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Cutting it at the Fringe

Edinburgh's annual theatrical extravaganza is experiencing a new phenomenon: more school productions. Renata Rubnikowicz advises how to make your trip a success

Countless careers have been launched at the annual three-week Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But it's not all Cambridge Footlights and Perrier awards.

In August last year, 62 of the 1,491 shows were performed by school groups.

Since 1947, the Fringe has welcomed everyone. No show is judged, except by its audience - or lack of one. Last year there were 11,713 performers at what Paul Gudgin, director of the Fringe, calls "the world's best party".

To join in you'll need a venue, somewhere to stay, publicity and - according to Pia Abbott, former drama director of Moreton Hall, the private school whose production of Oh! What A Lovely War sold out last year - "an extremely professional attitude".

The Fringe Office works year-round to help performers get their shows under way. It publishes a 160-page guide to events that is every festival-goer's bible, sells tickets and publishes handbooks such as "How to Do a Show".

Contact the Fringe Office as soon as you can. It will help you work out whether your plans are feasible and register your group once you have decided they are.

Immediately, you'll begin to appreciate the 24-hour nature of the festival.

Are your students up for Brecht for Breakfast? Shakespeare for Brunch? There is a crazy variety of venues, from nightclubs and masonic lodges to the Botanic Gardens.

All venues are checked for security and safety and must be licensed. Check out the "How to be Fringesafe" handbook. Although it is primarily meant for venue managers, it needs to be read by stage managers, designers, technicians and front-of-house managers, too, as Edinburgh has its own particular regulations.

The Fringe Office publishes a regularly updated venue list from mid-December. It recommends that you visit a few, ideally between January and mid-March, before making your decision. It warns, "facilities are sometimes basic".

You've got a keen drama group? You've found a venue? So what's your show? Well, that, as they say in Scotland, is "outwith" the scope of this piece.

But whatever it is, it had better be good. With so much entertainment to choose from, audiences have no compunction about getting up and leaving at any point in the performance.

Word of mouth really works in Edinburgh, but your publicity will need as much planning as the rest of your year-long Fringe campaign. The handbook How to Sell a Show is invaluable, particularly before the April deadline for the 40-word entry that describes your show in the programme. Ms Abbott's advice? "Be prepared to think wildly" is especially valid when it comes to getting your show noticed.

The Oh! What a Lovely War cast borrowed an armoured car from a parent and drove around Edinburgh in costume. As Ms Abbott, a former professional producer, well knows: "There's something about a dozen nubile girls in fishnets sitting on a large chunk of metal."

Good fund-raisers are essential to pay for all this professionalism. Ms Abbott reckons that with a cast and crew of 25 students it cost pound;7,000 to put on Moreton Hall's show for eight days.

Alan Hunter was a PE teacher 11 years ago when he first brought the Harland Hamstrings drama group up from the East Riding of Yorkshire to perform John Godber's rugby play Up and Under. He thinks finances are crucial. "We make sure we're in the black before we go," he says. "Remember the average Fringe audience is four. You'll never make a profit. Whatever money we take on tickets goes on next year."

His policy means that the Hamstrings group goes every year. In 2002, 50 pupils put on five productions a day for a two-week run, with a budget of pound;15,000. The Hamstrings is now based at Cottingham High School, the rural comprehensive in the East Riding where Mr Hunter is now head of drama. They are already rehearsing five productions for this year's festival.

As a veteran, Mr Hunter also has his accommodation sorted out well in advance. Despite the 14-hour days his pupils work in performing, leafleting and changing sets, he is wary of letting them roam around the city and buses them in from a caravan site at Seaton near Musselburgh. With a smaller group, accommodation nearer the city centre and advice from Edinburgh police, Ms Abbott felt able to give her students more leeway. But both encourage their pupils to see lots of other shows, so that hard work is not their only experience.

* Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2003 From August 3 to 25

Roadshows: how to put a show on at the Fringe: Pleasance Theatre, London, February 8 (3pm)

Leicester Comedy Festival, Leicester, Feb15 (11am)

Crowne Plaza Hotel, Royal Mile, Edinburgh February 22 (3pm).

For more information check out Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 180 High Street Edinburgh EH1 1QS. Tel 0131 226 5257; fax 0131 220 4205;

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