chicago fringe festival

10 Things I've Learned From 10 Fringe Festivals

I’m in the middle of a run of performances at the Kansas City Fringe Festival and I just realized that this is the 10th fringe festival I’ve done in less than two years. Amazing!

I’m far from a fringe veteran - I know many people who have done far more festivals than I have. But, I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to juggle my usual schedule of corporate/college events with some theatrical shows.

After my tour last year a lot of performers sent me messages asking for advice and input on which festivals to do and how to get the most out of them. Now that I’ve officially reached double digits, I thought it might be useful to put a list of things I’ve learned together, just in case you might want to give the festival circuit a try yourself!

I had two main goals going into my first festival:

First, I wanted to work on an edgier show, a show that I couldn’t do in my usual gigs. I wanted to make it more personal, include more storytelling, and try to stretch myself as an actor/entertainer.

Also, I wanted to get some great press quotes for my show. I hoped that I could design a show that would garner some buzz that I could use for other projects, too.

After my first festival, I knew I was onto something. So I started rewriting the show and put together my first tour. Flash forward two years later and here I am, about to wrap up another successful run in Kansas City.

I’ve learned some amazing things over the past couple years that have even helped me in my everyday life. So even if you never plan on doing a fringe festival I hope you’ll get something out of the top 10 Things I’ve Learned From 10 Fringe Festivals:


1 - SEEK OUT FEEDBACK

For me, fringe has been a great way to talk to my audiences and understand how they perceive what I do. I’m always seeking out feedback and trying to improve. Ask the people around you what was good and what could be better. And when they talk, shut up and listen. That’s how you get better in a hurry.

2 - BE READY FOR CRITICISM

Doing a fringe show means you’re inviting criticism. If audiences don’t enjoy it, they’ll let you know. And press reviews vary from festival to festival. Sometimes the press is on your side and other times they may not like your show at all. I had a friend who got his best review and worst review from the SAME SHOW! 

Learn to embrace the criticism and try to develop a thick skin. It’s not personal. Share your positive reviews and don’t complain about the negative. Hold your head up high and be proud of how far you’ve come. 

In the beginning, a negative comment or review would get me down for days. I’d be so frustrated that people weren’t understanding my motives or missing the point of my show. But I soon realized that it’s not up to me. Once I do the show, it’s out of my control. They either liked it or they didn't, and that’s okay. You learn from it, get better, and there’s always another show around the corner so you can try again.

3 - YOU GET OUT WHAT YOU PUT IN

Fringe is all about the work. I spend most of the time between shows promoting. I pass out postcards and hang posters or send invites to media contacts and friends to make sure they’re aware of my upcoming performances. Some of my best reviews have been a result of multiple follow-ups! As with anything in life, the key is to work hard every single day. When I’m at a festival I take it very seriously. It’s a job for me and I’m here to build my fan base and sell tickets. The harder I work, the better the result.

4 - NOT ALL AUDIENCES ARE EQUAL, BUT ALL ARE IMPORTANT

Not all audiences are equal. I’m sure that sounds obvious, but what I mean is that every audience during a festival is different, let alone different from city to city. Sometimes you do a show at 1:30pm on a Sunday, other times you have a 9pm slot on a Saturday. Each audience varies depending on many factors, so you can’t become discouraged when the audience response is wildly different from night to night.

If anything, I’ve learned to embrace the audience reaction in the moment and cater to them. I assume that if I give the audience my best then they’re giving me their best, too. Sometimes a quiet room ends up being one of my best shows, but it’s taken me a long time to realize that.

5 - MASTER YOUR PITCH

You only have a few minutes to capture someone’s interest. When I hand out postcards I know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I’ve gotten it down to a science because I rehearsed it. I'm not kidding about this - you can ask my wife.

I thought about how to make it appealing for fringe patrons and practiced it until it was effortless. No matter what you do, it’s a great skill to be able to talk about your work concisely and enthusiastically. When your “elevator pitch” is strong, then other people get excited about what you do and usually they’re willing to help you any way they can.

6 - TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Everything at a festival runs on “fringe time”. That means the show starts exactly when it says it will and it ends exactly an hour later. You can’t be late and you can’t run long. I love that! It’s forced me to methodically plan my show so it runs on schedule. After hundreds of shows over the past couple years I have an amazing awareness of my act.

Now I intuitively know when I’ve reached 30, 45, or even 60 minutes. I can just feel it. This level of planning has helped me in other aspects of my job, including TV appearances that need to be a certain length, custom corporate projects, and phone presentations. Planning is crucial, which leads me to…

7 - PREPARATION IS KEY

The more work you put in before the festival, the more successful you’ll be. In the months leading up to each festival I’m already planning out my entire week. I’ve researched press contacts, promotional opportunities, booked my travel, planned my schedule, and sought out other performance opportunities. Plus, I have to design flyers, posters, press releases, and merch. Oh, and you still need to rehearse your act to make sure it’s ready for the stage! If you stay organized and plan ahead you’ll be sure to succeed no matter what you’re doing.

8 - FIND A WAY TO STAND OUT

The first step is obvious. Try to have the best product you possibly can. I spent the entire winter writing a new show and secretly testing out material around Chicago. I repeated some festivals this year and didn't want repeat audiences to see the same show as the previous fringe. A good show can only go so far, though, you still need to build buzz.

I'm lucky, because a mind reading show is a great way to build buzz. It’s different and exciting and people love it. But I go out of my way to make it even more mysterious with my branding, a few carefully-scripted lines in the show, and intentionally vague postings online. Whatever you can do to be different and exciting, do it! Find your hook and let people know that this is why they need to see you. And if you don’t know what the hook is, just listen.

I had a friend try an experimental show just for fun at one festival. It went over so well that he ended up writing two more shows for that silly character.  Now it’s a favorite on the fringe circuit. Over time the audience will let you know if you’re on the right track. Then you can build on that and use it to your advantage.

9 - OWN IT

Don’t be ashamed of what you do. It was easy early on to be dismissive of my show as a “variety act”. Some of the other fringe acts have even been dismissive as well: “I prefer actual theater.” or “I’m not really a fan of that stuff.”  But that’s okay. You have to know that what you do isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proud of your work and own it.

Be confident in your product and speak passionately about it. I’ve outsold shows that have won “Best of Festival” because I found a way to make my show more appealing, but only because I’m not ashamed of my craft. I think it’s worth seeing and that’s what I'm constantly telling everyone I encounter during the festivals.

10 - YOU ARE THE SHOW

You never know what venue you’ll be in. It could be a hot gymnasium in a church, the back of a loud bar, a nice theater, or a small black box. (Those are all actual venues I’ve performed in!) Chances are you won’t be performing in an amazing state-of-the-art space, but that’s part of the fun. It’s up to you to transform the space into something memorable. I love being in less-than-ideal venues because I get to treat it as a challenge.

I make it my goal to make those rooms come alive. I want people to walk out of a converted space raving about the amazing show they just saw! Thanks to fringe I feel like I can walk into nearly any space and own it. It shouldn't matter where you are because you are the show - so make it exciting, fun, and captivating no matter what.


Those are 10 of the most important things I’ve learned over the past two years. It’s been an exhilarating experience and I’m so glad I’ve been able to do two consecutive tours.

If you’re interested in doing a fringe festival and have other questions, shoot me an email. Otherwise, you can catch my last two performances at KC Fringe this weekend!

Rave Reviews At Chicago Fringe

I’m in the middle of a run of seven shows at the Chicago Fringe Festival and have already received some rave reviews. So far, I’ve had packed houses and attentive fringe-goers. 

You can catch my remaining two performances next weekend. The shows are Saturday, September 9th at 8:30 pm and Sunday, September 10th at 4 pm.

I’m still waiting on some reviews to come out but for now here are a few of the quotes I’ve received so far:


Mark Toland’s skills as a mentalist bring together fascination, awe and immersion in mystery — with humor and rapid-fire quips and stories. It’s an irresistible wild ride, especially for skeptics.
— Picture This Post
At the very end of the show, one audience member has her “mind read” in a very detailed manner. Her response was “Holy Shit!”. And that sums it up perfectly.
— Playlist HQ
How does he do it? That’s the mystery. You will have to see the show for yourself to decide.
— DADaPalooza
Toland blends psychic feats with accomplished storytelling.
— TimeOut Chicago

Here are some great shots of the fringe shows courtesy of Sarah Elizabeth Larson Photography.

My show was also listed as a "Best Bet" for the festival by TimeOut Chicago and one of the "Best Plays In Chicago" right now by Picture This Post. Two more chances to see the show! Tickets still available here:

Almost Ready

A year ago I submitted my show to the Chicago Fringe Festival. It was my first festival and a nerve-wracking experience.

In the span of four days I went from ZERO pre-sold tickets to SELLING OUT.  I only did three shows but I got bit by the fringe bug. And I began planning The Mystery Tour.

Around the same time I had a bunch of personal stuff happen all at once. I lost a friend to suicide and my apartment flooded. It was a rough several weeks. Being onstage gave me a respite from the realities of life and I channeled any stress I was feeling into my creative projects.

Flash forward to this week and I’ve come full circle. It took a full year - A FULL YEAR - but the new floors were finally finished this week.  I’ve been living out of boxes and bags for months, sleeping on a pull out sofa, and unable to get in a routine.

But somehow, over the last two months, I wrote the fragments of a new show.

I storyboarded ideas onto post-it notes on the back of a door. Then, when the door came off the hinges I moved the notes to the floor.

I wrote several new monologues for the show - really personal, cerebral stuff that I’m still not quite convinced anyone will care about but me. Somehow I discovered a thru-line and tied all the stories together.

But last week as I was tearing boxes apart in search of a prop, I literally freaked-the-fuck-out because I couldn’t find what I needed. I eventually found it but not before I had a full-on mental breakdown. The stress of the home renovation, the exhaustion of traveling, and the rigors of working in this environment had finally gotten to me.

It was time to come to terms with my situation. I had to be honest with myself and admit that the show is finished - but it’s not ready.

It’s 50%, maybe 60% ready, but it’s not up to my standards. When it comes to my show, I’m a perfectionist. And it’s hard to get the show where I want when I’ve been living in a construction zone for the past six weeks.

With another two weeks of rehearsal in a less chaotic environment I would probably be ready to debut the new show in full. But, this is the reality of living where you work and working where you live. When you live a creative life you learn to be satisfied with how far you've come even if you aren't quite satisfied with where you are.

A year ago my fringe show was a few lines in my notebook. But now, a year and 100+ performances later, I’ve written not one - but TWO - completely different shows. And I’m putting the greatest hits from both shows onstage seven times over the next ten days at the 2017 Chicago Fringe Festival.

After that, I’m going to perfect the rest of my new material on my new floors at home. And once it’s ready, I’m going on tour all over again. You’d better get ready, too.