White supremacists, wombless mermaids, and living in a massive pink foam head – think you’ve heard it all?
The Royal Mile is overwhelmingly busy. Children tip-toe by you with a sense of caution, unsure if you are a creature of good or evil. Your lack of basic coordination and the fact you are wearing a giant foam head, however, probably means you’ll step on their size two feet and greatly offend the mother hen. A slightly elderly woman is asking you about the whereabouts of the Assembly Box Office. Your one eye prevents peripheral vision and you must resign yourself to estimating where her hands are and thrusting a flyer into them.
Where could you be? What even are you? That’s right; you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a big, pink, gimmicky ’Oxford Imps’ head resting on your shoulders and a stack of flyers in your hand.
I spent one week of my vac working backstage at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival with our very own improv group: the Oxford Imps. Packed into a four-bedroom, two-bathroom flat with over twenty performers and techies, it was similar to an intensive sleep away camp (plus alcohol, minus the canoeing and Lohan ‘twins’).
The Imps are lucky enough to have their own flat during the famous Fringe Festival and as a way to earn your keep, all occupants are given shifts to ‘flyer’ (bombard strangers on the street with flyers) and ‘poster’ (pasting up posters wherever can fit an A3 sized piece of paper with the notorious ‘gloop’ to make it stick). Our sitting room doubled up as mission control; no matter your mood, you can’t help but crack a smile at the inevitable improvised nine-verse-sea-shanty being belted out from the ‘well-loved’ (read: disheveled) leather couches.
When you think of those people on the street that hand you leaflets on their upcoming show or a dodgy-looking spa, a feeling of hatred flashes across you mind, perhaps accompanied by slight embarrassment as you wave your hand in a gesture of “no thank you” as you hurry along. That doesn’t change in Edinburgh; the locals weren’t massively keen. ‘Oh GOD honey, we’re being flyered’ was the reaction of an old man as I approached them in what I thought to be a non-aggressive manner. Guess not.
Occasionally, something magical happens. Fringe-goers suddenly remember that they actually came to the city to see the shows being advertised, and stop for a chat. We Oxonians even seem to have an avid fan in one gentleman I spoke to. For once I didn’t need to single out my prey amongst the herds of people as he approached me and asked, ‘Madam, am I worthy of one of your flyers?’. Handing him a flyer, I was then struck by the fact that he was one of the dreaded lingerers. Shuffling from foot to foot, he finally built up the courage to speak.
‘Yep! Every day at 3pm in the Gilded Balloon.’
‘Right… What I wouldn’t give to be spending a fine day like this in the Turf and Tavern.’
‘Oh, did you used to live there?’
‘No. But I do love a long walk on the Cornmarket.’
According to frequent Fringe flyerers, this same man repeats the routine a couple of times every festival, dropping hints that he knows a lot about Oxford and could engage you in a very long conversation you most likely do not want to engage in. One of the other Imps ended up having a rather nice conversation with a woman while flyering the Royal Mile, before she revealed herself to be a white supremacist. Awks.
One of the major worries for any troop performing at the Fringe is the reception from the audience. Sure, it’s a pretty obvious worry, but I didn’t quite realise how much confidence comes from your audience. At least with a scripted piece, the blame for the lack of laughter isn’t so much on you but, well, the script. Improv has the benefit of allowing the show to be saved, and the Imps were pros in being able to allow another member of the group to step in, rather than just ‘bulldozing’ through one particular scene scene awkwardly.
There were some shows we saw, however, that were beyond saving. ‘Fiction’ – an ‘immersive experience’ where ‘sleep and wakefulness meet’ – had two fellow Imps and myself sat in pitch black for an hour, listening to the sweet whisperings of a French woman through headphones. Initially terrifying, it was actually quite peaceful, falling asleep to the gentle mutterings of a nonsensical plot featuring a French woman having bought chicken-chow-mein from across the street without asking you if you wanted any. The audacity. And typically the ending was that Year Six go-to of ‘andddd it was just a dream’. #EdgyAsFuck
One Imp reported back to the flat of a spoken word show about a ‘mermaid without a womb off the coast of post-industrial Hull that was a metaphor for modern feminism’ (the sea working as the glass ceiling, apparently). You might even experience a dance show on a moving double-decker bus, or a tear-inducing silent play starring a puppet with Motor Neurone Disease.
On the morning of my leaving – 4am to catch my flight – I expected a silent departing with the packed but homely Imps flat. Who am I kidding – when you’re living with twenty improv actors, someone’s going to be singing a rendition of ‘Good Morning, Dear’ at the top of their lungs in the living room.