Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Guest Blog: Lise Bell - Transferring Happy Birthday Without You to the EdFringe

It’s mid July and I have just under two weeks before I pack my set, my actor (and best mate) Sonia Jalaly, and our taxidermy cat into a van and take off for Scotland, ready to unleash Happy Birthday Without You on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Although I’ve been working in, and producing theatre for five years, I’ve never taken a show to Edinburgh before, and it is as terrifying and thrilling as I always thought it would be.

I had my first brush with the Fringe in 2010, when, fresh out of University, I worked as a Stage Manager for one of the big Edinburgh venues. It was a crazy month, and I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it. As almost everyone who has spent a month at the Fringe knows, it is a real test of stamina. You have the mid month flu, complete with hallucinations, you have the sleepless nights and hungover mornings and the points at which you just don’t think you can carry on. But it is addictive. No other festival compares. You can see one show that leaves you questioning your own mortality, and the next moment be belly laughing to a newly discovered comedian. Ever since, I have been hooked on going. But still, I never thought I’d be one of the brave souls taking a chance with the unforgiving crowds, spoilt with the choice of over 3,000 shows.

However, when Paines Plough came to Happy Birthday Without You at the Tricycle Theatre in London, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: the chance to take the show to one of the Fringe’s top venues, Summerhall, and perform in Paines Plough’s beautiful touring venue ROUNDABOUT. Six months on, we’re back in rehearsals, trying to cut some astroturf into a perfect circle and reimagining the show in the round. The show is a one-woman comedy based on the fictional performance artist Violet Fox, and how her alcoholic, melancholic, mega-diva mother ruined every childhood birthday. The transfer to an intimate space in the round has changed the show in wonderful ways, and given it a fresh lease of life. 

 Sonia Jalay in Happy Birthday Without You
The experience so far has confirmed to me that everything I have heard about producing a show for the Fringe is right. Sleep is now a mystery to me; when I do, it is with a pen in hand. I wake up with a list of to do’s on my arm, of things remembered at 3am. In London, I’m used to having my team close by, my support network of friends to cook me dinner when I come home late, and my mentors to pick me up when I’m having doubts. I have businesses I know, and a delivery address that I can remember the postcode of. Most importantly, I have an audience that I understand; I know what they want and where to find them. At the Fringe, people travel from across the world to come to the festivities. They may only be there for 48 hours, and you have to find a way of convincing them to see your show. Standing on the corner, handing out flyers, is just not enough. You need the positive reviews and the word of mouth (and a collection of mad cap PR ideas) if you hope to pick up any steam.

But working so out of my comfort zone has been an invaluable experience. Between budget breakdowns, building props, and developing marketing strategies, I have realised that I have earned the right to call myself a Creative Producer. Learning on the job is par for the course for Edinburgh. Social media and marketing are new skills I have had to develop quickly and work with confidently. Money is also famously a problem at the Fringe, and when you are relocating an entire show, fundraising is hugely important. We ran a successful campaign for the production, a huge tick on my ‘things that will make me a better Producer’ list. 

There are still more unknowns to come. But I do know that I am producing a show that I absolutely trust in. It has been a proven success in London and Manchester, with an award and five star reviews behind us. It is a show that I know will entertain anyone who decides to come and see it. I think this is the most important thing about taking a show to Edinburgh: truly believing in it.

I know that there will be plenty of ups and downs, lots of fun times, and probably some tears. There will be hours spent flyering on the Royal Mile, and hundreds of great shows to see. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But what I do know is, like any good show anywhere, when the lights go down and the audience goes silent, it will all feel worth it.

Lise Bell
Producer of Happy Birthday Without You

Happy Birthday Without You runs at Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26a) between 7th and 30th Audust 2015. Click here for info and tickets.

Photo Credit: Luke Pajak

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