A Taste of Success: Writing, Fundraising and Marketing a Fringe Hit
After a successful run of 'Hitler's Tasters' at the Edinburgh Fringe, we speak with writer Michelle Kholos Brooks and actress MaryKathryn Kopp about adapting historical accounts, bringing a show to Edinburgh from the US, and the Indiegogo campaign that made it all possible.
I know it sounds really simplistic, but you just have to sit your butt down and write a lot of stuff.
It’s lovely to meet you both! How did you first come to work together?
Michelle: We were put together by Sarah Norris, who is our director. I worked with Sarah on the play in a previous incarnation, and then Sarah wanted to bring it to New York, to which I had no objection. And MaryKathryn here auditioned, and Sarah called me and said, ‘Oh we’ve found our Hilda!’
MaryKathryn: I got an email out of the blue from Sarah. A director I’d worked with at college had recommended me to her through some Facebook-sort-of-something. She sent me the email and was like, ‘Here’s the script if you’re interested,’ and I sat there and I read the script literally like five times, because I was like, ‘This is genius! And I know these girls,’ and when you know the language it just comes naturally. I was like, ‘This play is perfect!’ and then I met Sarah, and I was like, ‘This woman is perfect!’ and then it all just worked out.
What was your process for adapting true historical accounts into Hitler’s Tasters?
Michelle: I intended to do every single piece of research I could possibly do for this play. I had a little talk with myself. When I heard the story, I said, ‘You’re going to just research the hell out of this play.’ And my husband was so excited, because he’s a big World War II buff, so he was like ‘Nazi movies! I finally get to sit down and watch Nazi movies!’
But what happened with this story is that it hit so many buttons of concern for me. [Things] that I’ve thought about in terms of young women, how young women are treated, and how children are used as shields of war, and so many things that I just sat down and it spilled. Because I was a young woman once, and I felt like on a certain level I could relate to things. And then when I went back to rewrite, I did more historical research.
But it all started with that article about Margot Woelk. Bless her for telling her story at 96 years old. Can you imagine holding onto that story for your entire life? What a survivor she was. Actually, one of the characters in the play is called Margot in her honour.
Hilda is kind of the ‘mean girl’ of the group. How do you prepare yourself to play a ‘mean’ character?
MaryKathryn: Right, so, I was in high school. I remember the popular girls, the mean girls, and I was never fully in the club, but we all get good at imitating it every now and then. For me, I definitely don’t consider myself a mean girl in real life, so it’s kind of fun to walk that side of my personality since we don’t do that normally.
But I guess with Hilda specifically, or with any sort of bully, any sort of mean girl that I play, it’s just understanding that it’s all about control, and it’s all about insecurities, and needing to have control over other people, especially people who they deem to be weaker.
[Which] is something I think all of us can relate to, especially as women in the world, because we are programmed to compete with each other and put each other down, and putting each other down means you can feel better about yourself. Especially in this setting of war, and with everything that was going on in Nazi Germany, you had to be perfect, you had to be the best.
The show has already enjoyed success in the US. What made you want to bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe?
Michelle: When the show was in New York, I think we really started gathering steam just as we had to close. So Sarah and I were talking about [how] we don’t feel like we’re done, what can we do with this? Sarah said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to bring something to the Fringe, and this seems like the perfect show to do.’ So the girls did this extraordinary fundraising campaign.
MaryKathryn: We were like, ‘Hell yeah!’ And then we all, in addition to trying to have our acting careers and our day jobs and whatever, we all really got invested in this Indiegogo, [campaign] because our whole thing was we were like, ‘Let’s manifest Edinburgh and make it work no matter what. Even if we raise $2, we’re going to figure out how to get there.’ So yay – here we are!
How was the campaigning experience?
MaryKathryn: It was [difficult]. Hallie Griffin deserves recognition. She plays Liesel. Her husband’s a filmmaker and a video editor, and so she has a lot of experience with video editing as well. And we know with fundraising, the more content you have online, the more people understand why you want to raise $17,000, and they’re a little more open to maybe donating.
So she definitely spearheaded a lot of our videos and images that we were able to put out there about why this show is important to us, and what the Fringe might do for the show and for us as artists. We had a lot of fun with it. The show was over, so we didn’t have any reason to see each other regularly, but with the Indiegogo we saw each other quite a bit! We were in constant communication. So we were like, ‘It’s good!’ and we’d have a wine night and figure out our next attack on the campaign.
Has there been a difference in response between audiences at the Fringe and audiences in the US?
MaryKathryn: There are some jokes that I think are very specific to American politics, because Michelle does a beautiful job of layering quite a few laugh-out-loud jokes with a few chuckle jokes and a few should-I-laugh-at-this-sort-of-thing jokes, and I think some of the subtle ones that are very specific to America do get lost sometimes, but I feel being at this particular festival, people are more open to whatever the heck they’re going to see on stage. In New York, we had a lot of people expecting a drama.
Michelle: It’s been really interesting to watch the audiences. I feel like the audiences change from night to night. There are some audiences that start laughing from the beginning and laugh all the way to the end. And some are just terrified. I’ve had people apologising to me, saying, ‘I’m sorry that I laughed,’ and I say, ‘No, no, no, that’s okay! That’s what we’re here for!’
But I think there’s also some references that the UK audiences get that it takes the American audiences a moment or two to get. So it’s really interesting.
[Be] ready to support other people. If you want to be supported, you have to support other people.
You’ve had so many sell-out audiences! What’s your marketing secret?
Michelle: [MaryKathryn] mentioned Hallie, and all the woman of this team have had an extraordinary social media presence, and have done so much inventive posting and videos, and they’re always having fun. I think their social media campaign has had a lot to do with sparking some interest initially.
We have a wonderful publicist who believed in us and took us on, even though we weren’t at one of the top big venues. We just feel like the planets aligned a little bit. We’ve all worked very, very hard, but then you have to get a little bit lucky, and the fact that we’ve been sold out since day one, we’re all sort of on our knees thanking gods above for giving us a little wink.
MaryKathryn: We learned early on that Twitter was the way to go. So that’s when Hallie Griffin and Kaitlin Paige Longoria were like, ‘Let’s get on Twitter,’ and like [Michelle] said, we just had fun with it. Like with our Indiegogo campaign, we were like, ‘Let’s make this fun!’ and we all believe in the show, and we feel so fortunate too as actors to get to sort of be producers for this, because we fundraised our own money to get here, [and] are all very much invested in the show.
What would you like audiences to take away from your show?
Michelle: First and foremost, I want people to have an emotional response, whether they’re moved to laugh, whether they’re moved to cry, whether they’re moved to suck in their breath – that they feel invested in what’s happening. I don’t feel that it’s my job as a playwright to teach people lessons and wag my finger or anything like that.
These are just things that concern me and I hope concern other people. So my most idealistic self would like people to come away with a reminder about the dangers of complacency. But if you have a laugh, you have a cry, if you feel something, then to me that’s a success.
MaryKathryn: For me, what particularly drew me to this piece initially was obviously the dynamic between these women, and Michelle has done an incredible job with, you know, they’re all sort of the archetypes. But [Michelle] has completely fleshed out these girls and given so much more depth to them.
[And] also the dangers of complacency and ignorance and even group political thinking and buying into a mentality of group identity with politics, as far as that, of just buying into something because everybody else is buying into it, or believing everything that you hear.
What would your advice be for anyone wanting to bring a show to the Fringe for the first time?
MaryKathryn: So first of all: Twitter is the way to go. I made a Twitter exclusively for this. I think definitely planning early worked for us, especially being international. A lot of us hadn’t been to Edinburgh or even Scotland before, so there was a lot of, ‘Where do we go? Where should we stay? How do we book an Airbnb for a month?’ and all that.
But [also] more just having the spirit of adventure, and being curious, and being open for whatever’s going to happen. [Understand] that the stakes are going to feel very high, but they’re also very low, because everybody knows that this is a festival, and it’s here, and it’s just about seeing as many stories as you can, exposing yourself to as many stories as you can.
And I think it’s just getting ready to do a lot of work and also just being open to meeting other artists, and be ready to support other people. If you want to be supported, you have to support other people. That’s just how this world works, in my opinion.
We had so much fun planning and fundraising and doing all that logistics because we also were looking at all the announced shows as they kept rolling out, and we all kept making our individual lists of ‘must sees’ and exciting things we were going to check out. That kept it exciting and fun for us, definitely.
What advice would you give to any aspiring playwrights?
Michelle: I know it sounds really simplistic, but you just have to sit your butt down and write a lot of stuff. When I was younger, I really idealised being a writer, and I thought I would declare myself a writer and a beret would magically fall on my head, I’d smoke a cigarette, I would drink a café au lait, amazing language would just pop out, and I’d somehow just be famous. I really had to learn that it’s a grind, in a way.
You have to sit with yourself every single day and be by yourself and the voices in your head, and work and work and work and work. And there’s just no substitute for that. It’s an enormous amount of rejection. It never gets less painful, but it gets a little bit more familiar. But I’ve had rejections of play while they were running!
I mean you just can’t please everybody, so I think the [key] for any writer [is] just write and write until you find your voice, and send it out, and send it out, and be willing for it not to be perfect – I don’t know what [perfect] is! I think it’s mostly an excuse for not putting things out there.
You just have to be willing to be brave and put it out, and put it out, and eventually you’ll find, as I’ve found, your tribe that will get you and get what you’re doing, and help raise and lift it. There’s no substitute for that.
Thanks to Michelle and MaryKathryn for their great advice! Find out more about Hitler’s Tasters and the company and don’t forget to check out our other articles, videos and podcasts from Edinburgh Fringe.
Image credit: Hunter Canning