Following heated discussion in the media as Edinburgh Fringe 2023 began and one performer turned to Twitter in tears to lament just one audience member on their first night, we sought a perspective on playing to empty houses – or choosing not to – by writer and director, Dan Horrigan.
Edinburgh 2023 has landed and amongst all the excitement is a fair share of learnings. I’ve never taken a show to Edinburgh but the advice I was given was to go with somebody else’s money. This was from a director who had been several times and really relished the festival. Of course you can do that when you aren’t running the end of Fight Club with your own personal finances.
But if you are going to blow up your bank account there are some things you might consider cruel. Top of the list has to be no audience or scant audience. We all know we live in precarious times. People if they are coming back aren’t coming back like they did in the pre covid era, and where’s the money for these wonderful things? There’s a lot of competition too. It can be difficult to cut through the noise. The last time I was in Edinburgh, overwhelmingly the most used word on the publicity was ‘hilarious’. Everybody was hilarious and I’m willing to believe that’s true. But in a world of one hilarious hue how to you get to burn brightly in the firmament and sell out? This is the question I beg you to consider before you march on the town. You might enjoy your seven hour train journey in but if you’re playing to empty houses it soon looks bleak on the way back. And empty houses … that’s what I’ve been asked to write about it’s worth thinking on when you have to pay September’s rent.
When I started out in Kentish Town way back in the early 00’s we had the rule of three. You needed an audience of three. This was a company consensus. Like a good love affair I always thought one was enough. I took the view If they were there they got the show. For me, not doing the show was like walking around possessed. I needed the exorcism. But it was three. Three is the magic number we agreed. This makes sense if you consider that narratives tend to have a beginning middle and end. We’d only begin if we had three, we’d probably be flagging by the middle, and we’d all need a big drink by the end – and that’s not because we couldn’t be bothered. There is no doubt grafting to a near empty house is thirsty work. It is also potentially dangerous. In all seriousness you need to decide if it’s the right thing for you. Pictures of performers breaking down in tears because there’s nobody to see the show should tell you everything you need to know. People’s health and wealth are on the line. It’s a serious situation. I would say don’t be afraid to call it off if it’s going to degrade you. The audience may stay out of politeness or decency but they might be better served with a free return on a better selling occasion. It is your show and you have paid to put it where it is and you can call it off. People call off engagements. A show can also be called off.
Since 2001 I have called off three shows and that’s always because nobody else agreed with me when I said they should go on and I can’t say they are wrong. The last time I played to an empty house was a Hope not Hate gig in Hackney in 2017. I was booked to do a spoken word slot. I sat in the outdoor amphitheatre, part of a huge range of events and things to do that had been arranged, and connected with the women who were on before me. They all had harrowing stories of fleeing war torn African states which they had put into song. At the end of the gig there was a large round of applause. And then promptly, the forty or fifty people there got up and left, leaving me with my girlfriend an amplifier and a microphone. What could I do? I turned it up to 11 and held forth. To this day if I ever get too big for my boots my girlfriend reminds me of this moment. It’s a good tonic for inflation.
This week my film “Read to Me” plays the Curzon in Soho to a sold out auditorium. It began as a theatre piece which was produced at The Tristan Bates Theatre for the Camden Fringe. The event sold out. I don’t know what the secret is to selling tickets other than graft, a reputation, and well positioned money. I know we used Mobius and My Theatre Mates as well as everything available through the Camden Fringe program. We were also only playing 5 nights and they were five very full nights.