The Merits of Edinburgh - A tale to inspire

We are now into the Edinburgh Festival 2018 and while creative and performers are all work hard, play harder and form relationships that may lead to the next project somewhere down the line, may will ask ‘what’s the point in Edinburgh?’ ‘Does it actually do anything?’ ‘What good is it when you are competing with over 6,000 other shows?’ ‘You can lose so much money taking a show up there and no one comes to see it, so why would anyone want to do it?’

All good questions.

About 2 years ago, I attended a breakfast meeting with a group of young directors. We met up to talk about the industry and our experiences. When I came into the conversation, the view of the festival was almost unanimously a grim one, with tales of hardship, struggles to get work reviewed, being overcharged and under appreciated by venues and patrons. And while I understand their points of view and have had similar experiences of frustration, my advice to the young director weighing up their options was to go for it. It might work out, it might not, but the experience will be yours. There are hundreds of reasons to say no. You only need one reason to say yes. A great show.

If you believe in the work you have created then you should go. It is only by risking our intellect, skill and instincts that we get better. Opportunities for young directors are few and far between and the circumstances will rarely be ideal early in your career. So get together a small group of like-minded, talented and determined people and take your work to the world. You learn more from doing but you’ll learn even more from listening to those who have been there and done that and taking their lessons on board whilst forging your own path, making your own mistakes and learning your own lessons.

A man I respect a great deal once told me he thought that directors, actors and producers needed to work in places where their eggs were not all in one basket so to speak. They needed to make work away from the eyes of critics and judgmental producers etc. While I agree with this to an extent, I also believe that with every project a group of creative embark on, they must fully commit and do their very best to the point of obsession in order for the project to have any merit. Otherwise, why start out in the first place? You have to be passionate about every detail, no matter how minor or inconsequential it might seem to be. You will regret the things you didn’t say or do much more than the things you do as long as you are doing them for what you believe to be the best for the production.

The Edinburgh Festival is incredible. So many wonderful people in one city who are all so passionate about making work, meeting people and exchanging ideas. I have taken two plays up in my directing career – Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness in 2004 (the first play I ever directed) and a new version of Man to Man by Manfred Karge in 2015. Each time, I learned at an exponential rate.

With SWWOM, I directed three friends from drama school and put the production together from scratch. I directed and produced the piece. I believed in the brilliance of the play and the talent of the performers. If we were going to do it, I wanted to do it right and make sure it led to something. We played for a week in the Gateway studio theatre (now a block of flats) in the old Queen Margaret’s college building. As a local lad from Stirling, I managed to sell the show to my local community – many of whom had never been to the festival despite it being on their doorstep. With my Mother’s help, we organised bake sales at my old school to help raise money for the production. I did interviews for the local press and cut a deal with a local bus company (the one that did my school run) to ferry people up to see the show and drop them off afterwards. The show was sold out for the entire run in that 75 seat studio. The response from the audiences was astonishing. We used the profit generated from the Edinburgh run to do an evening at the Leicester Square theatre for industry to come and see our work. The theatre was packed and it launched my directing career as well as providing an excellent showcase for the actors.

With SWWOM I had help along the way. Between my parents, family friends and the advice and mentorship of Ashley Herman (Chairman of the board of governors at my drama school Guildford School of Acting) the lesson I learnt was asking for help costs you nothing, but when you ask, listen to the advice you are given and appreciate the help you are offered. Good will goes a very long way.

Actor Maggie Bain talks about the training and preparation for Man to Man (filming by Boris Mitkov)

With Man to Man, I remember thinking on our press night at Wales Millennium Centre in March 2015 that this piece was the very best work I had done up to that point in my career. It was everything I wanted it to be and if it wasn’t successful then perhaps I should do something else. The reviews were excellent in Cardiff, but I didn’t feel we were done with the show yet. WMC artistic director Graeme Farrow agreed and gave the green light for us to take it to Edinburgh.

The play is an incredible odyssey through 20th century Germany from the point of view of a working class woman who is widowed at a young age when her husband dies of bone cancer. Rather than lose the income from his job and their apartment, she wraps a bandage around her head and goes into work dressed as him the day after he dies. He was a crane operator and didn’t mix with his colleague much at all. The play is based on a true story and covers a multitude of themes during the journey through Ella’s lifetime.

We were a late entry at the festival with limited budget for advertising and PR. We got a good group of people who were dedicated to the cause working on the show. There were the usual challenges that come with sharing a venue. I also spent a lot of time being mad at people for being what I deemed to be less than committed to making the show the very best it could be. I was ruthless in my pursuit of perfection for this show I was so passionate about. I’d worked for more than two years to get it to this point and did not want it unravelling now we were so close to opening. Our producer Siobhan Daly was working incredibly hard with our PR people to get the critics in. Our marketing strategy hinged on reviews. We were playing in a 200 seat venue for the whole month, our first audience was 10 people and our second was 12. Our press night had 75 people and only a few critics. For the next two performances we had 14 people and 1 person booked. It was looking bleak. To add to this, the one woman in this one-woman show is my wife! No pressure there then!

Conversation with directors Bruce Guthrie & Scott Graham (filming by Boris Mitkov)

Before our press night, theatre maker Bryony Kimmings gave the opening address at Fringe headquarters. She spoke beautifully about her many successes and the few flops she’d had in Edinburgh with a great warmth and affection whilst also conveying a sense of the importance of the festival that stretches beyond the reviews and full houses. She spoke of creative alliances and sparks that happen all over the city. She talked about how it is a celebration of culture and a platform for artists of all levels to be brave. Finding your voice as well as announcing to the world you are there.

The reception for the show on press night was overwhelmingly positive with a response that was a mixture of elation and stunned amazement. The play is incredibly powerful and involving. It works on the audience long after they have left the theatre.

Reviews carry tremendous weight in Edinburgh. They can truly make or break a show. Most critics go with a sense of balance and temper their reviews accordingly. Lyn Gardner admirably tends not to post any reviews below 3 stars as she doesn’t want to destroy shows of young creative early on in their careers. There is also a fantastic new generation of critics coming though who see an extraordinary number of shows. It can seem more of an endurance test than a festival (festive being the point!) but with more than six thousand shows every year, some help to separate the wheat from the chaff for the serious theatre goer is the only way, whether it’s reviews or the all important word of mouth, if you are a hit, everyone knows it pretty quickly.

Our press night was on the first Friday of the Festival. The next morning, reality set in. At 11.30am on Saturday the next day, we had advanced sales for our show that evening of just 10 tickets in our 200 seat venue. For Sunday, we had an advance of just 1 ticket sold.

Everything changed at midday. My producer called me and simply said - The Guardian – Five stars.

A furious mixture of elation and relief exploded in my brain and guts. People who read the Guardian are serious theatregoers and go to the Traverse. The Traverse audience was our type of audience and given the play’s history with the Traverse, we knew there was an audience for this play.

We went from having 10 people in on Saturday to more than 100. From 1 on Sunday to 150 and then we sold out and kept selling out as the reviews poured in.

Having held back on our marketing budget until the reviews came out, we were then able to take advantage of our excellent 5 star reviews from The Guardian, The Times, The Stage, British Theatre Guide and the Arts Desk as well as many 4 star reviews.

Trailer for Man to Man

Our story is something of a fairy tale of Edinburgh. We went from almost zero to sold-out in the space of 2 days. It is possible and it can be done.

Two years later we took Man to Man on a UK tour. The production played in London at Wilton’s Music Hall for two weeks and then theUK tour included Birmingham Rep, Liverpool Everyman, Newcastle Northern Stage and something of a Homecoming to the Traverse Theatre – 30 years after it premiered there with Tilda Swinton. That was not the end of the journey though. We took the production to Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of the Next Wave Festival 2017. It was totally sold out and received standing ovations nightly. It is one of the highlights of my career.

My point is that dreams are worth pursuing. Edinburgh is worth doing again and again as long as you are passionate about the project and have incredibly high standards in everything you do. Never settle for anything less than what you know the best can be. Get the best out of those around you and if changes have to be made, make them. We regret the things we don’t do more that the things we did. Dream big and then go out and make it happen. Also, you don’t have to be a leader. You can buy into someone else too. Trust their vision, drive and determination. Not everyone has to lead and not everyone should. Just be the best you that you can be.

Good luck!

Bruce Guthrie

Man to Man by Manfred Karge

Translation by Alexandra Wood

Directed by Bruce Guthrie & Scott Graham

Set and costume design by Richard Kent

Lighting design by Rick Fisher

Sound design by Mike Walker

Video design by Andrzej Goulding

Music composed by Matthew Scott

2017 version Produced for Wales Millennium Centre by Pádraig Cusack

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