PR stunts: an expert’s guide
How do you sell tickets to your show? Make up a strange, tragic story and then sell it to the press. Mark Borkowski explains
Myths and legends abound about who did what to promote which show at the Edinburgh Fringe. You can get away with things during these three weeks you wouldn’t dare attempt anywhere else. Let’s face it, nobody comes to Edinburgh to make a profit; all you can hope to do is break even, and that can be a very difficult thing to achieve with more than 1,500 events competing. Otherwise sane promoters can act quite irrationally, as in the case of a theatre company called Red Pilot, part of whose act consisted of lowering the stage on top of the audience, and then lighting fires on it. The authorities were not amused.
On another occasion the producers of a play called Road Rage thought it would be a clever idea to recruit Reclaim the Streets, the anti-road political activists. This resulted in Edinburgh gridlock, followed by a violent riot.
The possibility of disaster is ever present. One year I was supposed to be promoting the spoof country star Hank Wangford and thought I’d import the popular Wild West pastime of cowpat hurling – a plan which, if you’ll forgive the expression, seriously backfired. In the searing heat of the Mojave desert, cowpats quickly assume the texture and aerodynamism of Frisbees, but unfortunately we could only get hold of the local Scottish variety. In a vain attempt to convert their inherent sogginess, using only a microwave oven, I contravened some pretty specific rules in the lease of the flat I was renting, and ended up paying my entire fee to the landlord as a fine.
Some stunts crop up with alarming regularity. A terrible production of The Odd Couple once achieved extraordinary ticket sales on the back of a rumour that Jack Lemmon had made a secret trip over to see it. And this year of course Jack Nicholson is guaranteed to be sneaking across the Atlantic for a glimpse of Christian Slater’s chickenpox scars in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The “original” Fringe stunt reputedly took place in the 1960s when, apparently, a beautiful naked woman was pushed down Princes Street in a wheelbarrow. This, the story goes, secured a large crowd, a conviction for indecency and copious ticket-shifting headlines. But it’s all myth. The true story is that a rather highbrow seminar on Where Is Theatre Going? at the Usher Hall concluded with an ultra-modern work involving an undressed patient in a wheelchair.
But at Edinburgh all publicity is good publicity – as an act called Hugh Lennon and his Hypno-Hound found out. The heart-rending story ran of Hugh and the Hypno-Hound being evicted from their lodgings and tramping the streets. Their landlady, however, told the press she had a strict No Pets policy, and it was only the Hypno-Hound’s amazing powers that had spooked her into accepting them as guests in the first place.
An oft-used stunt for this or that comedy troupe/Shakespearean act/minimalist Moldavian orchestra is to claim that all their costumes have been stolen, and they’ve been forced to attend the photocall wearing either bin-liners or nothing at all. Their clothes then mysteriously reappear. Boothby Graffoe, a veteran of the scene, has found shaving half his hair and half his beard a most effective publicity magnet.
Sometimes unplanned stunts come along: a Polish stilt-walking act gained kudos when they hit the headlines for being involved in a terrible car crash on their trip from Poland. This had all the elements of the perfect stunt, and sales soaredexcep that it wasn’t a stunt at all: it was a car crash, although luckily no one was too badly hurt. When Simon Fanshawe was a humble producer, he worked with the then little-known Alan Davies in a show entitled The Lovechild of Alan Ladd. Tickets weren’t shifting too well, so was it with horror or relief that Fanshawe took the call from someone claiming to be a member of the Ladd family and threatening to sue him for publicly accusing his grandfather of adultery? Either way, the news had a miraculous effect: column inches and sales galore.
If no one’s ever heard of you it can be tricky to attract any audience at all. A useful tool is a good review in The Scotsman, and even better is to write this yourself and see it appear under a respected journalist’s byline. This is more or less what noted performer and writer Arthur Smith pulled off for Malcolm Hardee one year. Smith really knows how to play Edinburgh. He might deny the label “publicist”, but see him doing shows in fields, on golf courses and traipsing his audience around the streets and you know he understands the art perfectly. Hardee’s show Aaaarrrggghhh! (or however he spelt it) always thrived partly as a result of appearing first in the alphabetical Fringe programme. The year they changed the listings criteria Hardee was sitting in the bar bemoaning the fact to Smith when they hit on a wheeze. Smith wrote a glowing review, wandered down to the paper and dropped his piece in the Arts Editor’s in-tray, whence it found its way into the next edition.
Some stunts are too successful. The performance artist Dexter Augustus promoted his show so efficiently that huge numbers of people headed for the venue at the appointed hour, the “venue” being a small house he had hired. Its owner unexpectedly returned early from Australia and summoned the police, who took one look at the space available and the numbers of people present and cancelled the whole thing. Myth has it that this lost Dexter money but no face at all: he vanished without trace and the story achieved “legendary” status.
And let’s not forget a member of Archaos we invented, named Zanouk al Habib. Zanouk failed to appear at Edinburgh in 1990 because his conscience had told him to RUN AWAY FROM THE CIRCUS and fight for Iraq in the first Gulf war. We made the front page of the Sun with that one. So what have I got up my sleeve to promote Son of Barnum: A Stunt too Far?, my own little entertainment coming to the Assembly Rooms at 11.45 in the morning during the first week of the festival? Sadly, elephants cost too much nowadays, and my skywriting isn’t what it was. You’ll just have to wait and see.
� Mark Borkowski 2004
. Son of Barnum: A Stunt Too Far is at the Assembly Rooms. Box office 0131-226 2428.