When we first started the production process for Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy back in November 2021, we could have never imagined that only nine months later we would have performed two sold out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The whole process began way back in June 2021. A member of our team brought the show to us and asked if we would be interested in putting the show together. The show is a folk-inspired song-cycle, centring around four storytellers, who take the audience through tales from varying time periods and characters. Whilst confusing at first, once you simply give yourself to the show and ride along with the journey, then the mystical energy of the music tells you all you need to know. Inspired by many myths, newspaper articles, and folklore, the story is all intertwined by characters who continue to meet each other in countless ways through periods in time. We all fell in love with the show, and couldn’t wait to bring it to life the following term.

We began the process with a tiny team, some of whom knew each other, others had seen each other on Microsoft Teams, and some of us were complete strangers. We received self-tape auditions over summer and made our casting decision. Before we knew it, we were in rehearsals. We all know how fast time goes during term, and all of a sudden, we had performed three sell out shows on the university campus to friends, family, students, and strangers. We had all built a tight-knit bond, and something just didn’t feel finished with our Ghost Quartet journey, and in February, we booked our Edinburgh Fringe Venue, with one of the biggest venue providers in the city. After finalising the details of our own theatre company, we started rehearsing again, making some changes, and creating an enhanced version of what we had previously performed. Our team learnt so much about themselves throughout the process, especially about how they worked creatively and collaboratively, and it only brought us closer together as a group. However, due to illness, the dreaded COVID, and battling with everyone’s packed-up schedules, term three ended and we hadn’t quite finished our show. We made arrangements for everyone to travel back to campus for three days in early August, where we finally finished what we started, and ensure that everyone, from cast to band, was feeling prepared and ready for Edinburgh. It also gave us a much-needed opportunity to finish preparing ghost costumes, set pieces, programmes, and push the marketing of the production.

Over the weekend of the 12th August, we all made our journeys up to Edinburgh. It still hadn’t hit many of us that our team was about to perform the show that had been a part of some of our lives for over a year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We arrived to bustling streets and couldn’t quite fit on the bus to get to our accommodation but we eventually arrived and began the final stages of the production, including rehearsals, flyering, tech runs, dress runs, and then suddenly came a point where we had no more control over the production, and we had to simply see what happened.

I don’t think any of us were expecting what actually did happen. We had all given each other pep talks in the morning before shows, saying not to expect big audiences, and to give it our all even if we only had one person; with hundreds and hundreds of shows being performed everyday at the festival, one audience member is a very realistic expectation for the Edinburgh Fringe! Our first performance had a surprisingly healthy audience, with over half the seats filled. The second show, a similar number. On the third performance, a slight dip, which was expected, and still an incredibly large number of people compared to what we were anticipating. On the fourth show, we had a full house. This was absolutely not in our plan. We found ourselves that night frantically putting more programme cards together, just in case the same thing happened the next night, but surely that wouldn’t happen anyway, would it? Well, it did. A full house to end our run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

We felt so incredibly lucky. Not only had we built such close friendships throughout the production, but we had also managed to attract audiences of strangers to watch our little rendition of Dave Malloy’s song cycle. It could have been down to a number of reasons, we were engaging with a large number of creatives and potential audience members on social media sites such as Twitter, and simply inviting them to come and watch our show. We were going to see as many other productions as we could, and introducing ourselves to the production team, and networking with other creatives at the festival. We stepped out of our comfort zone and headed to a press networking event held by our venue team, and ended up getting a shoutout on Twitter from Broadway Baby, the biggest reviewers at the Fringe. We were flyering all day everyday, and we always had a chunk of flyers in our Ghost Quartet bags in case we stopped to chat with anyone. We truly found that word of mouth was the best way to get people to come and see our show, and in the future will definitely focus our efforts on going out and having genuine conversations with people about our show, explaining the concept, and telling them what to expect if they were to come and see. We found that flyering was most effective when we paired it with conversations, and whilst we had a team on the infamous Royal Mile handing out flyers to the masses, another group would walk around the city and speak to people in cafés, and find shops that matched the theme of our show and speak to them about our concept. We would ask to have posters or flyers put up in the windows of these shops and cafés, and hope that their customers would be intrigued by the show and want to find out more.

Another thing we encountered was reviews, and reviewers. Whilst we had sent a few emails out to reviewers, it wasn’t at the forefront of our minds, as we didn’t have a long enough run for the reviews to generate too many ticket sales. However we were surprised to actually have some reviewers in attendance. We had to learn that what a review says is subjective, and it’s not the be all and end all of the show’s success or our creative careers. We had a couple of reviews that emerged after the show had ended, which we had to read with our armour on. We went in with the understanding that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and we really had to keep positive and remember that this was our first time at the festival, and everyone sees things with different eyes, and has different likes, dislikes, interest, knowledge of the arts, and simply different tastes in performance. Despite this, we also ended up receiving a four star review from the aforementioned Broadway Baby, as well as comments and messages from friends, family, and complete strangers who wanted to let us know how much they enjoyed the production. Through all of the reviews and comments, we would consistently try to remind ourselves that no matter what anybody said, the most important opinion was that of our own, and if we were happy with our performances and commitment to the show, then we couldn’t have done any better.

Through both the rehearsal process in the autumn term of 2021, and the summer term of 2022, we all learnt a lot. Whether it was about how we worked, as previously mentioned, or about the show itself. Through trying out different types of rehearsal techniques, different exercises, and general conversations, we felt that day after day we were finding out more about the characters

being portrayed onstage, and how best to interpret what they sang, and how their stories and experiences were reflected in their actions. It felt almost like each character was also part of our team, and we wanted to represent them as best we could in the final production. The process was especially interesting for all of us, and I don’t think most of us have gone through something like it, where we were consistently engaging critically and openly with the material in front of us, and really analysing the story and characters whilst blocking the staging for the performance. Furthermore, by having two separate opportunities to perform the show, we were able to change things that didn’t work as well, or didn’t have the full effect they were expected to during the first performance, such as certain movements and character interactions. Of course, it also meant that we had to sacrifice certain elements which we loved, but wouldn’t work logistically, for example we originally used a projection of a video for the last number of the show, but our venue wasn’t suitable for projection, so we had to figure out a different way to end the show. Thankfully, inspired by our tight time slot in the venue, we figured out the best way to bring the show to a close was to place props from our cabinet and from around the stage into the central set piece, an antique chest. Not only did this mean that the audience felt a sense of closure, but it also meant that we didn’t have to eat into our get out time!

Overall, the process of taking Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was memorable to say the least, and I think I can speak for our whole company when I say that we were so grateful to be able to have this experience with each other, and are so thankful to IATL for giving us support to get there. If you have any questions or would like more advice on producing a show, or taking one to a theatre festival, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us through our Instagram (@smashingcabinets) or through the contact details below.

Producers: phoebe.just-de-la-paisieres@warwick.ac.uk / charlotte.mallen-beadle@warwick.ac.uk