Edinburgh Fringe: Writing And Performing Your Own Work

Theatre creators and performers joue le genre on their latest play What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors - what you need to know to take your own show to the Fringe

By Christina Care

Emma Bentley and Camille Favre are the artistic directors of joue le genre, taking their second production to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Spotlight spoke with Emma and Camille about all things writing, directing and producing your own work – with particular emphasis on what they’ve learned to prepare them for the second time around!

You’ve just got to love the show… You can’t have any expectations either. I still have very high expectations, but you just don’t know what will or won’t happen – or when it will happen. You can have a dream, of course!
Emma Bentley

Tell us about your show, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors! How is it different to joue le genre’s first Fringe show, To She or Not To She?

EB: They’re both coming-of-age stories in a way. Both scripts I co-wrote. In this one I wrote a first draft then Calum [Finlay], the director, came back with what you hear now – a very lyrical Shakespearean style of writing. We came up with the story arc together, and the scenes we wrote together. It’s been a really nice journey.

The show covers quite a deep topic - why did you want to tackle youth homelessness? How did you start writing this particular show?

EB: I’m from Warwickshire and I’ve been living in London for about two years, and I’m not at all a country bumpkin - I did travel a lot as a child – but moving to London, I just find it horrific, basically. When you’re a young actor – I’m not at all saying you live the life of someone in extreme poverty – but you do always worry about money, paying rent, your zero-hour contract. If you haven’t got family to back you up, it’s a really scary lifestyle. I did all this research and started volunteering for St Mungo’s, which was fantastic. Something aside my career – when you’re an actor out of work, you can feel you don’t really have a purpose. It’s not a hobby, it is something active.

I run a newspaper group [as part of the volunteering work] and the majority of people who come to it are men. But even the stories of a 50-year-old man has informed the writing of the play, as obviously everyone who has experienced homelessness has experienced the feelings. Most the things that really helped me were documentaries – there was a really good one called ‘Young, Homeless and Fighting Back’, about a YMCA in Stoke-on-Trent. Also, Professor Green did one called ‘Hidden and Homeless’.

The really interesting thing to me, that you convey in the show, is how small things can accumulate – choices slowly spiralling – which felt very realistic and understandable.

EB: That was something that Calum really found – it was his idea to focus on small insignificant moments accumulating. It all stems from my idea of breaking it down and making it very specific and clear. Also, obviously it’s one story, but you can see all the different roads in…

Absolutely. Were there things you learned from your first show that informed the way you’ve made this second one?

EB: I massively learned to enjoy the process – I just really wound myself up with ‘To She’. It wasn’t until we got back to London and won this residency to develop it with the Lyric - it wasn’t until then when I fell back in love with the show. Edinburgh is so high pressure and stressful. You’ve just got to love the show. It sounds really wanky, but if you don’t love it…! You can’t have any expectations either. I still have very high expectations, but you just don’t know what will or won’t happen – or when it will happen. You can have a dream, of course – I had a dream that we’d get a five star review, and that’s happened really early on, so that’s nice because that lifts you.

CF: In terms of the numbers, it doesn’t translate instantly. You have to accept that and ride the wave. I think the five star reviews came at the right time for us, as it was a bit of a slow start at the beginning – we had a lovely audience…

EB: Everyone was going, “Oh wow!” It was just getting more people…

CF: It was just getting over that threshold. The flyering can be a bit soul sucking, as there’s only the two of us.

Are you doing the flyering mostly by yourselves? What are the tips you can give around doing flyering well?

EB: We’re doing it all ourselves.

CF: You have to believe in your show. I like doing it in the morning, when I can actually really get into a conversation with people, tell them who we are. That gets them a lot more interested than just [repeating], “Five star review.”

EB: You have to get involved as there’s not really any tagline that you can say – you can’t really say, “One woman show about teen homelessness!” Nobody’s going to go, “Ooh, yeah! That sounds fun!” Theatre is more of a difficult sell too. A lot of the time, no one is going to see the show that day either. People who see theatre will book, whereas with comedy you can literally just walk in to whichever venue.

CF: I am noticing the difference though now that we have the reviews. I’ve talked to people who I recognised came and saw the show this morning – that didn’t really happen before. So, it’s like ok that worked. It’s actually worth doing it.

What’s your strategy for cutting through the noise of the Fringe? How do you aim to stand out?

EB: I think for theatre, flyering on the mile is pointless. Unless you’ve got a puppetry show or something.

CF: It’s okay in the morning…

EB: Yeah, but if we went to the Mile now [at 1pm], it would be pointless. There’s just a tonne of people [singing] or like puppets all over the place. It’s way too much. Here it’s okay, but people are coming up to you constantly. I think by 3pm people are like, “No! Leave me alone, I just want a pint.”

CF: I think it’s good that our show is the first show of the day. When I flyer in the morning, people are more relaxed, they’ve just had their coffee, they’re scheduling their day… you can actually have a conversation with them.

EB: Exit flyering is good after 2pm, for us.

How does the venue you’re performing at contribute to the show’s reception? Has it helped to be performing at the Pleasance?

EB: Massively – if you’re in that ‘big four’ brochure, everyone will go by that and trust it. I live in North London, Pleasance in Islington is near me, it’s always just been a friendly face. I trust them when I see stuff, and for some reason they’ve trusted me! When we got Pleasance for To She, you would chat with people and tell them “Oh, I’m going to Edinburgh to do a solo show, it’s my first ever one,” and they’d be like, “Oh yeah, what venue are you doing it at?” Expecting you to say something random, but as soon as you say ‘Pleasance’ their whole body language changes like, “Oh you must be really good then!” It does massively help.

CF: Plus, it’s lovely – they’re a lovely team.

Do you find you’re still tinkering with things in the show now?

EB: We are, definitely – there’s a massive amount of tech in the show, so every day [there are small changes]. Today one of the cameras wasn’t working. There are always little decisions to make. The director has left, so we don’t want to change anything major, but to be honest once you’re in Edinburgh and once you finish your previews, there’s not a lot of space to massively change stuff – apart from blocking. Today I changed a few things in the blocking.

CF: I think you have to trust that you’ve done the work. You have to run with it. Everyone in the team has been amazingly on point – the designer has been so on it, he left a couple of days ago. It’s nice to be here and just say, “Let’s just try this.” But it’s just small changes. Changing slight cues – a little play each morning, which just helps to keep us on our toes.

Do you have any key advice for those thinking about creating their own show for next year’s Fringe?

EB: Get a really good team from the beginning. If you went to a uni where there’s a tech team, mingle with them – or just get anyone, if your boyfriend is a musician, get them to do the sound. Just anyone who you really get on with, who you can work with solidly for a year, or more. It’s going to be so much work. Then pick something you’re passionate about as a person – I dunno, maybe you really like gardening.

CF: Whatever it is, you can’t get bored of it!

EB: Yeah. Then just sign up for scratch nights, start working on it – ten minutes here, ten minutes there. You can do this. With ‘To She’, I did the same ten minutes at 5 different scratch nights and it wasn’t until a few months before Edinburgh that it was like, “We better finish writing it!” Sometimes you need those deadlines.

CF: There’s so many opportunities to do that as well in London and wherever. If you don’t have those opportunities in your town, you have to make them – there are always places that will host you. It might not be a theatre. But you have to confront yourself with an audience early on, I think. I would second what Emma just said about the people – think about the people first, especially if you’re going to do Edinburgh, which is such a stressful thing to do and can be bonkers and out of control, you need to have that support – you need to know you can rely on people. Not just to do what they need to do but also to be great people.

Any survival tips for getting through the relentless Edinburgh schedule?

EB: I’m really sensible. I have a bit to drink but you end up being a Cinderella at parties. 12 o’clock, got to go, bed time! Everyone else is going crazy – some people do it, have like 3 hours sleep. Some people enjoy that about Edinburgh. When you’re out you meet people as well. But as a performer I have a tendency to beat myself up anyway, and say I were to go out and anything were to go wrong I would feel… it just would not be worth the emotional turmoil. So that’s why I am sensible.

CF: It’s all about balance, I think. I’m a huge believer in balance in all things – moderation in everything I do in life. Which sounds a bit boring but actually it works. I think we’re getting that balance in that we do have to do all the hard work and the flyering, but we also see a lot of shows.

EB: We’ve seen loads – I’ve seen so much more this year than last year. I hardly saw anything last year. I’d do work after the show which made the whole thing really depressing. This year I do go to shows and feel a bit guilty sometimes that I’m not out flyering, but we’ve learned so much from everything we’re seeing – the quality is so high.

CF: Yeah, it’s inspiring.

EB: And it keeps you going.

What are the major challenges of having a show on at the Fringe that performers should be aware of?

EB: I think when we had [only] four people [in the audience] was a massive low – if it’s like 5 or fewer, as a performer it can be really gutting. You just think, “Oh my god, I’ve worked so hard to get here, I’ve spent so much money!” All these other people have invested in this show and now it feels like a primary school thing that none of the parents have shown up for. Then the next day you’ll get a really good review and you’re like yay!

CF: Embrace the rollercoaster!

What about highlights – any standout moments?

CF: When you see an amazing piece of work – maybe you’ve been flyering in the rain for 2 hours and no one wants your flyers, then you go and see ‘Education Education Education’ for instance, which is fantastic… that is what it’s all about.

What would you like to do next?

EB: I’d really like to regionally tour [this show]. And I’d really like to make some nice links with some theatres. I’d love to take it to Warwick Arts Centre – if you’re reading this…! I just think that would be really cool. We did do some dates with ‘To She’ but it was fragmented.

CF: For the company, I think the next show has to be a two-hander at least. Just play around a bit more with the theatrical devices [we want to explore]. And it can be just simple – just a chair and you can do wonders. But you need actors. I’d like to come back next year with a two hander.

So, you’re not disillusioned yet…You’re already thinking about next year?

EB: Oh no, we’re not disillusioned!

CF: We’ll be back next year. 

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors is on every day (except the 21st August) at 12:45pm at Pleasance Courtyard. Thank you to Emma and Camille for taking the time to chat with us at Spotlight!

Image credits: Katie Davidson