Edfringe: Competing With the Olympics

21/09/2012 12:04 | Updated 20 November 2012

Approaching the Edinburgh Fringe this year there was one question on every producer's mind: how will the Olympics affect us?

Throughout June, presales were strong - anecdotally - across the board. My shows were comfortably ahead of where they had been the same time last year, and I began to relax into confidence. "Olympics?" we snorted. "A threat?" we laughed. "Different audiences," we patronisingly explained; "The Olympics will only increase the number of tourists in the country."

Then in July the presales began to slow. Then they began to fall behind where we were last year. And then we began to worry a little.

Maybe the Olympics were a bigger concern than we'd allowed for. Tentative, cryptic conversations began taking place as people tried to subtly establish whether it was just their figures that were down, and to what extent everyone else was struggling.

Of course, producing is not a competitive activity. Except that it is. And never more so than when things look bad: that's when you want to be sure that everyone else is struggling as much as you are.

It's an instinct that, quite apart from the moral reasoning against schadenfreude, is utterly unconstructive. If it isn't affecting everyone else, then there's something specifically wrong with what you're doing, which means that there's something to identify and fix (or at least learn from). If it's a trend that's affecting everyone, then you're stuck at the mercy of circumstance. Why would I hope for that?

This instinct is borne out of the fear that grows as you fail to fix a problem. The helplessness of believing that you're doing everything right, yet not seeing anything change is a particularly nasty sensation. Knowing that others are sharing it, that it's not specifically your fault, eases the pressure.

Once we arrived it quickly became clear that our show was no anomaly. The streets were noticeably quieter, the queues shorter and the sold-out boards emptier. Olympic fever was not just keeping tourists away from Edinburgh but keeping that 50% of our our audiences that are local inside their houses. With Team GB doing so well, there was just too much to distract people's attention.

A friend who was staying with us nearly didn't come to our show; the men's tennis final was on and it was gripping. Our show was on every day, whilst Andy Murray trouncing Roger Federer may happen only once. If we were struggling to attract the demographic of people-sleeping-under-our-roof, it's no surprise that it was tricky to tear the rest of Edinburgh away from their screens.

I chatted to an audience member about it, who commented that it was good news for them. Fewer punters meant less chance of being turned away from that "hot ticket" show. However, these hot ticket shows are created by there being enough people to see them and rave about them. Whilst reviews can buoy numbers, it's word of mouth that really pushes sales, and if there are no mouths for the words to come out of then things suffer.

Despite the Olympics drawing to a close at the end of the second week, there were knock-on effects from the quiet beginnings. Audiences build audiences, and without that initial influx of people it becomes harder to generate the same buzz. By mid-fringe I would expect to know of half a dozen shows which you'd have to fight to get a ticket for; as it stood I could think of none.

One consequence of the reduced sell-out shows was that there wasn't the audience to take a chance on a wildcard show when they couldn't get tickets for their first choice. Less well-known shows and artists didn't get the same exposure, and audiences missed out on unexpected gems.

It's a problem that was expected, so I had reviewed our choices. We could opt out for a year and spend the summer twidding our thumbs over gin and gymnastics, or we could acknowledge it and plough ahead anyway. For me the decision was a simple one.

Sure, the smaller audience base meant that things were harder, but no one takes a show to the Fringe because it's easy; we do it because we think we have something worth showing to people - something that's valuable, or exciting, or innovative, or funny, or just plain entertaining.

So what if this year was a little tougher? It just makes any success all the more rewarding.

And there's always next year.