ensemble show produced by the inimitable Eleanor O'Brien. Last year was my first solo tour, and even though I was fairly prepared for it, I wish someone had sat me down at the start of it all and given me the following advice.  So for you first-timers and anyone considering a future Fringe tour, here are some important things to keep in mind:

Photo by Rene Ferrer
1.  You must be willing to sell yourself.  Presumably, you are proud of and believe in this piece of theatre/dance/music/magic/etc. you've decided to take on the road.  There is no pride in playing to an empty house.  Get out there and PROMOTE.  (Hopefully you have a strong, recognizable promotional image, but that's another article entirely.)  

Find out the postering rules for each festival/city, and make putting your posters up the first priority as soon as you get into town.  High visibility spots at big festivals will be gone days before the first show.  As I write this, someone just tweeted a photo of posters going up in Winnipeg, and that festival doesn't start for a week!  

Use every single opening to offer people flyers or bookmarks or whatever promotional freebie you dreamed up.  Go through your program and plan which line-ups or show egresses you can hit for maximum audience potential.  Pay attention to which shows are getting good buzz or selling out, and you'll know which ones will have the biggest lines.  No lines?  Hang out near the box office.  

Don't be afraid to approach and engage strangers, but don't take it personally if you're rebuffed.  A thousand times.  It will happen.  Keep a smile on your face, and when you can't anymore, take a break. People can smell desperate, and nobody wants to think all you care about is their money.  Let them see your passion for your show; it's ok to love it! 

2. Sleep in.  You are going to need all the rest you can get.  Self-promotion is exhausting, not to mention the 6-8 performances you have, and you'll be walking all over the place, even if you have a car or take transit.  There's no avoiding it.  Bring more than one pair of comfortable walking shoes.  

Plus, sleeping in means you'll be able to then skip breakfast or just have coffee, which means you can afford a better lunch and dinner on what is going to be an impossibly small daily budget.  (Thanks to Jeff Leard of The Show Must Go On for pointing that out to me.)

3. Keep your eyes open.  (Obvious exception: when following rule #2.)  Lots of restaurants have daily specials listed in their windows or on sidewalk signs, and the difference between a $10-$12 meal and a $6-$8 meal adds up over a summer.  Support any business you recognize from the Fringe program as advertisers or sponsors, and TELL THEM WHY you are patronizing them.  It's a good way to help the festival that isn't taking any of your box office.

4.  Time your meals properly.  This is, strangely, one of the biggest challenges a Fringe performer faces.  You need to have energy onstage, but you don't want to feel bloated and lethargic.  The general consensus is that two hours is too close to curtain, and three hours is too long before.  Right around two and a half hours is the sweet spot, but since your show times change every day, you can't get into any kind of rhythm or routine.  I always have raw almonds and baby carrots or apple slices in my backpack for quick energy, or in case I don't time it right and have to skip my pre-show meal.  Regardless of meals, you'll likely be ravenous when you get offstage anyway. 

5.  Hydrate.  With water.  As much as you want them to, coffee and alcohol don't count for this.  Invest in a refillable water bottle with a built-in filter.  You need to drink more water than you normally do, and if you're dropping a loonie on a bottled water every hour or so, you'll feel the burn in your wallet pretty quickly.  

6.  Pace yourself.  Yes, you need to promote.  Yes, you want to see shows.  Yes, it's fun to hang out in the beer tent or at the King's Head with all the other artists.  But you are here to do a job, and your performance will suffer if you're worn out and hungover.  Pay attention to how you're feeling, and take breaks from marketing and socializing to physically and mentally nurture yourself.  You're working hard.  You deserve it.

I could go on and on.  Touring the fringe circuit is a beautiful, messy beast that you'll never quite fully tame.  But those of us who do it, do it because for all the challenges, Fringe audiences are the best live theatre audiences in the world.  

Threads won a Patrons' Picks award at the Toronto Fringe and has one more performance tonight; it then continues to the Winnipeg Fringe and follows to the Vancouver Fringe

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