The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
This year, Joe Venable has two musicals running at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: a revival of his 2021 hit On Your Bike
plus a new musical, Jingle Street. Venable wrote the book and lyrics by both musicals, and also serves as producer and sound guy. But he isn’t the only one working on both projects—they also share the same four-person cast, director, choreographer, musical director, lighting designer, and stage manager. Oh, and there’s only an hour and 45 minute break between the shows, which are performed at two different spaces at the Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose.
On Your Bike, which Venable wrote with composer Ben James, is about two people who earn their living by delivering food for the mega-corporation Eatsaroo. (When he’s not writing musicals, Venable is a real-life Deliveroo rider.) Jingle Street, written with composer Georgia Rawlins, is about an ad writer who wakes up one day to discover he can only speak in jingles.
How has the been team managing performing two shows a day, for the entire month of the Fringe? Below, Venable talks about his two shows, what it’s been like doing double-duty at the festival, and something called an “Eternal Boil” (not recommended).
How long have you been working on these two shows?
Joe Venable: I’ve been working on a show about a jingle writer for nearly two years. But it was only in January that I had the key idea—he wakes up to find he can only speak in jingles!—which made the premise feel strong enough to take to Edinburgh. And then, On Your Bike was written in 2021, mostly in six chaotic weeks between university finals and opening night—but we’ve made various finesses since, to get it more polished and thoughtful.
What inspired the shows?
On Your Bike is a bit personal as I’m a food delivery rider myself—a strange job where you’re welcomed like God’s own messenger when you garland someone’s doorstep with a pizza, but viewed with contempt when you traipse through Wagamama’s knocking people’s drinks over with your massive backpack. But that job has also become a byword for badly-paid, precarious work that’s been on the rise for years now, and it felt worth exploring.
Jingle Street is also about work and money, specifically how the marketing industry gets in our brains. I once watched a guy from a large oil company suavely seduce a room full of green campaigners into thinking he was part of the solution—it got me thinking about what we let the PR guys get away with.
How did it come about that you have two shows at the Fringe in the same year?
I was keen to bring a new show to Fringe 2023—it’s a unique opportunity to get work seen. But when I crunched the numbers, it was tough to see a plausible route to breaking even. But I looked at On Your Bike, which did well at Fringe in 2021, with some nice reviews and even an award. I wondered if I could bring that back alongside a new show, with the same cast performing both. It seemed bonkers but people were surprisingly up for it—and the double revenue stream means there’s a good chance we’ll go home in the black, which feels miraculous.
What has it been like for everyone to do two shows with such a short break in between?
There’s been a chaotic collision of aspiration and reality. We imagined we could flyer in the 100-minute gap, and do some vocal exercises to keep warm—everything very regimented and efficient. Instead we all frantically devour food and then flop like toddlers for 45 minutes. But it just almost works. We’ve started imagining it as a long interval amid a two-hour show, which doesn’t really help but at least feels more within the boundaries of what normal people do.
Do you have any wellness tips for how to handle doing two shows a day?
Our actors Xander and Tom swear by something called an “Eternal Boil”: a large saucepan in which they mix hot water with lemon, ginger, and honey. Unfortunately they don’t keep it boiling at all times (gas is expensive) and so its regular returns to room temperature. And it’s probably a magnet for bacteria. Xander got along poorly last week and we’re pretty sure Eternal Boil was the cause.
What has been the most rewarding part about performing in the Fringe so far?
Definitely the audiences—it’s so gratifying as a writer when something you’ve been brewing in your head for months actually resonates with people. And there are the odd crazy moments: a couple of people have come from international theatre companies and said they’re interested in staging the shows in Poland or Switzerland—which I guess is the joy of the Fringe, that you just don’t know who might be there watching.
What’s something you’ve learned about doing Fringe that you wish you knew going in?
I certainly wish I’d known the difference between a stool and a shelving unit. Stools are designed to sit on; shelving units are just for putting books on and stuff. The way to tell the difference is that when actors sit on a stool during your second preview, they don’t fall painfully through it. Aside from that, I think we underspent on advertising—my faith in flyering and word-of-mouth wasn’t misplaced exactly, but dispatching cold hard cash to reinforce the show branding probably would have been nifty.
What are you hoping to get out of your Fringe experience?
We’d love to have space and resources to develop the shows further, so finding a theatre or producer who’ll take a chance on us is our biggest hope. We feel both shows have the scope to be bigger—I’ve spent my whole life writing 60-minute musicals, knowing they’re more stageable. But there are embellishments and tangents bursting out of my brain that I’m keen to expand and explore.
What’s been your road to Fringe? How did you fund your shows and get the venues?
We’re a profit share, so we’ve all contributed to our costs, helped by a loan from a small arts foundation. We approached Gilded Balloon having seen a lot of great musicals there, and they were very receptive. It’s still wondrous to me that with only a few emails, you can become a real theatre company with your show in the brochure for a world-renowned arts festival. Fringe is a wonderful thing.
Did you have any input with Gilded Balloon about the locations of the two theatres, and the showtimes for the two shows?
We had a really interesting back-and-forth—because it was in our interests and theirs for the shows to be nicely spaced apart, to allow the actors to excel. But Fringe scheduling is such a knotty game of 4D chess that it wasn’t easy to make the slots line up. Our ideal was for a 2-hour gap—long enough to decompress post-show and then tee yourself up for another. We’ve ended up with 1 hour 45 minutes, which is pretty good. And we’re lucky to have both shows under one roof—especially with the Edinburgh rain.
What other show would you recommend that people go see and why?
We discovered there was another bike-themed show at Gilded Balloon, and it’s a one-woman show called Spin, about toxic fitness culture and body image. Kate Sumpter spends practically the entire hour on an exercise bike and swoops from howlingly funny to utterly heartbreaking—it’s a tour-de-force.