Lessons Learned Organising A Comedy Festival

Don’t blame me for the silly name

Whenever you take on some big time limited project, you know that in just a few months it’ll be nothing but a vague memory. A blurry generalisation which sweeps over the trauma and remembers only the better aspects of the event. Whether it’s throwing a party, sitting an exam or running a comedy festival, it’s all the same thing. Kinda.

Just two days after the festival finishes all of those thoughts, memories and lessons learnt will be pushed out to be replaced with more important new thoughts like the dangers of artificial intelligence and the optimum size of Kit Kats. All those things that you swore you’d make sure never happened again would be archived into that part of the brain which never needs to be accessed again, next to VHS timer programming, children’s TV and Linford Christie.

So since I’m into the second half of a festival which I organised and seems to be going pretty well, I thought I’d write this while my brain still had access to these thoughts. For context, I’d like to point out that I’ve never organised a festival before, Bris Funny Fest is a fringe festival that I took over from Kath Marvelley when she fled the country. We didn’t charge anyone a penny to enter and depended on the efforts of volunteers instead. This leads me swiftly onto my first point.

Charge an entry fee for all performers

Like it or not, there are going to be costs. If you want, you can discount your time and effort as something going towards something bigger for the future, but the fact remains that if you want it to be a success, then you’re gonna have to cough up some cash.

Want a website? Cash.

How about a little Facebook advertising to get some likes? Moolah.

Maybe a premium Meetup account to list the events? Spondoozle*.

You can keep costs to a minimum, but you’ll still be out of pocket and that’s not sustainable. Set a token cost of something like $50 per act to enter. It’s extra motivation for them to make the ticket sales, and gives you a solid buffer to get things started and start building your reputation. Not a huge amount, and certainly not enough for people to go crazy if you aren’t responding to their 13 missed calls at 3AM, but enough to cover the necessary costs.

Identify the motivated people as quickly as possible

When you mention that you’re undertaking a big task like this, there are going to be a bunch of well-meaning people who will want to help in some way. Some will have practical ways they know how they can add value, some will just want to get behind the whole thing. Both of these things are needed as most of the tasks tend to involve chasing people up about things. What’s most important is that the person actually does something. Some people will run with it and do things without you asking, some will require more effort asking if they’ve had a chance to do something than it would take to do it yourself. We used volunteers, I could hardly get annoyed at those who contributed very little, but I regret not giving up on some of them sooner rather than trying to get blood out of the proverbial stone.

Assume nothing

Some of the people you’ll be booking will have done hundreds, maybe thousands of shows before, with varying levels of success. A big part of you will want to assume “they know what they’re doing, if I over explain they’ll just think I’m being annoying”. Don’t ever assume this. It’s far better for someone to think you’re a patronising asshole than to both assume the other is going to get something done only for it to come crashing down later. Get it in writing. Not because you’re intending for it to get legal, but because conversations often cover so many topics that you only end up remembering about 10% of what’s said, where as something written down can be referenced again and again and again. If in doubt, ask again.

Advertise with the personal touch

Sure you’ll put together some form of mass media kit with a blurb about the festival and accompanying photos of all the acts, but most of the time that’ll sit in the unread list of a journalists inbox next to the other 45,325 emails of the same kind received this week. If you want someone to give coverage to your show, you’re far better off finding the names of individuals who’ve written for a particular magazine or website and messaging them directly. Send a short email saying who you are, what you’re doing, referencing some writing of theirs you’ve liked and asking if they could help give any coverage of any sort. This was the most successful way for us to get any coverage at all in the media and is a far better use of your time than forwarding generic emails.

Talk to everyone

It’s easy to forget to contact certain people when there are so many things going on at once. You might assume a particular performer has everything sorted with a particular venue because why wouldn’t you? Talk to the venue owner, let them know that if there are any problems they can contact you directly too. Just a simple introduction to make it clear that you’re approachable and you actually give a shit whether the thing is successful or not. When you’re taking on something on this scale, you’re not just representing yourself, but representing the medium as a viable entertainment option throughout an entire city. You need to be sure that the experience is as good a one as possible for everyone involved.

Know when to say no

People will ask as much of you as you’ll give them. If someone keeps asking things from you and you keep providing them, you can’t blame them for being so demanding. Teach a man to fish etc. You can always say no to someone who’s complaining of low ticket sales or wants more advertising from the festival itself. Reframe their demands as something they can do themselves, giving them advice as to how they can improve their situation rather than doing it yourself. You only have a limited amount of time and if you end up doing these things for everyone you’ll end up burning out and resenting it. Don’t be afraid to delegate to others and know your limits.

Be fair

Remember who it is that you’re appealing to and representing. Many people are trying to impress their peers rather than the general public, and when organising an event on this scale, you’re under more scrutiny and judgement than most. Find a way to be fair to all performers involved avoiding imbalanced promotion for your friends or for the shows that you personally like. It’s not about you, it’s bigger than that. Be able to respond to any accusations of nepotism with a clean conscience. Favour those that put more efforts into their own promotion. Try and get feedback from those who are proving a pain, but know when to let them fail.

Take breaks

A few times things happened which made me disproportionately angry and hurt. Every single time something like that happened, I didn’t respond straight away and nine times out of ten it was my own tiredness that made me lose perspective. There may be times when you have to have difficult conversations with someone, but make sure you’re in a good frame of mind for it. You don’t want to come out of a situation like that being the bad guy, and always try to think about the other person’s viewpoint before your own.

Obviously there are many more things and some of these points are specific to the scenario I was in, but I’ve tried to genericise as much as possible to hopefully help someone else out there too. Don’t forget that there’s a reason you took this on in the first place and even though few will give you their appreciation directly, the majority will recognise the efforts you’ve put in and be better off for it. It’s a relatively thankless task, but once it begins, you get to see all of these fantastic shows that you’ve been spending so long publicising. You’ll also learn a lot from those you’ll work with and be humbled by the efforts people will put into things for very little other than the good of a community.