Two days since I collapsed onto a southbound train at Edinburgh Waverley, and still the ghostly voices of the Fringe flyerers haunt me whenever I close my eyes: “Four-star physical theatre show starting in half an hour, have a flyer madam”… “Dark sketch comedy – someone WILL die at the end of the show”… [Sung to a tune from Frozen] “Do you want to see a show, man? [pause] OK, bye.”… “Benny Boot, he’s a hoot!” …“Please ignore me and walk away”… And on they go, wandering the Royal Mile of my mind and getting slowly drenched in the rain of my memories.
This year was my first ever visit to the Edinburgh Fringe (shh, don’t tell anyone), and like most first-time Fringers, it would take a rampant epidemic of some fatal itchy-puking-boils-and-pustules sickness to stop me going back every year from now until my final gasp (which may well indeed happen on the Mile itself, as I stretch my withered hand clutching a soggy flyer toward a frightened and revolted family of German tourists. A comparatively fine end for an actor). I spent the month performing in Shit-faced Shakespeare, a company who perform a shortened version of a Shakespeare play with one actor onstage genuinely catastrophically shit-faced every night.
During the course of the run, we had actors telling compromising stories about their own (and each others’) sex lives when they forgot their monologues; sword fights fought with an inflatable dolphin and an audience member’s false arm instead of swords; a good deal of face-licking and nudity; a singalong of ‘Hakuna Matata’; much drunken criticism for Shakespeare’s highly questionable ending of the play (The Two Gentlemen of Verona); and one drunk who defied the company’s stringent health and safety policy of constant supervision by managing to bring an electric drill onto stage.
As well as having pretty much the most fun ever, I managed to learn some stuff as well. The show worked best when actors managed to carry on the play whilst also incorporating the ridiculous contributions of the drunk (“Sir Valentine, I am very sorry to see that you have lost your leg”; “Do it in a Scouse accent”; “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past”), and as theatre is supposed to look (well, be) spontaneous, an actor’s brain should have the improv switch turned on at all times, so that anything new that is introduced is included, and not ignored. Even if you’re on the 97th show of the run and you know it better than Neo knows Kung Fu, being totally prepared to run with anything new that your opposite actor might give you is a really good way to work.
Being practised at improv gives you courage in your own ability to go off the beaten track while you’re onstage without fear of making a complete hash of it. Feeling safe while improvising requires being surrounded by people who have your back in a theatrical and an emotional sense, and I now know that Edinburgh is exactly the place to find those people.If you haven’t been (ha, as if there is any actor in the world who hasn’t been to Edinburgh before except me), go there and find yours.
So, as my body clock goes ‘What the hell was THAT?!’ and settles back into its normal rhythm, my bank resumes its gleeful crowing about my overdraft, and my washing machine soaps the last of Arthur’s Seat out of my jeans, I enjoy the impromptu little memories that always bubble up at you after you’ve just finished something brilliant. As with the end of any show, I have important work to do now: finding more work, clawing my way back up to a balance of £0, and figuring out where the hell I can get a deep-fried Mars bar in London.