Each time my theatre company has taken a show to a fringe festival, it’s been one of my own scripts–the playwright works cheap, which helps.  But there’s a difference between self-producing at home and self-producing for fringe, especially if you plan to take the show to more than one festival.

At home, I have a support system: people, resources, space.  Often, I’ll choose what to write based on who and what we have available.  When we’ve decided to take shows to fringe festivals, we like to plan ahead a little more for obvious reasons.  I’ve done shows that have started here at home and then travelled, but I’ve also done shows working with actors & directors in the festival city.  Thanks to Skype and G+ Hangouts, it’s easier than ever to work together over distance–we’ve done table readings and even rehearsals from hundreds of miles away.

As we’ve been talking fringe this week on Twitter, one question has come up in various forms, essentially “how is fringe different from a ‘normal’ theatre?”  Some seem to think fringe has led to a rash of solo shows.  Others have noted the jokier, less “artistic” premises of fringe shows, the more outrageous the better.  Is it a glorified workshop for a show, or a calling card?  Stephen Spotswood nailed it for me:

Those are icing on the cake.  We’re just trying to make a good show then and there.  In terms of process, it’s not much different between doing a play here in my little river town or out in Washington, D.C.  But there are a few practical things to remember in the writing stage…

One rule to ring them all: KISS.  Keep it simple, stupid.

This has nothing to do with the subject matter, it’s purely logistics.  You’ll have a time limit, probably 60 minutes or so.  Every now and then, you’ll find full length and/or long plays at fringe festivals, but this is rare.  More often than not, it’ll be a local company.  (If you happen to be local to the festival, your odds just went up.)  So think one act.

Most of the time, since you’ll be sharing a venue, you need to have a show that can set up and take down in fifteen minutes, because that’s likely all the time you’ll have before and after a show.  In some cases, you may not get a chance to do a real tech run in the space if you’re not local and/or the tech rehearsals are scheduled for before you get to town.  So you’ll need to be able to walk in, put on a show, walk out.

You may need to be able to shift from proscenium to thrust to in-the-round, so you’ll want to leave the directions and set design as simple (or blank) as possible.  Flexibility is good, because it gives the festival more options on where to put your show.  Anything you can do to make their job easier is a good thing–trust me, they’ll love you for it.

Of course, that all makes it easier for travelling, too.  The less you need to carry, the better.  The last two shows I took to fringe festivals fit into a single rolling suitcase.  In the second of those, the set was the rolling suitcase–it happened to be about travel, sort of.

Does that mean it has to be one person, no set?  Not at all.  Just last year, I enjoyed Stephen’s Sisters of Ellery Hollow, which was two women, three cubes and a whole town’s worth of folklore.  Could it work with a fully-realized set, maybe covered in trees of varying sizes and shapes?  Sure.  Did it need them?  Not at all.

I’ve enjoyed larger cast shows, improv shows, puppet shows, full-cast musicals, all manner of plays at fringe festivals.  Heck, one of my favorite shows was the vaudevillian Bare Breasted Women Sword Fighting by dog & pony dc several years ago.  (My AD here is a fight director, so I was watching for the articles.)  Another favorite is 7(x1) Samurai by David Gaines, which retells the Seven Samurai using one man, two masks and almost exclusively sound effects made live on stage.  Brilliant work.

There’s another kind of simplicity at work, though.  It’s not just the technical aspect.  Seven Samurai in an hour?  Done.  Topless women with swords?  Done.  The most effective fringe shows, and usually the most popular, are easy to grasp in concept.  They have a hook, and they often have good poster/postcard design.  You need to stand out from a wall full of posters or a table full of cards.  Again, that doesn’t mean the shows and scripts themselves are simple or simplistic.

One additional rule for the out-of-towners that has nothing to do with writing or simplicity.  Live at the festival.  Spend all your time there, get to know the local performers, reach out to the audiences at the beer tent, hangout, headquarters, wherever.  Get to know people ahead of time through Twitter and 2amt meetups.  Cross promote with other shows if you can.  If you can, offer to volunteer and help out.  Be visible.  The more support you can get on the ground in the city ahead of and during the festival, the better.

It’s really that simple.

This post originally appeared at It’s cross-posted here with mild alterations as part of our fringe festival series.

  • August 28, 2012