Kiwis set out to conquer Edinburgh Fringe

On a cobbled street in Edinburgh, Javier Jarquin is not enjoying himself.

The New Zealand performer has two shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is handing out flyers to promote them.

It is a job that is hated among performers, but has to be done if you want to attract a crowd at the largest arts festival in the world.

“Flyering is soul destroying. Everyone hates it,” he says.

“You are just faced with rejection all the time. If people don’t want to take a flyer that is fine. It’s when they give you a look that says: ‘What are you doing’ It’s like you are offering them faeces.

“Once, a two-year-old looked at me while I was flyering and just shook his head. He couldn’t speak, but he understood disgust. That is how bad it gets. You have two-year-olds looking down on you.”

Flyering is just one of the challenges that Kiwi performers face when they take a show to Edinburgh.

It is difficult to compete for attention when there are thousands of other shows being performed every day, and it is expensive to take a show to Edinburgh, especially with the cost of flying from the other side of the world with props, costumes and sets.

But, while the risks are high, the potential rewards can be huge. The festival is a giant arts trade fair, where producers and festival directors from around the world search for hit shows to take on tour.

A sold-out run at the festival and a five-star review in The Scotsman newspaper can launch a career in show business.

And, despite the challenges, Edinburgh is a place where New Zealanders have thrived. Kiwis lead prestigious opera companies, work at some of the most respected theatres in the festival and often bring shows that create a buzz.

So, what does it take for a New Zealander to bring a show to Edinburgh, capture attention and take on the world

The scale of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is hard to describe.

There are 3000 shows performed every day, nearly two million tickets were sold in 2011, and the population of Edinburgh doubles to about one million people during the festival.

But the figures alone don’t capture the festival’s daunting and exhilarating energy. It is something that must be experienced.

The festival takes over the city for a month. Posters advertising shows are tied to iron railings lining the pavement. You can walk a mile before you see the same poster twice.

The shows are staged at thousands of places across the city, with venues established in traditional theatres, student union buildings, warehouses, car parks and basements.

And it all takes place in the turrety, cobbled confection of Georgian sandstone that is Edinburgh.

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If the festival is a trade fair for the arts, then the Royal Mile is its bazaar. Every day, this sloping, cobbled thoroughfare is clogged with young performers sincerely pitching their wares, handing out flyers and performing excerpts from their shows.

On a typical day, you might see an actor dressed as a priest delivering a speech above an empty coffin, performers waving flags and a choir singing songs.

Everyone is desperate to draw a crowd.

“The show is really fun and it’s free and you get coffee and scones,” explains one earnest performer.

And that is just Fringe. Six other festivals are staged in Edinburgh during August, bringing literature, art, jazz, military bands, high art and music to the Scottish capital.

For the month of August, Edinburgh is the cultural capital of the world.

This year, there are more New Zealand performers and artists in Edinburgh than ever before. About 200 Kiwis are involved in seven festivals as part of a special New Zealand season of theatre and art.

The season is supported by arts council Creative New Zealand, which has invested about $700,000 to help artists with flights, freight and accommodation.

About a dozen shows in Fringe are being supported, and they include a mix of drama, dance, comedy, music and visual arts. Highlights include a show by contemporary dance group Black Grace, a traditional kapa haka dance show and comedy drama Black Faggot.

Many shows in the New Zealand season are being staged by Assembly, which curates a well-respected programme of shows across several venues for Fringe every year.

Assembly special events manager Kim Acland, who grew up in Christchurch, says there are strong links between New Zealand and the Edinburgh festivals.

There are high-profile Kiwis in arts management, like Scottish Opera general manager Alex Reedijk, but New Zealanders can also be found working in many Fringe theatres. About a dozen Assembly staff are from New Zealand.

There are also Kiwi successes on stage. New Zealander Sam Wills has taken the festival by storm over the last few years with hit show The Boy with Tape on his Face, while Kiwi performer Trygve Wakenshaw has a hit show this year with Kraken.

Chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Kath Mainland, says the links with New Zealand have made the Kiwi season possible.

“There are very significant links between Edinburgh and New Zealand. There is a real connection.”

“There are historical, long-serving connections and personal, contemporary connections because of that exchange of people. That is what has laid the ground for what is happening here now.”

Creative NZ’s financial support helped New Zealand performer Peter Wilson take his children’s show, Duck, Death and the Tulip, to Fringe for the first time this year.

The $50,000 cost of staging the show in Edinburgh was covered with $18,000 from Creative NZ for airfares and freight costs, $5000 raised on a crowdfunding website, three sausage sizzles in New Zealand and profits from Wilson’s theatre company, Little Dog Barking.

The venue takes 40 per cent of the box office revenue from the Fringe run.

“If we do really good houses, hopefully, we will break even,” he says.

“Just to bring four people here is expensive, even without all the hidden costs.

“It is a massive festival and we are just a little fly on the wall.”

New Zealand theatre producer Charlie McDermott is staging his immersive zombie show, The Generation of Z, in Edinburgh as part of the Kiwi season.

The show is one of the breakout hits of the festival, garnering strong reviews in national British newspapers and selling out most of its month-long run.

But McDermott does not expect to make a profit.

He raised about $50,000 on a crowdfunding website to help cover the budget. Local enthusiasts volunteer to play zombies and soldiers in the show.

“It is hard here. I didn’t come here to make money; I came here to make sales. We are presenting this as a tourable version of the show.”

The festival gives performers access to a vast global arts market.

McDermott is in talks with producers to take his zombie show to London for a potentially lucrative three-month residency.

Wilson hopes that his show will be picked up by other arts festivals.

“There are a lot of producers at the festival and we know some of them are coming to see us. That might mean more work for us on a much better financial footing than a fringe festival.”

Creative NZ international senior advisor Amy Saunders says the Kiwi season is ambitious but worthwhile.

“It is a phenomenal opportunity for people,” she says.

“This will present New Zealand on an international stage and raise its profile and offer the artists opportunities and professional development.

“It’s a big vision and a big ambition to develop it and everyone has upped their game.

“To walk away from the festival with a four-star review . . . people hold on to that for the rest of their lives.”

Jarquin says every performer at the festival has a dream.

“Everybody secretly wants to be the hit of the festival.

“This festival is the highlight of a comedian’s year. You can come up and do your show how you want it. It is total creative freedom.”

But it is hard for a show to make its mark against the clamorous Edinburgh backdrop, says Saunders.

“It is difficult for people to stand out when there are 3000 shows a day.

“It is a very exposing experience for people. It is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The New Zealand season is a way for Kiwi shows to make more impact by marketing themselves collectively, she says.

“If one of these shows was on its own it would be hard to give it a profile over all this noise.”

Acland says drawing a crowd is tough.

“Some artists in the first week will find themselves playing to three or four people. You have to just go out and battle every day and talk and talk and talk.

“It is no mean feat bringing something here. It is a big risk, especially when you are coming all the way from New Zealand. They are risking a lot.”

But Kiwi performer Trygve Wakenshaw says Edinburgh’s competitive spirit is inspiring rather than daunting.

Edinburgh is a pure marketplace where shows succeed or fail on merit alone.

And, in Edinburgh, everybody has to get out there with a flyer.

“The good thing about Edinburgh is it is a really good equaliser,” he says.

“The New Zealand theatre scene gets very cliquey and there is this weird hierarchy. But you come to Edinburgh and everyone means just as little as everyone else.”

“Michael Hurst came over to do a show last year. In New Zealand he is a god of theatre, but no-one had heard of him in Edinburgh.

“His producer made him go out to the Royal Mile dressed in this really twee Shakespeare actor costume and hand out flyers. He had the ruff and the funny little wig.”

“I loved that image of Michael Hurst, this great actor, handing out flyers surrounded by teenage wannabes.”

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs until August 25.

Charlie Gates is in Edinburgh with support from Creative New Zealand.