portfringe

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!



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The Tour Is Over

That’s it. The tour is over.

I performed 35 shows at six festivals in six cities and two countries. Plus, I also performed the show another 30 times in Chicago to get it ready. 

So, what did I learn?

First, I can do this. All on my own, without a manager or agent or publicist. I consistently sold out theaters and built buzz without a big budget or team behind me. That’s how the best shows at fringe festivals do it. They have a good product and they work tirelessly to get the word out. 

Second, this is exhausting. There was a stretch this summer when I didn’t sleep more than two hours a night for over 10 days. Albeit, I was leaving festivals in the middle for corporate gigs then returning to finish my run. But, my insomnia was at an all-time high and I struggled to stay rested. Coffee remains my best friend.

Also, I found the show. It was like the statue of David, encased in stone waiting to be chiseled away and revealed. (Although, it isn’t remotely close to being a Michelangelo-level-masterpiece but I really like the metaphor.)

Somewhere between New York City and Orlando, I found the message. It’s not a mind reading show - it’s a show about mind reading. Over time it’s become a manifesto for everything I believe in, using mind reading and storytelling to express a single idea.

Some people got it, many did not. I learned not to worry about reviews because most writers didn’t understand. As long as the review was positive it would help fill the seats, even if they weren’t fully capturing the essence of the performance. I realized that once I sent an idea out into the world it stopped belonging to me. And I had to be content knowing that I had done my best to express myself, even if no one got the point.

Another thing I learned is that it’s easy to get pigeon-holed at a festival. You have to choose a performance genre because people want to know what to expect. But if you aren’t careful, people can get confused in a hurry.

So often the press would insist on calling it a “magic show”, even though I never use that expression. I could sense that the only way to get people to see my show was to choose the “magic” category, even though it was clouding the expectations of my audience. People would come expecting a standard magic show and I did my best to convince them they were seeing something unique and better.

Common feedback was something along the lines of “I usually don’t like magic shows but this one is different!” followed by a solid recommendation. That comment taught me two things:

1. I’m on the right track.
2. Too many magicians have similar shows and haven’t worked hard enough to appeal to a broader demographic.

Recently a performer was discussing a (in my opinion) cheesy prop online. HIs comment was “There’s a time and place for everything. I try to give the audience what they want.

I prefer to do the opposite.

I think about what I want to do and I consider what I want to say. Then I write my show to convey my own personal truth. The hardest part is convincing the audience it’s what they wanted all along.

By the end of the tour, the show was doing exactly that. My audiences were raving and I ended up winning a total of five awards in the process, including “Best of Fringe” (NYC), “Audience Choice” (NYC), “Pick of Fringe” (Orlando), “Critics Choice” (Portland, ME),  and “Outstanding Magic or Mentalist Performance” (San Diego).

I feel like all the rehearsing and writing and traveling and performing and dreaming finally paid off. I’ve spent the better part of the last several years crafting this show from the ground up and I’m so proud of it. But it’s time to bid it farewell.

I have other things to say and more, possibly better, ideas. If I don’t explore them now and force myself to create something else then I’ll never grow as an artist. I don’t want to settle for something just because it works. I want to evolve and change onstage, just as I do in the real world. 

So, I’m already writing the next show and will be presenting it for the first time at the Chicago Fringe Festival in two months. Then I’m taking the show on the road.

For as long as I can remember my biggest goal has been to do a full-blown theatre tour around the U.S. I’d like to say it’s time to check that goal off the list but I’m not ready for that just yet.

The end of this tour is only the beginning.



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Rave Reviews At Port Fringe

I'm in the middle of a run of five shows at PortFringe in Portland, Maine. I've already performed two shows and have three more to go.

The first half of my run is being performed at Geno's Rock Club, with the last two shows being held at Fringe Central. In my downtime I've been exploring Portland and taking street photos.

People seem to be enjoying the show here in Maine. See below for a few of the reviews I've received so far!


The ending left me on the verge of happy tears. (I’m welling up just thinking about it!) My mind is still blown.
— Joseph Cagney IV, Port Fringe
Mark Toland clearly created his show with the skeptic in mind - not because it will convince you of the supernatural, but because it’s presented in the spirit of fun and entertainment. It’s full of laugh out loud moments and countless surprises. Mark is brilliant, funny, and energetic with just the right amount of awkward energy to let you know he’s a performance nerd at heart.
— Robbie Carey, PortFringe First Looks
I’ve been instructed not to spoil the show, but suffice to say you might just have your mind blown.
— Anonymous, PortFringe First Looks
Mark Toland is truly, bogglingly, mystifying - on top of that he ingeniously gives the illusion that he’s giving no illusion - just a really nice guy casually doing the absolutely impossible.
— Richard Sewell, Maine Theater Collective
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The tour isn't over yet! I still have three shows left at PortFringe, then head to San Diego for five shows at the San Diego International Fringe Festival. Ticket info below!



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