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!
After a full day of Fringe, nothing’s better than a show with one simple objective: to make people laugh. Upon arriving at the Iron Belly, I was standing in line with other terrible people, I suppose—Fringe-goers who had beers in hand and ready for a good time. Bonnie He teases the crowd for an hour, and some audience members may even wind up as participant (or victim?!) to her antics. Her timing and absurd humor had the audience belly laughing and wanting more. After yet another successful show, the 17th consecutively sold out night, she humbly thanked the audience and expressed her gratitutde: “As an Asian woman clown act, this means the world.”
Playbill reached out to He to share what her journey to Fringe looked like. Read on for her answers below:
How long have you been working on your show?
He: A Terrible Show for Terrible People was born out of some shorter pieces I created starting in 2015 that I realized made sense as a holistic journey and had something to say once I connected them together and built a story arc that expanded on their shared themes. The show debuted in 2018 and I've been touring it since, although the pandemic halted things quite a bit. Especially since this is so audience-participation heavy. It's nice to be touring again and now FINALLY presenting it here in Edinburgh, after dreaming about it for 5 years.
What inspired you to pursue being a clown?
One doesn't pursue being a clown. One wakes up one day and realizes they ARE a clown.
I got into comedy through the Upright Citizens Brigade, learning comedy improvisation in 2009 and fell into taking clowning workshops when they suddenly sprung up in the Los Angeles comedy scene in 2014. I'm usually very left-brained. My day job is being a quality assurance analyst, writing bug reports for our email marketing client (a major car company). When I took my first clowning course, it kinda broke my brain. I absolutely could not describe what clowning was, but I felt excited, scared, and liberated learning it. And I wanted more of that which I couldn't describe.
So now during the day, I write up detailed bug reports and at night I perform a near-wordless physical clown show. It's been a blessing to be able to do both.
What inspired your show?
Being a perverted feminist. Representation matters, baby.
What’s been the most difficult part about performing in the Fringe?
Oh, simply the exhaustion of it all. I have a physical comedy show, and just the discipline and stamina required to do this EVERY SINGLE NIGHT (except 2 measly nights off) is taxing! But to be fair, I am a clown and not an athlete, so this was probably always going to be hard. I didn't anticipate the amount of naps I'd need every day! But this is why they say that this Fringe is a rite of passage. Once you can survive Edinburgh, you can take on the world.
What has been the most rewarding part about performing in the Fringe?
Our team knew what an endeavour the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was and we dedicated this entire year to prepping for this huge undertaking on top of working our day jobs. The fact that we're having a total sell-out run since we got here as FIRST-TIMERS and are getting solid reviews has been beyond our wildest expectations, and also extremely rewarding because we feel that our hard work and strategies paid off. We got to meet amazing other artists, but we're also delighted to have gotten to know the staff at our Underbelly venue, because everyone here is so incredibly interesting. The person serving you your pint probably has a master's degree.
What’s something you’ve learned about doing Fringe that you wish you knew going in?
We did our fair share of prep for the Fringe itself, but I did not anticipate how hard it would be to actually eat enough. I am also working half-days at my day job (that's how my share of accommodation is being funded) and it's time-consuming to have a late-night show, talk to enthusiastic audience members afterwards, get to bed at a decent hour, get enough sleep, put in 4 hours of regular work, try to squeeze in 1 or 2 shows, go to events when they happen, and find time to eat in between! And eat healthily! I anticipated dropping some weight with the transition from coming from a car city (Los Angeles) to a walking city (Edinburgh), but miscalculated how hard it would be to actually build muscle and eat enough protein. I've been progressively more tired per week, haha. Luckily, I somehow managed to get past that hump right before the last week of Fringe, but it's been exhausting!
What are you hoping to get out of your Fringe experience?
We're now in the last week of Fringe and I've been so lucky to have gotten so much out of Fringe already. Even though we're total newcomers, we've somehow managed to sell out every night of our run so far at our 60-seater venue. With almost 4,000 shows this year, it is a true honor that so many people, night after night, have chosen to spend their evening with us. It's also a testament to the brilliance and hard work of this dedicated team that we strategized correctly to be a visibly noticed needle in a haystack. We've made a lot of new friends, reconnected with old friends, and have just met many, many interesting people.
What is your road to Fringe? How did you fund your show, get your venue, etc.?
We're a small and scrappy core team of Bonnie He (myself, performer and producer), Bruce Allen (director), and James Carroll (producer). We are self-funded and self-produced, but ambitious and dedicated. The thing is, we can't just casually come to Fringe to "see what happens" because we can't afford that financially. There are many paths to Fringe that work for a lot of people, but with our limited time (we all work day jobs) and resources (will someone rich please adopt us), coming here just once and trying our hardest to make it count was the investment that made the most sense to us. So, we decided to finally come here after a few factors: 1) we received some nice awards from the Hollywood Fringe and Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest, 2) it became financially and technically viable with remote jobs and/or vacation time, and 3) we had a team of 3 people. It would have been impossible otherwise, and I would have chosen to wait another year.
We did our research extensively beforehand. James has been producing this show at other festivals with me since Hollywood Fringe, and Bruce and I went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 to scope it out. So between the three of us, we knew exactly what venue we wanted to be in, what time the show would attract our target audiences, what poster designs would stand out the most, and where exactly to buy locations to place our posters. Also, we're not in our 20s anymore like the Underbelly bar staff that keep outdrinking us, so we needed accommodation that was quiet, calm, and central, with good wi-fi so I could work remotely during the day. At our age, we really have to think about the value proposition of time versus money. With an 11:10 PM show, it'd be a nightmare to catch a train or a bus in the middle of the night. That would reduce the amount of rest we'd get and drain our energy further. So we rented a flat where we could easily walk to our venue and back home at any time. We are very admin-minded as well, so we tackled the innumerable amount of applications, forms, supporting documentation, emails, follow-ups, artwork, copywriting, etc. between all three of us efficiently. We speak the same language, have the same goals, and have skills that both overlap and complement each other. James calls us a three-headed hydra, and we work incredibly in sync. We are a beast.
After doing all of that prep work, the festival has been so much easier once we got here. BUT it's still work. The work has just shifted to trying to sell out every night and meeting other creatives. We now have on-the-ground support from Esmé Thornhill-Davis (marketing coordinator) who is also an intelligent, independent, self-sufficient university student who coordinates her own flyering team. We're still doing as much as we can, day by day, but having done all that prep work leading up to the festival, it does make the actual festival and playing to sold out houses a helluva lot more enjoyable.
It's been an incredible ride, and I could not have done this without this badass team.