ED2015 News ED2015 Week3 Edition

Kickstarting at the Fringe: The ins and outs of crowd-funding an Edinburgh show

By | Published on Wednesday 26 August 2015


It’s no secret that it’s expensive bringing a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, with many performers making a considerable investment to take to the Festival stage, and many knowing that – even if all goes to plan – they are unlikely to cover all their costs with ticket income alone. The motivation for such loss-making endeavours varies, of course, though performers may wish to hone their art, or gain experience, or build profile, or make connections, or simply to have a summer holiday where you get to show off everyday.

But given the costs and the risks, it’s not surprising that in recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of Fringe performers taking to online funding platforms like Kickstarter in the spring, to try and raise some cash to help pay production costs, and lessen the potential losses, come August.

Done right this is a great way to enable supporters and fans to contribute, to get people talking about your show early on, and to raise some all important funds. Though the fund-raising campaign in itself needs work, and if it fails, it can have a negative impact on team morale just as the Festival is zooming into view.

Alfrun Gisladottir of new production company Raspberry Tart had already raised a significant chunk of the budget for her debut Fringe show, ‘The Lost Art Of Lost Art’, by successfully applying to a Daily Mail initiative that supports new acting talent. But some costs still needed to be covered, and having already set up a blog for the project she decided to go the crowd-funding route, mainly targeting friends and family of people involved in the production.

“I made a big list of anyone and everyone who might donate, and then put together a personalised letter to send to them” she says. “My friend who works as a fundraiser for a charity helped me create the right sort of letter. It was important to make it upbeat and genuine, breaking down all the costs, telling the story of the project to date, and making sure it was clear how grateful we’d be for any support. We then personalised each email or Facebook message that we sent out with this letter”.

But the trick with online crowd-funding is offering something in return for any donations. That something doesn’t need to be costly to produce, but needs to grab attention. Gisladottir decided to use her cast to make something personalised for each person who donated. “After researching other fundraising campaigns, we felt what worked best was something interactive and personal”, Gisladottir continues, “and which could also be shared on social media, because that might encourage others to donate”.

Gisladottir and her cast made short musical videos for each supporter. “The videos are minimal guerrilla film-making, all made on an iPhone and usually in one-take” she says. They are lo-fi but fun, and while Gisladottir originally intended to only be making videos for friends and family, the initiative went a little further than that. “We’ve started to get requests from people we don’t know! And it’s been so much fun making these videos we regularly joke about sacking off drama school and starting a band!”

The Village Pub Theatre in Leith also raised funds online to fund their Fringe programme this year, and they also let their imaginations run riot when thinking of things to offer those who donated. Says the group’s James Ley: “The Village Pub Theatre is all new writing, so we were able to tell backers that we could name characters after them in our shows, and a few people went for that”. Not every idea was taken up by potential funders, however: “I did offer to give a private dance to anyone who donated £1000! Oddly no one went for that, despite my Tina Turner impersonation in our fundraising video!”

The video Ley refers to there is the one you post at the start of your crowd-funding campaign, basically your pitch to possible funders. And that is arguably more important than what you actually offer backers in return for their support. Angus Wilkinson of another crowd-funded show, ‘Miss Sarah’ at Zoo, described his company’s pitch video.

“We filmed a time-lapse at The Annex Studios in London where we built a giant chalk mural that encapsulated what the Fringe meant to us and to our company. This is our first show as a company, and going into the Fringe our aim was to build a level of professionalism and legitimacy around the art we create and the production company we run. The best way to tell that story is by displaying exactly those values, so our whole campaign centred around the video pitch. It needed to show a level of skill but at the same time still have the ‘home-made’ aesthetic so that it was clear we don’t have huge production budget backing us. That’s how we arrived at a chalk mural…cheap but skilful!”

Although it’s often new talent and Fringe first-timers using crowd-funding, more established performers have also gone this route. Fringe veteran Bryony Kimmings also partly funded her hugely acclaimed new show ‘Fake It ‘til You Make It’ this way. “My mate Amanda Palmer is the queen of crowd-funding and I had heard about it from her and various other bands” she explains.

Though, whereas with brand new talent, just getting to the Fringe might in itself be a credible pitch to possible funders, for more established performers and companies there probably needs to be something else about your project to make it attractive to possible online backers. And that might be the subject matter of the show.

Says Kimmings: “I had seen some very unsuccessful crowd-funding projects, and understood that it had to be the right project to ask fellow humans to give their hard earned cash to. It had to be a subject and a pursuit that people felt personally connected to. So when we needed some extra support to make our new show and get it in front of audiences, I knew Kickstarter would be excellent. A chance to reclaim mental health and turn it into a positive thing… I think most people are affected by mental illness in one way or another and it was an unprecedented success”.

Ley also thinks you need to be honest and realistic with what you ask for in any crowd-funding campaign. “Definitely be realistic with how much money you’re asking for” he says. “We still have to sell quite a lot of tickets to break even, but that feels right. That’s our job and it wouldn’t be fair to expect our backers to pay for 100% of a show that doesn’t attract an audience. Fortunately we’ve seen pretty good ticket sale so far”.

Most Fringe performers raising money this way seem to use Kickstarter. As Wilkinson says: “There was much debate in our team about which platform to use, but in the end you really have to understand that you are asking people to take a punt on something and you need as many legitimate indicators as possible to help them feel comfortable donating. There were some platforms that took a significantly smaller commission but no one has really heard of them yet. People know Kickstarter”.

Though Gisladottir reckons that if you are primarily hitting friends and family for donations, there are other options. She says: “I think that crowd-funding platforms are great when you have built a following, but when you are completely new it’s mostly your family and friends that donate anyway, so why pay 8% of that to a website that doesn’t even give you the money if you don’t make your target? I did a lot of research and in the end we agreed that it would be better to use the crowd-funding template but do it ourselves, through our blog and Paypal”.

So, like a Fringe show itself, there are decisions to be made, risks to be taken, and a very good pitch is required. But if it takes some of the heat off come August, fund-raising in this way may be a good use of time each Spring for those heading to the Festival.

Featured shows:
The Lost Art Of Lost Art, Underbelly Cowgate, until 30 Aug
Village Pub Theatre new writing, until 29 Aug
Miss Sarah, Zoo, until 31 Aug.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It, Traverse Theatre, until 30 Aug

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