UK Theatre Festivals to Know and How to Train There

Photo Source: Chanté Timothy

The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and that can only mean one thing—festival season is coming. And with it, an answer to that age-old conundrum: how to get the experience you need in order to do the work you want.

Summer theatre festivals are a brilliant way to make your own work, to hone your craft, and to see an amazing variety of shows while you do it. Many agents and casting directors now recommend actors be brave and create their own projects when between jobs, and festivals are a great way to do that. The experience of putting together your own show gives you true insight into the entirety of a process that actors often only see a small part of—and you get to cast yourself in the roles that you want to play. The pride and accomplishment you feel after producing your own show can propel you forward as you move into auditions in the autumn.

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What is festival season?

Festival season is a loosely defined term that encompasses the variety of theatre and arts festivals held between May and August throughout the UK and Ireland.

Of course, there are happenings at other times of the year, too, not least London’s Vault Festival, but the clustering of most fests over the summer months gives the feel and momentum of a season. From Brighton to Edinburgh to Dublin, the festivals range in flavour, location, and specificity, but they are all an opportunity for theatre artists to showcase their work, with many also allowing international submissions. Artists and companies take up residency in theatres around the host cities, and they often premiere never-before-seen pieces of theatre. Many shows have their humble beginnings in festivals before being picked up and produced elsewhere, including the West End.

What are the best-known summer theatre festivals in the UK?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest theatre festival in the world, not just the UK. Other major festivals take place in Manchester, Mayfest, Camden, and Brighton.

Edinburgh takes place every August and is often seen as a “tryout” for great theatre. London’s Camden Fringe specialises in “gems from the odder end of the performance spectrum,” and the Incoming Festival, also in London, is dedicated to emerging theatre companies. You have the Brighton Fringe, England’s largest open-access festival, the Greater Manchester Fringe, which encourages “first time participation in arts production and performances,” and the biennial Mayfest, which in the words of the Guardian includes “a mix of work so tasty it makes you want to up sticks and move to Bristol permanently.” Should you feel like crossing the sea, Ireland hosts the Dublin Theatre Festival—Europe’s longest-running theatre festival—and the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, founded in 2004 on the 150th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth.

But there are many other festivals over the summer months, so it’s worth doing your research to find the festival that is right for your project.

How do I put a festival show together?

In order to put a festival show together, you need to be prepared to become a producer, marketing manager, and performer. Your dedication to the project has to be unending, and you’ll have to assemble an excellent team.

Perhaps there is a show you always wanted to write, or maybe you’ve seen a production and said to yourself: “I would have done that so differently.” Do you and a group of friends have talents to showcase that could be put together to make something great? Before you even think about submitting to festivals, be sure you’re incredibly passionate about the idea.

The best way to go about ensuring the process stays as enjoyable as possible is to get a top team alongside you. If you have friends with multiple talents, so much the better. Someone has to manage the budget, someone has to create the marketing materials, someone has to be in charge of the technical elements of your show. If you don’t know any people like this, a great way to find willing participants is to contact drama schools in your area. Students are often looking for summer projects to bolster their learning, and working practically is the best education you can get.

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What does it cost to make a successful fringe show?

Variables range from registration fees to accommodation, but putting together a fringe theatre show can cost anything from £50 to tens of thousands for splashy productions with big casts, poster campaigns, and more.

Indeed, cost, for many companies, becomes the ultimate question as they look toward producing a show for a festival. Most festivals have a registration fee that is necessary to pay right off the bat, and then you must find a venue and strike up a financial deal with them. You must also ensure you have a marketing budget for posters, flyers, and potentially adverts. There are also a lot of costs involved that aren’t, perhaps, apparent at first glance. Housing can become a huge expenditure if you are looking to take your show to another city where you do not have a base. Plus, you may want to pay your actors and technicians.

Creating a budget before you embark on the project is the best way to go about it. Check each festival’s websites and forums to ensure you’re aware of the costs that can crop up. Edinburgh has helpfully put an expenses guide together, even including a spreadsheet tool. Many fledgling companies use crowdfunding platforms to raise money for their productions. These come with their own difficulties but can be a great way to gain much-needed capital. Speaking with organisations that may have a connection to your production is another potential way to get an investor. You can offer producing credits, or let them know you’ll advertise for them on your program. Ticket sales get kicked back to you, with various festivals retaining certain percentages, so that is often the best way to make your money back. But it’s on you to get an audience in the theatre, so make sure you’re marketing the heck out of your show! Ultimately, the cost is a direct investment in your career.

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How do I submit an idea to a theatre festival?

Do your research and make sure that your idea or project is the right fit for the festival you submit to.

A festival’s website is always a good place to start. Each festival is different, many with submission processes that can take months. This is why research is your best friend. For most festivals, the ideal time to start the process is just after the previous year’s festival has finished. Check the festival’s website and create a timeline for yourself with deadlines and goals—that is the route to success.

For most festivals, the first step is creating an entirely clear production plan. You will submit that plan to the festival and then begin your search for a venue. Finding the right venue is about knowing your production inside and out, and you’ll need to be able to answer the following questions: What kind of theatre space do you need? How many seats do you want in your audience? What time of day would you like your production to run? What are the technical requirements of your show? Remember: Many venues in festival times have a tight turnaround, so you’ll want your set and lighting elements easily installed and removed.

After you’ve found a venue and signed its contract, the festival organisers will keep you abreast of the rest of the process. You will have to pay registration fees, decide how you want to advertise, and consider inviting press to your show. This is where being passionate about your idea will repay you tenfold: You can find organisations that might be interested in seeing your work, you can invite school groups, you may even contact casting directors and agents if you think they’ll have a special interest in what you’re up to. Obviously, the big goal is to get butts on seats, so ensuring that you have a clear marketing plan and sticking to it is essential.

How do I prepare to put a show on at a theatre festival?

You can prepare to put on a show at a festival the way you would for any other production process—just be ready for everything to move faster.

You’ll need all the same rehearsals, costume fittings, and production meetings as you would to go up in a theatre season. But the main thing to consider when taking on a festival production is the tech. You’ll need to rehearse your show technically outside of the theatre space where you’re performing, and you’ll want to ensure it’s airtight so that when you get to the venue, you’re prepared for any eventuality. Most festival venues have a quick turnover between shows, so the work you do before you get to the festival is key.

How can I cast my theatre festival show?

You can cast your theatre festival show using Backstage. It’s an easy way to post a casting call and search for talent in your area.

You can access actor profiles and view media they’ve posted before inviting them to audition. By posting a casting call, interested actors can contact you as well. Other social media platforms can be useful, and word of mouth in your area might also help alert actors to your opportunity. You could contact drama schools in your area to see if their actors in training would be interested in a festival opportunity—it’s a great way to receive training while they’re on break from lessons.

How else can I work on my craft during the summer?

Many of the best acting schools run short summer courses.

Take the Lead is a summer musical theatre intensive at Trinity Laban. The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama offers a variety of summer acting, voice, musical theatre, and Shakespeare courses. RADA has a slew of short courses over the summer with a broad range from clown to Shakespeare to Stanislavsky. Community theatres and drama clubs are another great way to find a community of support and continue to work on your craft in the summer months.  

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