How does a newcomer fill a theatre while up against thousands of rival entertainers? This is the challenge posed by the Edinburgh fringe festival. But an answer can now be found on TikTok.
Several of the up-and-coming talents at the fringe for the first time next month are already celebrities on the social media site, andwill arrive equipped with bands of admiring followers to match those of established names on the comedy circuit. But will their online audience turn up in real life?
Among this TikTok glitterati is the cabaret artist Tabby Tingey, who performs satirical songs and parodies alongside her sister, Chloe, as the Sugarcoated Sisters. They have already clocked up 35 million views, so when they debut at the Just The Tonic Caves venue with their show, Bittersweet, they will already have star status.
“We have just reached 400,000 followers,” said Tingey. “So you can’t help thinking, ‘Wow! That is quite a substantial number of people.’ It is a bizarre concept, to be known on that scale.”
The TikTok crossover is apt this year because the fringe has struck up a new partnership with the social media site. As the festival’s first virtual stage, TikTok is to livestream performances from the city’s venues.
Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is a virtual platform set up in 2016 for people to post short films, and it soon became a natural space for quick, comedic takes and eccentric pranks and antics. “We had thought it was just for dancing and lip-syncing,” said Tingey, 28. “Then we discovered a whole world of comedy and music.”
The fringe may now be a venerable 75 years old, but taking up a new show has always been a scary gamble. In fact, that was a big part of the point. Surefire stage hits, after all, are destined for the big regional theatres or the West End. What has made the fringe even riskier financially in the last decade, however, is the huge growth of the anarchic event, coupled with the increasing costs of renting a venue and accommodation.
When the festival season begins in the Scottish capital next month, it will be packed with more debut performers than usual. The lockdown hiatus has created an entertainment backlog. Some new acts have at least found an insurance policy, or emotional reassurance, in developing an online fanbase.
“It is true an online audience is different, so it is hard to know how many will translate into bums on seats,” said Tingey. “But a lot of our TikTok followers are into the arts, so they would love the fringe.”
Lockdowns meant that many new acts were suddenly in search of an audience. For comic Finlay Christie, a north Londoner and self-confessed “attention seeker”, TikTok was a godsend. “I had all these jokes I was going to get bored with if I didn’t use. It was not a calculated career thing. I just liked TikTok and thought I could do it.”
Christie, 23, won a So You Think You’re Funny Award in 2019 and is glad to get back to live performance at his first fringe festival venue, the Gilded Balloon. He sees TikTok as a rigorous training ground, but finds live gigs more exciting.
“Posting online is like playing a slot machine. You refresh the screen and see 100 more ‘likes’. But you can’t really take it in,” he said. His new show, OK Zoomer, tackles the troubles facing Generation Z and looks at his own nostalgic wish to go back to childhood. The writing process for an hour-long show, he said, has been “completely different” to TikTok work. “Although the energy and pace of my live show is quite similar, the thing has been altered over many months. With TikTok, you just get one shot and, it if it is funny, it works.”
The experienced comedy critic Veronica Lee warns that a knowledgeable fringe audience is daunting for someone used to online approval. “At Edinburgh, people often just walk out, and you don’t get that online. An act needs to build live skills over a couple of years to learn how to keep an audience travelling along with them over a whole show. There is just no substitute for that, much as I love the work of some social media comics.”
Christie says the TikTok audience also reacts differently. “What people like most are not the punchline-heavy ones that would get a laugh in a show. TikTok audiences like character-based and relatable content. You can also target a certain group with a film parody, say, whereas in a gig you want to please 90% of the room.”
Arriving in Edinburgh armed with an equally impressive TikTok back-catalogue will be Atsuko Okatsuka, a Japanese-Taiwanese-American social media star. Okatsuka went viral on TikTok earlier this year when she prompted a popular Beyoncé-themed challenge. She was slightly less in control back in 2019 when she went viral online for bravely continuing her live act in a California club during an earthquake. Her Edinburgh show at the Pleasance Bunker is called The Intruder.
The Sugarcoated Sisters confess they discovered TikTok while living together again in Brighton during a period of lockdown blues: “We had both been dumped by our partners and were upset, so we took part in a few weightlifting challenges on the TikTok app just to be active. It was a form of catharsis,” said Tabby Tingey, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.
Her elder sister Chloe, 30, studied music at Berklee College in Boston, and sees TikTok as a good way to “open up creatively”. “The content goes out to people who like it. That has been a good way to feel free. Live shows are different because they evolve and change, especially when there is audience participation. It makes it fresh each time,” she said.
Both women, who perform together in costume, adopting different personas, share details of much more than failed romances in their work. Chloe is a recovering alcoholic who has been belatedly diagnosed as bipolar, while Tabby was discovered to be type 1 diabetic in her late teens. Both are also domestic abuse survivors and they comment on all this in their act.
The sisters are following their mother, Hester, who took a one-woman show to Edinburgh in 2018 after creating the Facebook brand Doreens No-Brainer Lectures, which reached over 39,000 subscribers. So while the old song lyric once simply urged mothers not to put their daughters on the stage, it can probably now be amended to suggest the precaution of a hefty social media following.
July 16, 2022 at 06:55PM Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent