Performing in fringe festivals is a risky and expensive venture. Presuming you are even selected after paying the application fee, you almost always have to pay several hundred dollars in entry fees to get a slot in the festival. You have to book and pay for travel. If you have a job, you usually have to leave that job for some period to participate. You have to invest in promotional materials to distribute, or other similar efforts… and there’s no guarantee you’ll draw an audience even with thorough promotion. No matter how good your show is, you may end up performing for rows of empty seats, and might not even make your investment back, let alone pay your bills.
I traveled with Xan Scott for her show Apocalypse Clown a few years back. I produced my own solo show, Drawn Dead, at the 2013 Seattle Fringe Festival (SEPT 2015 EDIT: And the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival). Along with the firsthand lessons, I got to meet and take in the efforts of more successful touring performers. Their years of development allowed most of them to profitably tour fringe festivals across the continent.
Those of us who don’t have that following face far greater risk. Personally, I racked up a lot of expenses doing it and eventually settled back into a day job, one I wasn’t ready to give up just yet to take a shot at out of town festivals, even if the upside was great. Often, the end result is a smallish audience and a significant net loss.
(Festivals claim to promote your show. Technically, this is true, but that means putting your name in their program and in media promos. Telling people about and selling your show is still up to you directly.)
When I first got to Chicago, I had no notion of trying to do any fringe festivals for a while. Making do in Chicago alone was going to be tough enough, and getting the time off to travel for festivals wasn’t currently practical.
… or so it seemed. Living in Seattle I took for granted being very far from any other accessible major festival venue. The closest cities were Vancouver BC and Portland, each about 3 hours away by car. Everything else was a flight or a long drive away. I pretty much had to leave Seattle behind for 1-2 weeks to do a festival. If I had a day job and bills to pay, there was no way I could manage that. Only when I went freelance and/or self employed was it even possible.
But Chicago is in the Midwest, very close to a lot of other major cities. Milwaukee is only about an hour north. Indianapolis, most of Michigan, Iowa, St Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville are all less than 4-5 hours away by car. Minneapolis and KC are only 6 hours away. Hell, I can get to Toronto in about 8 hours if the border wait isn’t ridiculous, and Hamilton or London Ontario even sooner. So many places are within reach now.
Also, Chicago itself is a theatre hub, itself home to the Chicago Fringe Festival. But many of the suburbs have active theatre scenes, e.g. just an hour west is Elgin, which hosts the Elgin Fringe Festival. Just around Lake Michigan in Grand Rapids is the Lake Effect Fringe Festival. There may be others I haven’t found yet that are within an hour.
That all said, I remember how much work and investment I put into Drawn Dead in 2013, and the return I got from it. It was an expensive experience rather than a lucrative or sustainable one. Once the thought of giving festivals another shot started crossing my mind, I had to consider the personal cost and benefit of the effort. But I felt there was more of a gray area than the seemingly blunt divide between Martin Dockery or Wonderheads level success and what was basically an expensive theatre vacation.
And it was an unlikely subject that led me to explore that possibility…
CONTINUED IN PART 2.