For Erin Layton, Brooklyn-based actor and playwright, Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the best and most challenging professional experience of her career. The month-long “monster” of a festival was as overwhelming as it was inspiring. It exhausted while it electrified. Oscillating between emotional (and physical) extremes, the chaos lasted longer than the festival itself.
Layton is the creator and performer of Magdalen, a powerful one-woman show that made its original debut at the New York International Fringe Festival in the summer of 2012. Last year, she was convinced by fellow actors and friends to bring her show to Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. Six months before taking off, she was already dedicating almost all of her energy into preparing for the Fringe.
“Now is the time to start fundraising,” Layton says. If you’re planning to make the journey to Fringe this summer, it’s never too early. Even a single show with minimal props is an enormous expense. It all adds up to tens of thousands of dollars raised through individual donations, fiscal sponsorship and self-funding. Budgeting wisely is one of the first and most important steps.
Having a support system is key to the Fringe. Even well-prepared, Layton relays she was “in a constant state of tension and fear.” Traveling with an experienced group made all the difference, as did the EdFringe Road Show where she was able to meet representatives from venues and attend info sessions. No one can prepare for EdFringe on his/her own.
One often-ignored piece of advice and a part of preparation that Layton calls crucial is hiring a publicist. Media mentions and reviews are some of the most important outcomes of the festival and in general, require a professional to make happen. “Don’t advertise on the Royal Mile. Don’t go to the ‘Meet the Media’ events.” You cannot stick out among over twenty-thousand other participants solely with flyers and you’ll quickly learn that publicity is a full-time job.
During the festival, Layton also relied on targeted self-promotion while maintaining artistic integrity. This meant finding unique ways to bring her show to a new receptive audience. Magdalen is an exploration of women who passed through the Magdalene Laundries as slave laborers in 20th century Ireland, and the church that tried to keep their stories hidden. It is a riveting historical fiction based on Layton’s own research of the still-controversial subject. Using Magdalen as a framework, she stood silently in costume outside the beautiful churches of Edinburgh and built organic curiosity without bombarding people in the crowds.
Even all that promotion didn’t fill every seat. The average attendance at an Edinburgh Fringe show is less than 10 and many great shows will perform to much less. For Layton, eight people counted as a good night. “Don’t expect more than that,” she said. “Twenty to thirty is very fortunate.” Be careful that your venue contract doesn’t require minimum ticket sales because even what looks like a modest number is incredibly difficult to obtain.
The greatest challenge amidst all the competition is trying not to compare yourself to others. Facebook is in your face 24/7 and there is a constant feeling that you’re not doing enough. “It was so easy to feel like a failure. I was not prepared for that,” she said. “It’s important to remember to have fun. You’ve made it already, just do it.”
Still, for Layton the visibility was “incredible.” The size and scale of the Edinburgh Fringe is incomparable. “An artist is rarely given the opportunity to live and work in such an inspiring place,”she says. “The volunteers that make it all happen are astounding.” It gives American artists a chance to be international. The quotes, stars and reviews “just feel good,” she says. And you make friends along the way.
Was it hard returning home to New York City after the festival? Layton wished someone would have told her about the comedown. “I felt lost,”she said. “I had to surround myself with relationships.” For her it was an incredible sacrifice and it took time to fully appreciate the scope of her achievement.
Still, Layton assures it was definitely worth it. Thanks to her experience at Fringe, other venues in the UK have asked her to perform Magdalen and she hopes to preform it in Ireland. Meanwhile, she is also working on a new play. Keeping with her interest in historical fiction, it is based on the true story of her Irish ancestors as 18th-century slave owners in Ferguson, Missouri.
Will she take her new show to Fringe? “Only if it’s fully funded,” she jokes. Edinburgh Fringe can be a decisive moment in an artist’s career – if they are willing to do the work. Not everything will pay off immediately but the experience can change lives.