Creating a Theatre Show
In 2016 Laura London took her show Cheat to the Edinburgh Festival. The show was the culmination of much work and Edinburgh was to be its debut. Laura’s goal was to produce a show that she could pitch to bookers as something different to the usual walk-around close-up magic. Cheat has now become a solid part of her repertoire. Laura has performed it at private parties, theatres, corporate venues and even on Zoom. Cheat was worth the work and the investment of time. When she took Cheat to Edinburgh I suggested that, like the heroine of her story, she keep a journal of the experience. Four years later she is ready to share it. It’s a wonderfully honest account of what it takes to put yourself in the public sphere with a new show. If don’t know Laura you can check out her showreel below. After that enjoy her story.
Cheat - The Show
A few years ago I had the idea to write a one-woman show and take it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s called Cheat and is the fictional story of Geraldine Hartmann, a 1920s card hustler. Using her personal journal I recall her adventures and perform card cheating demonstrations. These include card counting, shuffle tracking, the drunken mitt and a finale in which I shuffle the deck into numerical and suit order. The show took months to devise and rehearse. Now it was time to put all the planning into practice.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe takes place in August for three weeks. It attracts thousands of performers, acts and shows from all over the world including many magicians. Festival audiences are generally sympathetic to new artists and new material. It seemed a good place to run a show every day and work out the kinks.
Competition for the venues is understandably high but there is something called the Free Fringe. Instead of the performer hiring a venue and the audience paying for tickets, the performer is given the venue for free and collects money after the show when the performance is over. Much like a busker. It’s an idea they piloted in 2004 and has been running successfully ever since with hundreds of free venues available to those willing to commit to giving audiences some affordable entertainment.
I’d never done anything like this before. I’m not a busker. And so decided to keep a journal so I could track the challenges I would face. Here are some extracts from my Edinburgh Journal. I hope they prove useful.
Laura’s Edinburgh Journal - Part 1
1st August 2016
I have arrived!
I’m living on the Royal Mile, one of the most famous busking streets in the world. My room is on the second floor and right outside my window is the main pitch. It’s very loud! I place a chair there so I can watch the street performers. I’m not going to lie, much of what I see isn’t great. Lots of shouting and pottering about before the mediocre skill starts and finishes in a blink of an eye. But I also see some of the most remarkable talent too. I think what impresses me most is how they draw a crowd; people will happily stop and watch someone set up for 30 minutes.
I have the most wonderful housemates; Lili La Scala, Sam Wills (Boy with Tape on his Face), Tom Barnes and Marco Alessi, all have done the Fringe before and have been great advisors.
My show starts in 5 days. I have set up my card table in the bedroom and I will be rehearsing every day making sure I am ready for my debut.
Sleep. Eat. Rehearse.
3rd August 2016
My manager Jenny Dunster turned up today. I’m so happy to see her. Without Jenny none of this would be happening. There is a lot more to this than just putting together a show, Jenny has organized the PR and the paper work including things you might not think of, such as the PRS (licensing music for your show).
We spent the afternoon rehearsing Cheat and buying a few bits and pieces needed for the month in Edinburgh.
We went for sushi and found the poster for my show pasted on a wall. It’s all getting very real.
4th August 2016
Visited the venue today and met my tech. I am in the ballroom of the Voodoo Rooms, it is a beautiful old building restored in 2006 to its original décor when it was the Café Royal. Apparently it was a prohibition bar in the 1920’s, how very appropriate. It is hosting just over 50 shows this year and I couldn’t be happier to be one of them. Everyone is so kind and helpful and my stage is perfect.
My technician is called Jhed. He has been working shows at the Fringe for years, most of them at the Voodoo Rooms. He knows all the staff and seems to get special treatment so I picked my tech well. He knows his way around the control desk and all the little secret areas to store stuff so that’s a bonus.
SHOW 1 - 6th August 2016
Scared, excited, nervous. These are just a few of the words to describe how I’m feeling today.
I woke to the sound of drummers outside my window, a woman with a Mohawk and her gang of Mad Max looking characters shouting at the crowd as they busk. The beat is so loud it feels like my heart is in sync with the drums.
I’m all packed and ready to go. My show is at 2.35pm. No turning back now.
Well, I can officially say Laura London has a show at the Edinburgh Fringe.
My show went better than expected. I remembered most of the lines and the card demonstrations got good reactions. I know I can do a lot better but for a first show I’m happy, there’s still a lot of work to do of course.
Annoyingly the music did not work on cue. So that needs fixing but it didn’t affect the show too much.
For some reason the pea for the three shall game isn’t doing what it should. I have a feeling it’s because of the makeup I put on my hands to make them look nice for the close up camera. Or maybe I just need practice. That’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of the night.
Completely forgot to do a hat speech but still managed to get some money in the hat.
39 people in.
SHOW 2 - 7th August 2016
Okay so today’s show didn’t go as well. Jhed got the camera, screen and music all in sync but I was off my game. Not good as there was a reviewer who sat up the front and scribbled away throughout my show. I was feeling nervous and lost my way halfway though, there were a few awkward silences as I tried to remember my lines. Spectators weren’t that good either.
Nothing I can do but move on, tomorrow is a new day.
Jenny says I did the worst hat speech she had ever heard. Turns out you should never apologize for asking for money.
43 people in.
SHOW 3 = 8th August 2016
This time I was on much better form, however, the projector stopped working. Jhed was super stressed, as he had to come on stage to rectify the problem several times. We gave up in the end. In a strange way it made me up my game, I learned a lot such as the importance of clarity. I was relying on the screen too much.
Marco filmed the show so I’m looking forward to watching and learning from today’s performance.
Did my first hat speech without apologies and got more money!
35 people in.
SHOW 4 - 9th August 2016
After watching the video of yesterday’s show, I’ve made my first big change. I have decided to swap over the two spectators who are sitting with me at the table mid-show. The two people I had yesterday were great but 50 minutes is a long time to sit on stage and they seemed to get a little fidgety and at times looked a little bored. Also, by changing my spectators I was able to read the monologue about Geraldine’s father from the front of the stage instead of from behind the table. I think changing the scene will improve the performance.
I had a woman who was visually impaired in the audience. The magicians Griffiths and Jones were looking after her. I made sure I spoke clearly and in her direction often, I was pleased to hear she enjoyed the show and appreciated the effort in thinking of her.
Today I was much happier with my performance; the screen was back on form too. I think this was the best one yet. Still forgot to say my favorite line – ‘To know when to bet, to know when to fold, to know when to push the pot and the players to their limits.’ I’ll try and get it in tomorrow.
38 people in.
SHOW 5 - 10th August 2016
So I had the lovely Paul Zenon and Lee Hathaway in today. The show went well although I seemed to deliver some of the script in the wrong order, I got it all in but it was a little all over the place. Jhed and I have finally discovered the problem with the screen, there is a focus button on the projector itself. Hopefully everything will be crystal clear tomorrow. Fingers crossed.
I spent last night writing a few lines for my drunken mitt (Poker game), I think it needs more structure. It definitely felt better today, more work on it this evening.
26 people in.
SHOW 6 - 11th August 2016
Today was the best show so far! Screen worked, Jhed and I were almost in sync. There are a few timing issues with the music but we get closer every day.
I yet again forgot my favorite line! Why? I can’t seem to work it out. I felt so much more relaxed today, so much so I even thought about the line halfway, yet I still didn’t say it.
ACAAN was much clearer today; I shuffled the deck face up so everyone can see the cards instead of face down. It had the best reaction yet.
I finally got to meet Sam McTernan, an artist and a member of the52. David Owen one of the founder members of Breathe magic and his wife Philepa turned up, also Danny Buckler. It is wonderful to look out at your audience and see friends.
I went to see Charlie Caper’s show today too, what a fabulous magician. You can really tell the difference when you see an act that has been honed for years.
Notes to Self:
-Need to practice the bottom deal and warm up each morning.
-Table Lamp is a little broken, I need to take better care when packing props.
46 people in.
Performing at the Spank comedy show tonight, I’ll be doing a blindfolded Smash and Stab with my feet and two knives. A very raucous show, I’m quite excited.
SHOW 7 - 12th August 2016
Today I had the most people in so far. The word must be getting around. I also discovered, just before the show, that I received a 4-star review from The Skinny. I cried a little. I have been dreading reviews coming in. It was such a relief to know that the show has legs and is being well received. I’m aware it’s by no means perfect but it really has given me a boost.
The show went well today despite losing the pen for my pre-show work. I had to get creative; thankfully I got away with it and my finale worked.
My drunken mitt was the best so far but my deck-in-order routine at the end was a bit of a struggle. I think I need to make it clearer that I’m finding all the spades out of order before correcting it. It will also make it clearer that I’m doing bottom deals, which I think the audience will like.
I finally made it to Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology exhibition, It’s just wonderful.
63 people in.
SHOW 8 - 13th August 2016
So the review obviously worked, I had my first full house. When I arrived I was pleased to see some dear friends had come to see the show, Gok Wan and his clan, also the delightful Maria Cork. Gok bought me a gift, a red cactus.
Seeing their faces and a full house gave me great confidence and today’s show was a good one.
I had the most fantastic spectator on stage. He was so good I almost didn’t want to switch the spectators over mid-show.
I mixed up the beginning of the script but only something I would know, the shell game could have been a little smoother too. I also had to use a shot glass as a candlestick as I couldn’t find mine. On the plus side I found my pen for the pre-show.
84 people in.
SHOW 9 - 14th August 2016
Today’s show was okay. I was feeling a little tired. It’s hard doing a show every day. I have a new admiration for those who work in theatre.
I had a bit of a twat on stage who was purposefully not listening to instructions. As a consequence I couldn’t work out the two cards on the table for the card counting demonstration. I managed to get it back with the memorized deck routine though.
35/40 people in.
SHOW 10 - 15th August 2016
Today’s show was going so well until I dropped the stack for my cards-in-order demonstration. Had to correct it in front of the audience. It’s the first time this has happened during the run and I am pleased that I managed to remain calm and not let it affect the rest of the show.
One of my favorite hip-hop artists turned up to see the show too, Sage Frances. Was very pleased to meet him, we went for Sushi after. A very nice guy.
I discovered today I received another 4-star review from the Arts Award Voice. Also I had written an article called 10 Ways to Cheat at Cards for Three Weeks magazine, it was published today.
41 people in.
Billy Kidd is here. I managed to find her performing magic on the street. Always amazing to see her work. A great friend and easily one of my favourite magicians.
SHOW 11 -16th August 2016
I woke up early this morning to go to the Fringe office where you print and staple reviews onto your flyers, I then proudly gave away flyers with my newly-stapled stars on the Royal Mile for an hour, not that anyone but me gives a shit.
The show today was okay. I forgot to put the hat on the spectator for the drunken mitt and I lost my way in script. Jhed and I were completely out of sync for the finale too, the light went off too early and the card wasn’t seen as clearly as it should have been. Ben Hanlin turned up, had a nice catch up with him afterwards.
30 people in.
Met up with a bunch of magicians and we went to see Danny Buckler’s comedy show. He’s a very funny and wonderful man. I loved the show.
SHOW 12 - 17th August 2016
Today the sun was blazing. It affected the show as nobody wants to be indoors when such a rare event happens in Edinburgh.
Today’s show was very bizarre indeed, I looked out towards my 19-strong audience, which included Noel Qualter, and decided to push through despite feeling a little deflated by the poor attendance.
The show was going well until a woman’s phone rang. She answered and began a loud conversation. I had to stop and ask her if she wouldn’t mind taking her call outside. She hung up but within a minute it rang again. Everyone is now with me on this, ‘Will you please get the hell out of my show.’ To which her response was, ‘Yes, can you just give me one moment?’ Wow, I have never been more shocked by an audience member. Noel, thankfully, was sat in front of her and asked her to turn the phone off which she eventually did. Of course that woman was the only one not to put money into my bucket. Welcome to the Free Fringe people.
19 people in.