Our 7 Steps to Doing Pop-Up Performances Across the UK

We weren’t in violation of our visitor visa, we promise!

The cancellation of our BedFringe performances due to detainment and the wrong type of visa (for full details, check out my previous blog post) was disappointing, but necessary. However, Aaron and I still had (and have) high hopes for The Dragon and the Wanderer. As long as we were performing for the sheer joy of the experience (not for compensation, and not as a part of a working organization or event), we were in the clear. And so we took our first steps into the world of “street performance.”

I put “street performance” in quotes because we never actually performed on a street. The Dragon and the Wanderer is something of a unique animal. It has an elaborate set that takes about 45 minutes to build, it needs a decent amount of play space, and it is most effective when the audience can stay and watch the whole show. All in all, traditional busking–that is, setting up on a street corner and playing for passersby–could be done, but is less than ideal. Instead, we opted for what I’m calling pop-up performances (if there is a better, more official name for what I’m about to describe, somebody please let me know!).

We did impromptu shows at our campsites and in friendly pub beer gardens. Our audiences were never expecting us, but people gathered round, and ultimately each experience ended up being pretty magical. So here’s how we learned to bring the Dragon and the Wanderer to a handful of fields and gardens across England and Scotland.

1. Do Your Research, and Get Permissions

Now obviously, first and foremost this goes for visas. Know which type of visa you require, and exactly what the restrictions are to stay within it.

This also goes for performance permits and busking laws in each particular town you go to, because even within a country, they vary immensely. Cities, especially, often have particular laws regarding busking: some require you to obtain a permit from the police station, while others allow busking without one as long as you’re on public property (and you have to be careful: parks, for example, may seem like quintessential public places, but may actually be privately owned).

Attitudes toward street performance vary as well. Some cities simply tolerate busking, some encourage it, and some police forces will actively shut you down or even fine you for causing a public disturbance.

Plus, there’s busking culture and manners. As a traveler, you’ll want to scout out locations, but you want to be sure to be respectful: sometimes local street performers have their own territory. It’s rude and could even start trouble to unwittingly (or wittingly) steal somebody’s spot, or interfere with their performance by playing too close by.

As I said, though, we avoided much of this by not playing the typical busking scene. Ours were largely countryside performances. This was different for obvious reasons: if you just set up by the side of a random country road, you won’t have an audience.

In a way, we lucked into our first show, the one that started us on this particular track of performance style. We were staying at a campsite near High Wycombe, England. One large, sprawling field housed the tent pitches (us and probably 5 or 6 other families), as well as the canvas covered bathrooms. A fence beside the spot where we pitched our tent delineated our field from the one that belonged to the goats and alpacas (with whom I am proud to say I made friends). And beyond that? Nothing but hedges and trees.

However, five to ten minutes up the road was a pub, where they served dinner and drinks. Out back were tables under umbrellas, and an wide backyard (or back garden, as they call it), flat and grassy, where kids were playing soccer (or football, as they call it) while they waited for their dinner to be served. Aaron and I started chatting with the couple sitting at a nearby table, admiring their dog, and we ended up talking with them late into the night under a clear and starry sky. As it turned out, they were the landlord and his wife, and they were thrilled at the idea of us coming back tomorrow with our puppet show. They were happy to let us charge the batteries of our lights and speakers, practice our set-up, and do some repairs in their garden, and then (weather-permitting) do a run-through that any of the patrons could watch. And after the show, they treated us to a couple of beers on the house.

This was how we learned that our best, most easily accessible “venues” were places where we were already among the clientele. At pubs, restaurants, and campsites, we already have a reason to be there, so it’s easier to scope out a location. What’s more, there is built-in opportunity to talk with the staff, to feel out whether they’d be interested in the show, to get their input on the best location and time for their audience, and of course to get the consent of the owners, since these were privately owned properties.

Campsites proved doubly as lucrative because families with children were almost guaranteed to be present; and since our show does best in the evening when direct sunlight on our shadow screen is less likely, we could be the perfect post-hike, pre-dinner activity. After one of our campsite shows, a Dutch family invited us over to their table to share drinks and snacks while their kids put together a show of their own to perform for us. That, and the drawings inspired by our show that were gifted to us from another family the next day, may or may not have made me cry, and definitely reminded us what our hard work was for.

2. Transporting a Show (and Renting a Car Abroad)

Turns out, as much as we built our show to be mobile, it is still a giant pain to lug around two massive suitcases and two huge camping backpacks on public transit. And that’s not even thinking about the extra baggage fees when traveling longer distances. So, in order to better get around the UK, we rented a car.

One thing I wasn’t aware of before this trip was that every other country we visited apart from the UK requires an international driver’s license in order to rent a vehicle. So unfortunately, we were not able to use this strategy anyplace else this time around (we couldn’t even rent a scooter in Greece! We were sad.) Thinking about it, I’m actually astounded that the UK is the place where they don’t care–they drive on the wrong side of the road, after all. But, all the better for us, I guess.

However, renting a car in the UK comes with challenges. It was fantastic that we could take whatever route we wanted as we made our way up toward Scotland, and stop in whatever towns we saw fit. But, as Aaron would tell you, the price was more than a few added gray hairs in his beard, because driving was an adventure unto itself.

Aaron’s first drive was a trial by fire to say the least. It would’ve cost extra to insure an additional driver, so he did all of the driving. It had been about 3 years since he’d last driven a car, and about 10 years since he’d driven a stick shift, and pretty much all affordable rentals in the UK are manual (another reason I did none of the driving–bucket list item for me! Learn to drive stick). Of course we were also driving on the left, and on top of that, our first trip was through London during rush hour.

Here’s the thing: we lived in Philly. Philly roads are NARROW. But they are nothing compared to the roads in England and Scotland. Whether it’s a city road or country lane, you’ll be dodging parked cars, hedges, stone walls, cliff edges, and just praying that nobody comes barreling down in the opposite direction because even the tiniest alleys are all 2-way streets. If you can’t find somewhere to pull over and let somebody by, one of you will just have to back up to the last shoulder or intersection, and hope it isn’t too far away.

We managed not to go over the mileage of our rental agreement (1330 miles for 2 weeks), though we did get charged over £100 extra for a scratch on the rim of a wheel. All things considered, though, we counted it as a win. It was a nice car, brand new, with AC and a GPS and even censors that beeped when we were out of our lane, which was quite useful because one of the toughest parts of driving on the left side is simply readjusting to spacing. And we were paying under £20 per day.

3. Rally Your Audience

The freedom of having a car was wonderful. We were no longer bound by how far a campsite was from the bus or train station, or by how expensive it would be to make a stop en route and then have to book another bus or train to get us to the final destination. But this fly-by-the-wind attitude meant we couldn’t do any advance marketing: we didn’t even know where we would be practically until we got there. So how to spread the word and find an audience?

As I mentioned before, part of it was doing the show in locations that were already full of people planning to stay a while. But, because this was the case, we didn’t want to disturb pub patrons who hadn’t come here for a puppet show. So when it came to restaurant/bar performances, we walked around before the show and informed the pub-goers of what was about to happen. This way, they could move to a quieter, more distant table if they preferred (though nobody ever did)OR, they could get excited, attentive, and even call over more friends to come watch.

At campsites, we weren’t so worried about disturbing people, because we performed on our own pitch, and there’s plenty of space for folks to retreat to their own tents or RVs, or to the playground or the bar, if they’d rather not watch the show. But this rarely happened. It was far more common that kids would get curious the moment we took out our PVC pipes and orange cones and started setting up, wondering what was about to happen. (The orange cones in particular are sort of magical. They not only delineate our space and act almost like a force field for kids running around, but they are also an instant source of intrigue). Lots of people happened upon us and then stuck around until the show started.

But the real key, especially at big campsites where one tent pitch is easily lost in the shuffle, was the puppets themselves. Once the stage was mostly set, Aaron would bring a hand puppet (usually LB) and a slide whistle around the campsite, interacting with kids and informing everyone that there would be a show in 10 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I got into costume and gestured folks over to sit and be our audience. In future, we’d like to add a sign on a small white board or something similar, stating the title of our show and how soon until it starts.

4. Audience Interaction and Curtain Speech

Right off the bat, though, the key was getting the audience engaged and involved. We drew the audience in using our puppets, and it showed us how invaluable it is to let the kids in the audience form a personal relationship with the characters in our show. So we found moments within the show itself to directly interact with the audience.

When Grog the Neanderthal hears an unfamiliar noise, Grog hides among the audience. When our puppet Little Bigfoot is afraid, he approaches an audience member for comfort and a pat on the head. And when Grog awakes to find Little Bigfoot gone, Grog searches the audience and, finally, follows their indication of where to look.

Of course, we hope the show is captivating enough to keep an audience around all on its own. But when both performers frequently disappear behind a shadow puppet screen, it can be a gamble to ensure that we are maintaining an intimate atmosphere that conveys to the people watching–especially the kids–just how vital they are to the story. They are the reason for the show in the first place, after all.

We also have the opportunity to address this after the show is over. The first couple of times we performed, we hadn’t really planned our curtain speech. We simply told everyone our names and thanked them for watching The Dragon and the Wanderer. But we soon learned that the power of a truly good curtain speech cannot be denied.

Your audience has just sat for the entire length of your show, so there is a balance to be struck when you make a closing speech: short and sweet is much appreciated; but they are also invested enough to appreciate some solid background info about what, and who, they just watched. So we told them not only our names, but that we are professional performers on our honeymoon from the U.S., and that this is the first show we’ve created together from the ground up. That it has been a labor of love, and that we are hoping to keep our tour going while we travel, and then bring it into classrooms along with a puppet workshop.

After our first performance, a woman from Germany approached us, tentatively. She said she was glad to see the tradition of puppetry being kept alive. She said there used to be a puppet theatre in her town–that it had been around for centuries, steeped in the culture and history of Germany. But only a few years ago, it had closed down and disappeared for good. She added that she didn’t want to offend us, but she wanted to give a donation to support what we were doing, and hoped we would accept it. (Spoiler alert: we did accept it, gratefully and enthusiastically).

After that, we added at the end of our address to the audience that while they absolutely should not feel obligated to give, we do accept donations if they feel so inclined. In our case, no amount is too small (or too large…). However, I do know some performers often specify, “If it’s under $1, please keep it; you probably need it more,” to avoid being inundated with pennies.

  • Either way, although asking for donations can feel selfish, there are two big reasons why I think it’s important. First, as long as you aren’t suddenly demanding cash from an audience that was expecting something free, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking people to support the endeavor that they’ve just enjoyed and been entertained by. Second, and possibly more important, talking about it outright takes the onus off the audience to try and figure out what post-show protocol will be. This way, they know their options, and don’t have to worry about what actions may or may not be appropriate. They can simply go about the rest of their day without wondering if they inadvertently snuck off like a dine-and-dash; they can approach us to give (or, as many parents did, give their kids the thrill of handing us a quid or two); or, they can approach us simply to talk. This was the most important part of our curtain speech: inviting the audience to chat with us while we packed up, to tell us what they thought, to ask questions, and even to see the inner mechanisms of how the show works.
  • 5. “Talk-Backs” and Clean Up

    This portion of our pop-ups–the part where we answered questions and revealed our “backstage” setup and the secret workings of the dragon body puppet–is our informal version of a talk-back (in traditional theatre, it’s usually done with the actors, director, etc. sitting on the stage and calling on audience members to answer questions one by one). In some ways, this was always my favorite part of the show.

    It was absurdly rewarding to discover that our creative endeavor has sparked the imaginations of others. Even kids who spoke no English conveyed their enthusiasm with gestures and laughter and wide, captivated eyes as we pulled back the black curtains, exposing the harness Aaron wears when the shadow stage becomes a dragon, and he makes it roar and stalk and snap.

    The parents who approached us were interested in how we became puppeteers, our future plans, how long the show took to build, what materials we used. The kids wanted to tell us what they liked best, to see how things worked, to touch the puppets. (Quickly we learned that allowing this is extremely effective; but it’s only safe if we keep hold of the puppets, rather than passing them around and needing to keep an eye on them from afar).

    Talking with the audience definitely lengthened the pack-up process–and we did need to pack right away, often racing impending bad weather or darkness–but it was undeniably worth it. I mentioned before the group of families from Holland that invited us to share some drinks and snacks with them outside their RV after the show, while their kids ran around in the grass beside the folding table. Just as we were about to head back to our tent, the kids came bounding over. Turned out they had been creating their own performances that they wanted to show us. On another occasion, a full day after we performed and talked with the kids at a campsite, one girl gave us a drawing she’d made inspired by The Dragon and the Wanderer. Aaron said it best: the fact that our art had sparked the creation of more art–had perhaps done its part to water the creative seeds in a young mind–was all we could have hoped for and more.

    6. Navigating Edinburgh Fringe

    Oh, Edinburgh Fringe. What an endeavor you are, how bustling and huge and full–so very full. It is commonly said that during Fringe time, the city’s population doubles; and based on how it felt to walk those streets, I would absolutely believe it.

    On the one hand, it is amazing and wonderful. You are basically breathing in theatre. It is everywhere. Posters are plastered on every surface advertising every type of show imaginable: comedy, circus, musical, magic, break-dancing…if you can think of it, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival probably has it. And performers come from all over the world, so you’d be sure to find something the likes of which you have never seen before.

    That is, if you have the energy and mental prowess to find any one specific show among the thousands. Now, it’s different if you know what you’re looking for. If you’re seeking a particular title or company, the guides to the Fringe (both on paper and online) are comprehensive, clear, and many. But if, like us, you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for–you just want to find something cool and different (and free)–it can be overwhelming. It’s less like searching for a needle in a haystack and more like searching for a needle in a needle stack. There is just so much to choose from, you hardly know where to turn.

    The moment you turn onto the high street (and even before that, really) you’ll find your hands suddenly stuffed with flyers upon flyers for every type of show imaginable. As you weave in and out of the writhing sea of people, every third or fourth person has a handout to give you for some show or other–and some of those people are actors in those shows, already in costume, already playing a character. There are multiple stages on the street, each with their own lineup of performers with busking slots.

    As amazing as the hustle and bustle of this area was, I was actually glad not to be performing The Dragon and the Wanderer here. As I mentioned in a previous post, we turned down our own busking slot, and this confirmed for me that we would not have been a good fit here. There was nowhere that we could have set up our stage amidst this mass of people to then heft it to a stage and try and bang out a show in 25 minutes. Plus, a show like ours where entire chunks happen entirely in shadow on a relatively small screen would have been far too subtle, simply getting lost in the massive shuffle. Just like any other “product,” it is essential to know what you have to offer, and to show it in its best light, when it comes to the success of a production–especially amidst a performance factory like the Fringe Festival.

    Ultimately, we stopped to watch the street shows as we passed by, and made our viewing decisions based solely on chance. We wandered into a pub, bought a drink, watched a free comedy lineup, and embraced our status as Lazy Fringe-goers. As audience members, I’m sure there are better ways of navigating the festival. But we were happy with our choice of letting fate decide what we saw, and then, crowd-weary, taking a hike break for some beautiful views of the city.

    And while I’m sure there were some spectacular performances that we missed, we had fun, and that’s what counts. Because you simply can’t see it all.

    As performers, we were also satisfied with our choices–namely, to do shows at our campsite, away from the Fringe proper. We may have been able to get bigger audiences if we’d gone out to the city streets; but then again, we very well may not have, what with the ridiculous amount of competition. For performers at the Edinburgh Fringe, advertising is key. How else can you expect folks to seek out your show when they’ve got literally thousands to choose from? As a tiny company of 2 foreigners funded by our savings and the loving contributions of family and friends, we didn’t have the means or the manpower to paper the city with flyers. And to be honest, we didn’t have the time or energy to bring a puppet into the street as live advertising amidst those crowds–at least not if we also wanted to see any of the rest of the Fringe, or Edinburgh itself.

    At the campsite, though, there were Fringe-goers excited to find a surprise performance, as well as folks who were there primarily for the camping and not already burnt out on theatre after a full day of Fringe attendance. We didn’t have to hawk our show out on the curb, fighting for a tiny portion of sidewalk. It may have been the easy way out, but it was right for us, and sometimes you’ve got to work smarter not harder.

    7. Networking, Even Without Your Show

    As I mentioned, we didn’t have a lot of opportunity for advance advertising. We couldn’t even create Facebook events since we rarely knew beforehand where we might perform–and, because we hadn’t yet met the folks from the areas where we were headed. Even if we could have created an event, we wouldn’t exactly have been marketing it to a viable audience.

    However, social media is still a great tool. Honestly, we still probably aren’t using it as effectively as we could be. But it has provided an easy way for new acquaintances to find out more about us and keep in touch. And, of course, it’s a centralized location for photos and videos. And I’m sure when we return to the U.S., our ability to use it as a marketing tool and to direct posts toward our intended target audience will only increase.

    As it stands right now, this blog has pretty much been my only posting. But Aaron has really gotten a handle on using Instagram. Hashtagging everything from the brands of the gear we’re using, to the vast array of travel, adventure, and theatre hashtags– which have formed whole communities of users around them–can gain you a lot of followers, and give you a doorway into those communities.

    Most of us, myself included, may hate social media for its constant pressure to present your best self, and compare that “self” to the seemingly perfect “best selves” of others. But you can’t deny the magic of being so connected–of having the ability not only to keep in touch with just about anybody, but to reach hundreds of people at a time with the touch of a button, and to even get snapshot glimpses into their current lives. And love it or hate it, it allows us to keep our project out there and present, and everyone knows there is power in generating a buzz.

    Even while our show was packed away, we were able to grow our online audience, and one of the most useful choices we made was to get business cards. Ours were designed and printed by the wonderful Jess Wallace of JWPaperCreations. This way, all of our info–website, Facebook page, and IG handle–are in one place. We had plenty of moments when this came in handy as we met people who were interested in what we were doing; especially since pulling a card out of our pockets proved much more efficient and practical than trading phones then and there, trying to find each other on one network or other.

    Truly, though, real-life conversation will always be the best way to connect with people. And you just never know who you’re going to meet. One morning in Edinburgh as Aaron and I made ourselves breakfast in the communal kitchen, we met a fellow traveler named Lisa. Turned out, she’s a Fringe blogger, and she wrote a piece about us! Check it out here.

    All in all, I’m proud of our UK performances, even though we weren’t able to perform at the Bedford Fringe. We didn’t let it keep us down, and we did things our way, and learned a ton in the process.

    And we’ve still got our shows in the Festival des Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières, France to look forward to; only a couple of days away as I post this! So keep an eye out for us; and keep that creative and adventurous spark kindled and glowing.

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