Advice from a Fringe Producer/Reviewer/Fan
The Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. is an annual festival which will be returning in July 2014 for the ninth time. Anyone can apply and, if accepted, put on a show in Capital Fringe, which is part of an international network of unaffiliated festivals celebrating and providing opportunities to adventurous, fresh and outsider (“fringe”) performing arts, inspired by the original fringe festival in Edinburgh. Thousands attend the three-week festival each year, which is centered around the Mt. Vernon Square area in Northwest D.C. and which features everything from burlesque to opera, children’s theatre to original comedies and dramas, and experimental street theatre to solo confessional musicals – and much more.
A friend of a friend of mine asked for advice on producing in CapFringe, specifically “What does producing a show in the fringe festival entail?” (Thanks for asking, Ryan, and for thinking of me, Erica.) I ended up writing a long email in response, and decided to post my advice here For All The World To See – particularly any of you out there who might be thinking about putting a show in the Capital Region’s fringe festival for the first time in 2014, whether you’re local or from out of town.
Why take my advice? I’ve self-produced twice in Fringe (The Water Plays, in 2009, which was somewhat successful, and The Magical Marriage Computer and Other Plays in 2010, which was… an instructive mess). I’ve stage managed one Fringe show (Cabaret XXXY), acted in one (Carrie Potter at the Half-Blood Prom), and written short plays that were performed in two others (Ball and Chain and eXtreme eXchange: Politically Fringe-alicious). I’ve also reviewed a few dozen shows over several years for the City Paper and dcist, written a Biased Guide to Fringe three times, and I’ve seen over 150 Fringe performances, many produced by friends who shared their production experiences with me.
To apply for Fringe, you’ll be going to to their site here.
I will be assuming you’re going with the standard Fringe-run Venue option, wherein Capital Fringe assigns you to a venue which they maintain and provide your ticketing and other services (see The Resources below). If you’re applying for Find Your Own Venue (where you’re on your own for most things except some marketing) or Site-Specific Performance (a new category in 2014), your parameters and costs will be different, and highly variable. In my opinion, these options are not for first-timers unless they have a lot of production experience and live in D.C.
The application packet has complete instructions for applying, and offers additional advice of its own; and if you get in, you’ll receive a packet from the Fringe people with further guidance. The advice I am giving here is geared towards first-timers who know almost nothing about what it’s like to participate in Capital Fringe, and want some more subjective, detailed guidance.
Getting In – The Process
This is what you want to do to get in to Fringe.
Sorry no attribution – I forgot where I got the original from.
1) Ask yourself: what show are you putting on? Don’t apply with just a vague idea. You don’t need a finished script, but you should be able to either visualize the finished product, or the process you will use to get there. Don’t just go, “Oh, we’ll get together and devise something” or “I’ll submit, and then write a script about whatever” – have a plan outlined, put it on your calendar. A few shows drop out every year just before the Festival starts, some of them possibly because they didn’t have a solid plan.
2) Gather a team about you. (I made the mistake of self-producing completely solo in 2010.) You want at least a director, producer (if not yourself), and one or two crew or actors attached to your project before you submit, ideally. You don’t need your whole team – it would suck to gather them all and then not get in – but you want a solid core around you.
You could wait until you get accepted to get your director etc., because if you don’t find someone at that time, you can just decline and only be out $50; but why wait, and waste both those bucks and Fringe’s time?
3) Figure out where the money will come from. (See below on The Money.) You don’t need the money yet, but you need to have a plan for where it will come from.
4) Apply on the website. Read all their instructions. Note that the application calls for a pretty solid idea of what kind of venue you will need, the running time of your show (more on that below in The Why), the number of people involved (actors and crew), the scheduling conflicts you’ll have, and a title. The cost to apply is $50 (as of this writing, the early bird discount has passed). In 2013, you have until the weekend before New Year’s to get your application in.
If you’re applying for Find Your Own Venue or Site-Specific Performance, your parameters will be different.
5) Wait until roughly mid-February.
6) Find out you got in. CapFringe is unjuried, so everyone gets in unless they put in some ridiculous requests on their application that Fringe can’t handle, or unless they waited until the very last second and they completely ran out of room (in which case they go on the wait list). And since you’re reading this advice, you won’t be putting in anything ridiculous or waiting until the last second, and you’ll be getting in.
(Disclaimer: results not guaranteed. Don’t sue me or nothin’ if you don’t get accepted.)
7) Decide whether you want to participate and lock in the funds. If you don’t have a team and the funds yet, this is when to start getting them together.
8) Pay the participation fee and insurance ($575 + $200).
9) Congratulations, you’re in. It actually wasn’t too hard. Now you just have to put on a show.
After you’re in…
10) In April, you’ll find out your venue assignment and schedule.
11) Now is the best time to hold your auditions and gather the rest of your cast and crew. You probably don’t need to or want to rehearse until you know the specs for your assigned venue, anyways. April is major Fringe-audition time in D.C.
You already submitted your conflicts to Fringe, so your new actors will have to fit into your assigned schedule.
FYI: some people produce at Fringe as a two-person team – performer and stage manager/board op, possibly with a third person acting as director who doesn’t help run the shows. Some people produce at Fringe with a designer for each discipline, a stage manager and assistant, a marketer, a producer, a director and assistant, a choreographer, and so on. Assemble whatever size team fits your needs.
12) Rehearse away. Fringe will be very clear, from here on out, on what they need from you; just follow their instructions and you’ll be fine.
13) You want your show to be more or less performance-ready by the last week of June or so, ideally. Your show can be rough around the edges, but you don’t want it to be sloppy.
14) And one last thing – DON’T PESTER FRINGE FOR YOUR PAYOUTS AS SOON AS THE FESTIVAL IS OVER. They’ll get it to you, I promise, if not by mid-August as they intend, then by early September at the latest. Relax. Because…
Spending and Getting Paid – The Money
…nobody should do Fringe with the expectation of making money.
Creative Commons, attributed to Kayingle.
I repeat: nobody should do Fringe with the expectation of making money. I don’t know about Fringes in other cities, but Fringe in D.C. isn’t Edinburgh, at least.
Think of all money you put into Fringe as a loss. If you happen to make the money back, that’s just a bonus. In other words – don’t sink your emergency health fund into your self-production.
Some people do make money. If you’re a seasoned Fringe performer who hops from festival to festival and has minimal overhead, you stand a good chance if you can draw a crowd.
Cost #1 – Fees
As stated above, your total application and participation fees will total $50 + $575 + $200 = $825.
That’s the minimum to perform; you could theoretically pay not one cent more, and have a show in CapFringe. But it’s unlikely.
Cost #2 – Tech
Fringe provides minimal tech (see below on The Resources). In summary – your lighting and sound equipment is provided, but that’s it.
Any and all props, costumes, set pieces (don’t even count on onstage chairs – those are for the audience), and other materials are all on you.
If you’ve never produced before, and your show is small and you’re willing to borrow stuff and DIY it a lot, you can probably get away with as little as $100 all told.
If you’re trying to do something like a scripted show that calls for real costuming and props, think something more like $400.
Of course, the upper limit on what you spend is up to you, but if you’re dropping more than $1000 on tech for your Fringe show, you’ve gone overboard.
Cost #3 – Incidentals
Again, Fringe provides none of this.
We’re talking printing your scripts, getting pizza for your cue-to-cue rehearsal, and, especially, printing programs. (Fringe lists your show in their Festival Guide, but if you want a program with cast list, director’s notes, bios, etc. for the audience to read, you’ll be printing it yourself).
This depends on who you know who can print stuff at work for free, of course. Set aside $50, at least, if you’re not sure.
Cost #4 – Rehearsal
Fringe does NOT provide you with rehearsal space.
Repeat: Fringe does NOT provide you with rehearsal space.
Ideally, you have access to a big house or a rehearsal room somewhere that won’t cost you anything.
If not, you may have to rent rehearsal space. The DC Space Finder may help. The costs will vary widely.
Note that even if you are able to rehearse in your basement most of the time, when it comes to putting your whole show together, you may need a larger, rented space for your dress rehearsals and tech. (Fringe gives you ONE tech in your actual venue.) Plan ahead.
Cost #5 – Transportation
Getting to Fringe is easy if you’re going to see a show – the Metro is right there (unless you’re doing a Find Your Own Venue somewhere outside of the Fringe venues). But getting there and loading in with your cast and your props and set can be a challenge. There’s usually a space where you can pull up next to the venue and unload, but you can’t leave your vehicle there during showtime. Parking can range from simple during the week to nightmarish on weekends. Most of the parking in the area will be free if you can find a space, but if you run out of time, you might need to hit a garage in the downtown area.
More likely, you will be doing some Metroing to get there. Either way, wherever you’re going to be coming from and rehearsing at, budget for your transportation costs.
Cost #6 – Marketing
There are over 100 shows in Fringe every year. Now, you don’t have to advertise; people love checking out random shows at Fringe, and you’re guaranteed a free listing on the website and in the Fringe Guide. Moreover, at least two websites review every single Fringe show, and City Paper and the Washington Post review dozens. You can get by on word-of-mouth, particularly if you have a lot of friends to pack the first house, get an early review, or have a catchy concept.
But you’ll probably want to do what most people do – print postcards. EVERYONE hands out postcards. They may or may not be effective – they probably work better the farther away from Fringe you are giving them out, in my opinion – but it’s an accepted standard. Most everyone prints out a poster or two; Fringe provides free space for both postcards and one poster to be set out.
Postcards cost between $50 and $100 dollars, and posters, of course, can be anything from an 8×11 printout to a $40 nice-looking giant one. Call it $75.
There are numerous options for further advertising. Whether you want to use them is up to you – I don’t know how effective they are, considering how built-in Fringe’s audience is. At the same time, standing out above the crowd can be helpful.
Fringe offers highlighted ads in its guide and on its website for various prices; the application offers you a discounted $970 full-page ad if you want to buy it now, but you can wait and get a half-, quarter-, or eighth-page ad later on. (Possibly sixteenth-, too, I’m not sure.) The smaller ones are affordable.
Local venues like the City Paper offer ads as well; plus, there’s Facebook’s targeted ads and whatever else you want to use. A $150 budget is low end for these extra ads; $800 is pretty high-end; you could easily spend thousands upon thousands if you wanted to be advertised absolutely everywhere on every single day of the festival. (Luckily, that’s not necessary: see The Resources below.)
So all told, call it $75 minimum, or $250 for a more standard marketing campaign.
Cost #7 – Stipends
Again again – nobody should do Fringe with the expectation of making money.
No actors I know audition for Fringe shows expecting to see a cent for it; that’s not why people do Fringe shows. (See below: The Why.)
A common arrangement is to share either part of the profit or gross with all your team members. One benefit of that is, since you’re considering all the money put into Fringe a loss, and you’d be paying your cast and crew out of whatever money you make, you don’t have to budget for it. Any stipends would be bonus.
But paying your artists is pretty awesome, and if you can be certain of doing it in advance, go for it. Even a $25 travel stipend to offset a half-dozen Metro trips is pretty nice.
COSTS ALL TOLD – Very Rough Budget Estimates:
Again, $825 is the technical minimum.
$1100 is a realistic minimum.
$1400 is comfortable – totally doable.
$1800 is midrange.
At $3000 you’re either extremely serious or couldn’t find free rehearsal space.
And at $10,000 – why are you producing in Fringe, Moneybags? (See below on The Why.)
For reference, my expenses in 2009 and 2010 were approximately $1350 and $1500, respectively.
So how do you acquire the money to pay those expenses?
Funding #1 – Your Pocket or Investors’ Pockets
This is what I did. And by “investors” I mean “my dad.” Thanks, Dad.
Funding #2- Kickstarter
Kickstarter campaigns are a great and fairly common way to gather both funds for your show and to generate interest and buzz ahead of time.
Funding #3- Producing Company
If you’re an individual artist, you can hook up with an established theatre company that has their own funds to bring to the table, in which case you’re not really self-producing anymore.
Funding #4- Ticket Sales
Now, again, if you’re doing Find Your Own Venue, you control more of your ticketing, so that changes things.
But if you’re doing Fringe-run Venue as I’m assuming, you’ll be getting a box office split with Fringe. The exact percentage will vary and you won’t know for sure until you get your report from Fringe post-festival. A 50-70% cut is what Fringe says you’ll get, and you almost certainly will, but that’s not strictly guaranteed as I understand it.
Tickets are $17 (or were in 2013, this may change in 2014?) plus the one-time purchase of a $5 button. Sidenote: tell your friends about the button, which acts as general festival admission, or they may be annoyed and confused, showing up for your performance and finding they have to spend another five bucks to get in, if your show is the only Fringe show they’re attending.
Some of your patrons will pay less than $17 because they’ll have a ticket pack, which reduces the cost of their ticket to as little as $10, or even less if they have an all-access pass.
A very, very rough estimation will be to expect $17 times the number of seats you fill over your entire run, divided in half. The venues vary in size from fewer than 50 seats to as many as 200, so keep that in mind. If you’re a first-timer with no built-in audience and not planning on selling a lot or asking for a big venue, a very, VERY broadly generalized estimate for your income might be $1200. (Results will vary WIDELY. As the Fringe site points out, the average in 2013 was $1835, and some folks gross nearly 10 grand.)
So, in conclusion on finances – don’t count on making any money, but if you keep your costs basic and your expectations reasonable, you stand a good shot of coming out even in the end. (I made a miniscule profit in 2009, and came close in 2010.) And for all the money you do spend…
What Fringe Gives You – The Resources
…you’ll get varied, but specific, support from Fringe.
It’s the Pompidou Center. Creative Commons, attributed to Leland.
Well, what support will you get?
1) An assigned space to perform
There are two kinds of venues: Fringe-built ones, that the Capital Fringe organization created from scratch in their own spaces in the past few years, and ‘borrowed’ ones, rented or donated from local, established companies, churches and other theaters.
The venues that Fringe has built are rough; they have “Fringey” character and are good for actor-focused shows/character-focused one-act plays, solo performances, experimental works, small-ensemble dance, and interactive stuff.
The Baldacchino tent, set up outside next to the Fringe box office and the Fringe bar, is a unique Fringe venue, suited for burlesque shows, rock shows, and other loud-and-brash type performances that can compete with the heat and the noise from the bar.
The venues that Fringe borrows (which vary, but have included Woolly Mammoth, Flashpoint, Source, Goethe Institut, Studio Theatre, and several church auditoriums at various times) are very nice, vary widely in size and character, and are good for more ambitious or spectacle-oriented productions, large-cast shows, music performances, or shows that benefit from having a clean presentation.
Fringe is very good at assigning you to a space that works for your piece. Just be honest and thorough in your application, and you’ll be fine.
If you want to see a venue ahead of time, go visit one of the above ‘borrowed’ ones, or go see something at fallFringe, which is going on through November 17 at a couple of the Fringe-built venues. (fallFringe is a short mini-festival of shows that CapFringe invites back after the main summer festival.)
All venues have basic, usable lighting plots that you cannot alter, and sound equipment. Projectors and microphones are available, too. Not much beyond that.
2) An assigned tech time in your space
But you only get one single in-venue tech time, and it’s short. Use the time for technical rehearsal and adapting to the space, not for a full dress. (You may not even have enough time for one if your show is long.) This is a very good reason to keep your show’s tech minimal.
As well, if you say that you have extreme tech requirements, like bringing in your own high-wattage spotlights or amp stacks or flying set pieces, or requesting dressing rooms for 30 actors, Fringe may not accept your application. That’s one of the few ways to get rejected. Your show needs to be easy to set up and take down, technically basic, and able to fit on one of the stages available.
3) Limited and non-guaranteed storage space
You may or may not be able to store props, costumes and set pieces at your venue. You may have a tiny space or ample space. You may not know if you get any space until your show has actually opened. Be prepared to load all your materials in and out every show, arrange your transport and everything, and cross your fingers. (I got storage space in both 2009 and 2010; it’s not uncommon, but it’s also not guaranteed.)
4) Five performances, plus or minus one
The application asks if you’d rather have 5, <5 or >5 performances. Picking the ‘fewer’ or ‘more’ options will net you 3-4 or 6-7 in most cases; some performers have as many as a couple dozen, but that’s pretty much only if they’re doing Find Your Own Venue – Fringe won’t assign you more than 7, I believe, without any prompting from you. If you’re a first-timer, pick either 5 or more than 5 – you want to have a chance to let your show build word-of-mouth, and it doesn’t take much extra effort to do more shows once you’ve gotten it together anyway. You should only pick fewer than five, in my opinion, if your show is very long, or you have some special reason to want fewer, such as being out of town for part of July 2014.
5) Ticket handling
Fringe is very good at handling the ticketing. Follow their instructions and everything will go smoothly. You’ll be able to issue complimentary tickets to friends and track sales directly through a web program.
Remember to tell any friends who don’t know about it that the button costs an extra $5 for a one-time purchase.
6) Operational support and house management
No, seriously, you don’t have to worry about anything beyond your show and the art. They handle every step of getting patrons from the ticket counter to their seats, and every step of preparing the venue for you to load-in and perform in it.
7) Very general marketing support
Fringe puts you in their festival guide and on their searchable ticket website for free – you just have to send them the materials they request (listed in the application). There’s that free space for you to put out your postcards and poster, and, as said, at least two sites review every single Fringe show, and City Paper and the Washington Post review dozens. There are also the aforementioned advertising opportunities, which will be made readily available to you, but those cost extra.
8) A built-in audience hungry for variety
The Fringe audience is the best thing about participating in Fringe. There are people who will go to completely random shows based on the name, or because they don’t know what it’s about. You can go from five audience members at your first performance to sold out at your last if people jive with what you’re doing. Any kind of show can do well, from drama to dance, vulgar-and-nude experimental confrontation performance art to quiet solo show. The D.C. audience is omnivorous, and Fringe helps out a lot: the box office attendants will recommend things, and Fringe central (the Baldacchino tent bar) has food, drink and music to attract an audience likely to go to something on a whim. Creative advertising (lollipops, costumes on the street, etc.) works well, because of the audience.
Seriously, D.C. in the summer is hot, and not all the venues are exactly… well air-conditioned. (The Fringe-built ones, mainly; the borrowed ones typically are fine. The Baldacchino tent stage, however, is outside and sweltering.) Fans and water are good to have.
Three important things to remember that Fringe will not give you:
No-1) Fringe will not give you any help finding actors, designers, or crew; props, set pieces, or program printing; or rehearsal space.
No-2) Fringe will not give you individual attention to your artistic needs; Fringe wants you to succeed, but they have too much going on to ensure that your show is good. It’s up to you to make the art.
No-3) Fringe can not give you any guarantees – no guarantees of audience numbers, or reviews, or financial payouts, or future artistic opportunity. Some people get a leg up from producing in Fringe and a gateway to other opportunities, but most people don’t.
And one important thing to remember that Fringe needs from you:
Be realistic about the running time of your piece, and the amount of time you’ll need to load in and load out. You’ll have roughly 15 minutes to load in, and 15 to load out.
There are multiple shows scheduled into each space each day, and if you run over time or take too long to load out, you’re punishing other artists, and your audience members who may have another show they’re trying to get to. The last things you need are fellow performing artists glaring at you when they’re rushing to get into the space or audience members nervously checking their watch, as your 7pm-to-8pm show runs over time and the 8:15 show they planned to attend next door is looming. Drill your setup and takedown, and be kind to your venue manager.
Don’t forget you have to plan out your showtime in advance – when you submit your application. Give yourself a few minutes leeway beyond what you expect to run, or be prepared to make cuts at the last minute. (E.g., if you’re producing a sixty-page script, put down 70 minutes. You’ll breathe easier later.)
Bear in mind that parking is tough, and both traffic and Metro are allwaaaays unreliable in D.C. – give yourself a cushion in your travel time, so you don’t pull up with your van full of props two minutes before your scheduled start time.
They really mean it when they say shows between 70 and 90 minutes do the best. And if you’re looking at a show much longer than that – or really, no matter what length your show is – you’ll want to ask yourself…
What Kind of Show to Put On – The Why
…why produce in Capital Fringe?
From the CapFringe Press Materials.
Fringe is good for some kinds of shows, and not others; and good for people at certain points in their careers, and not others. In CapFringe’s early years, many of the big-name theatre companies in the District produced their own oddball shows, enjoying the chance to stretch out; but these days, they mostly support from a distance, lending their venues for Fringe (a la Studio and Woolly) and scheduling their weirder productions to occur around Fringe time, without making them official Fringe entrants (Studio often does a campy musical in July, and Woolly often brings Mike Daisey to town).
There are two sets of limits you want to consider when thinking about putting a show in Fringe.
One is money. As discussed, your minimum budget should be about $1100 – if you can’t afford or fundraise that, you want to reconsider. And if you’re planning to spend more than a few thousand dollars – you’re probably better off at the very least doing a Find Your Own Venue, or holding off and doing your show outside of Fringe. The Fringe spirit doesn’t require that level of production value or financial commitment; in some ways, it’d be gilding the lily to spend that much, if you think of the rough-and-tumble magic of Fringe to be the lily in this metaphor.
Two is length of show. As said, Fringe is serious about 70-90 minutes being ideal. The Fringe audience will balk, and have a hard time slotting your show into their schedule, if you run more than 100 minutes; many Fringegoers see at least a couple shows on any given day, especially the types who are likely to go to a totally unknown property. And if you are under 60 minutes, you start to make the audience wonder whether they want to pay $17 (plus $5 for a Fringe button if they don’t have one already) for such a short show.
I’d expand upon Fringe’s recommendation by saying that 70-90 is the sweet spot. 60 is pretty good, but 50-55 is better because people can see your show and then rush off to a nearby one that starts five minutes later (assuming you’re both scheduled on the hour). Similarly, 80-85 is a touch nicer than 90.
45 is the absolute lower limit; 120 is the upper. Your show better be jam-packed if it’s on the 45 side, and you better expect only a couple performances if it’s 120.
I repeat: Don’t forget you have to plan out your showtime in advance – when you submit your application. Give yourself a few minutes leeway beyond what you expect to run, or be prepared to make cuts at the last minute. (E.g., if you’re producing a sixty-page script, put down 70 minutes. You’ll breathe easier later.)
An important point is that length and production value are more crucial to a Fringe show being a Fringe show than genre is – straight dramas and Shakespeare and well-known scripts can all do fine at Fringe as long as the style and size of the production fits the Fringe glove (in other words, if you’re doing Hamlet at Fringe, cut the script ruthlessly, and eschew doublets and castle walls). It should be loose, not stodgy; engaged, not on a pedestal.
Considering the costs, acceptable length of shows, the sheer number of participants each year, and the casual, open-minded, summertime spirit of the audience, your answer to “why produce in Fringe” should not be to make money, push your career forward, or gain prestige, although all those things can happen; it should be some combination of the following:
1) To Experiment
2) To Do A Low-Risk Tryout Of Your Work (when you’re too early-career to have any other outlets)
3) To Get Feedback (from a distractable but broad audience and forgiving reviewers)
4) To Learn About Producing
5) To Have A Chance To Get To Know The Artists You Team Up With
6) To Be A Part Of the Fringe Community
7) To Have Fun
In the end, Fringe is a tight ship, and even though I just gave you a massive list of things to watch out for, as long as you follow Fringe’s instructions, plan ahead with room for flexibility, and have realistic expectations and resources, it’s really not that hard to produce in Fringe. That’s the whole idea.
So go read that application, consider whether that show you’re thinking about is Fringe-appropriate and solid enough in concept/on the page to be submitted, and then go call your director, designer or dancer friend and say, “Hey… want to put on a Fringe show with me?”
Questions, news, or additional advice welcome in the comments. I’d particularly love to know you stopped by if you’re an actual first-timer, and if this helped you at all. Thanks for reading!