I’m standing on a crowded corner of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. To my right, a dreadlocked man in an Indiana Jones hat is playing the blues while people clap along. Opposite me a lad in neon sunglasses beatboxes while his friend’s head bobs up and down above the audience as she dances a highland jig. Halfway between, the sounds clash.
My eyes are drawn up the street where stages are set up for a capella groups, opera singers and dance groups. A magician gathers an audience around his patch. Two million people will walk this short stretch of street today pushing past each other like pennies in an arcade machine.
In my hands I clutch a few nicely designed, but unobtrusive A6 flyers. I’m at the biggest arts festival in the world, and doesn’t it feel big?
For three weeks a year, the Fringe Festival takes over and Edinburgh becomes a haven for London-based comedians and young theatre groups who have always wanted to spend three hours a day running around in public wearing pyjamas or Superman onesies. Three actresses old enough to know better pass me dressed in bright pink shower caps and matching plastic ponchos. Anything to be noticed.
Someone on the radio said that while the Fringe is going on, all the self-absorbed artists are in Edinburgh, and the other major cities of the UK breathe a collective sigh of relief.
With average audiences at the Fringe sitting at a miserly six*, and 4,000 shows to compete with, my little show in a free venue just the other side of the bridge doesn’t register on many people’s radar.
There are 24,000 performers at this year’s festival, many of them actors. And if there’s one group of people you don’t want to be competing with for attention, it’s actors, I reflect, as a group of uni students walks past me sombrely bearing a coffin full of flyers. I presume they’re doing a show.
Next year, I’ll get the flyers printed on A2 perspex sheets, see what happens. That’ll stand out next to the guy across the way who has a basket of severed heads and is talking about cannibalism in rhyme. Genuinely.
But, in this crowd, I’ve somehow caught the attention of one man. A fellow comedian, Will, has spotted me. He stands out because he’s not dressed as Santa. This is his first Fringe. He tells me he hates the flyering and the claustrophobic sensation of being a little voice surrounded by crowds. But, he’s seen my flyering technique and is trying to work out why people are willing to take a flyer from me, or even stop and talk to me. Admittedly, from my point of view, I didn’t think I’d spoken to many people, but, yes, now he mentioned it, a few conversations: “Hi, what shows have you seen?”; “Hi, is this your first fringe?”; “Hi, do you need directions?”
How did I do it? What was the magic formula that made me stand out?
I’d like to put it down to my good looks… but that would be insane.
Perhaps I could put it down to being a Christian. And it’s true, there are a number of Christian distinctives that stand out in a crowd of attention-seekers.
Being known by God means I’m not desperate for mass acceptance.
Being a servant means rating others and understanding others – it’s astonishing to me to realise that going to my show might not be the best thing for some people. Humbling. Seeing the image of God in, and therefore the value of, each individual helps too. It means I can recharge my repetitive sales pitch for the next punters who haven’t heard it yet. These were the kind of theories that I shared with Will, and I hope they show through in how I approach people – though in the moment, it’s easy to forget them all.
There’s no ‘magic formula’, but through a process of trial and lots of error, I’ve discovered a simple word that increases my chance of success roughly threefold. Start with “Hi.”
To hail someone with a nicely designed A6 bit of paper and the slightly odd greeting of “Free Comedy!” does nothing to promote humanity. Whereas, ‘Hi’ is the most simple humanising word of all.
I suppose, I could go for a Superman onesie as well – but that tends to create a subtle distance between performer and reality. The surprise for me is that, simply caring for the interests of others, after they’ve slalomed down a street of people demanding time from them stands out.
We don’t have to try to be any bigger, cleverer or more in-yer-face than we are.
It’s been good to see Will taking to flyering since our little chat – he’s started to love it actually. His audiences have improved as well. He sometimes seems delirious about this.
So, I’m standing on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. A group of Japanese drummers thunders past and I’m about to feel lost in the crowd again, when, Phil Jupitus ducks past me, eyes down. Amazingly, in this clamouring melee of wannabe limelighters, the Never Mind the Buzzcocks star is doing his best not to be noticed.
*Although to be fair, there’s no actual evidence to support this
Image courtesy of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society