Opinion: Edinburgh Fringe Advice From Director Chris Head

It's never too early to start planning for the Edinburgh Fringe. With only ten months to go director Chris Head, author of A Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up, offers some tips below. You can read more about writing, devising, structuring and performing full-length festival and touring shows from Head by buying A Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up here. And you can also read the first chapter for free here.

 

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe may have just finished but, with venues expecting applications from January, now is the time people are thinking about next year’s shows. One approach of course is come up with a suitably vague title and write something on the train on the way up. But for those of you who put more planning into these things here are some thoughts from the director’s perspective on framing and marketing a show.

I’m a director of stand-up comedy and author of the book “A Director’s Guide to the Art of Stand-up”. The idea of directing stand-up has been growing in recent years and I’ll now typically be working on two or three shows at any one time and having regular one-to-one sessions with comics at all levels. 

 

SHOW TITLES

This week I met with a club comic who is doing her first Edinburgh solo hour in 2019. She came to me with a mass of material and a title. The title is a punning version of a Hugh Grant film. I’m not going to give away her idea so let’s say the show is about... allotments. In this anonymised version of the story I’m going to say the title is “Four Weedings and a Funeral”. 

Her actual punning title is thankfully better than that but you get the idea. I asked her what was meant by the title and she told me the engaging true story that lay behind it. For our allotment version of the show, let’s say that story was about her best friend finally getting an allotment plot after years on the waiting list… and then promptly dying, trowel in hand.

My first point was that when you know the story behind the punning title it’s quite pleasing. But in the context of the Edinburgh Fringe where there are 1500 comedy shows you can’t rely on people going deeper than the tile. A lot of people glancing at the programme or glimpsing a flyer will read it as “Four Weddings” anyway, and those who do spot the play on words will have no context for it. You need to be clearer and more direct. You could come up with a simpler and more descriptive title. Or you could add a subheading. 

Many years ago I directed a comedy show at Assembly on the Fringe that debunked tabloid health scares and dodgy statistics. It starred stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness. The show was originally entitled “Your Days Are Numbered”. Which is a nice gag when you know what the show is about. When you just glance at the title you don’t get it. I suggested adding a subheading and the show became: “Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death”. Now you know what the gag is and more importantly what the topic of the show is. (And death packs them in at the Fringe: our show was a sell-out as was a show that took the form of a mock wake where the performer was carried out in a coffin and driven off in a real hearse).

Thinking about adding a subheading to our allotment/ death themed show, the title could become: “Four Weedings and a Funeral: Life & Death on a London Allotment”. Now your audience get it. 

 

SHOW THEMES

Another concern might be that the subject of allotments is a bit niche. Well don’t worry! Niche topics are a boon for festival shows. In the context of a thousand plus shows at the Fringe if you have a niche subject that you are enthusiastic about you will attract fellow enthusiasts who will inevitably drag along their partners, friends and family. I recall Alex Horne’s Bird Watching show brilliantly doing just that and this very Edinburgh I directed Helen Wood’s new show about… Ordnance Survey maps. 

She originally came to me with a list of her enthusiasms saying she wanted to celebrate them all in a show. One of the things on the list was OS maps. I said: that’s your show. Thus the The OS Map Fan Club was born and it’s been packing in an older, Gortex wearing audience at the Fringe, on tour and even at Ordnance Survey headquarters. 

A related issue comes up when I help stand-ups craft a package show. Rather than leaping prematurely to a full hour, a lot of acts take a graduated approach where, for example, they begin with a three-hander, then do a two-hander and then, at last, the solo hour. When putting together these packages a lot of acts simply recruit other comic(s) and call it something like “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh It’s the Stand-up Show”. (There are always lots of shows with multiple “A”s at the start of the title to try and get alphabetical first slot in the programme.) 

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