The year is 1991 and I’m ensconced in a mission to introduce a new kind of mayhem to the Edinburgh Fringe. My muse for this work of art, and accomplices in my ambitious scheme, are the chainsaw-juggling punk circus Archaos (they never actually juggled chainsaws but PRINT THE MYTH).
Together, we’ve devised our most ambitious stunt yet: breaking a car in half as a form of street performance. It was the kind of huge, outrageous melee of sparks and twisted metal that embodied the anarchic, cyberpunk soul of Archaos, and exactly the kind of brouhaha that would land us on the evening news and the morning’s front pages. It’s perfect publicity.
There was just one problem: the police. The rozzers, the polis, Johnny Law. They’d wrecked our fun the previous year and rumour had it they were onto us again and had designs on quashing our dreams of creating Edinburgh Fringe legend.
We were on tenterhooks.
But we were used to it. These were the days before our lives became automated by technology and controlled by algorithms. It was an analogue existence, a little rawer and more unpredictable when we couldn’t stage manage everything to the nearest inch using apps and triple-check every last detail with the internet.
Back then, before data-driven pragmatism took over, artists, producers, publicists and marketeers looking to make a name for ourselves at the Edinburgh Festivals were at the mercy of serendipity; luckily for us, Edinburgh’s very cobbles are soaked with happy coincidence and the very brand of fortune that favours the brave.
That’s why, forty years since I first graced the cobbles of Edinburgh’s old town, I’ve made the foolhardy decision to re-take the Edinburgh Festival stage with a show about a life and career in thrall to, and in cahoots with mavericks and trailblazers who took huge risks for both art and publicity and surrendered themselves to the sweet force of serendipity. It’s called False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to unleash your inner crazy (17-20 August, 12pm, at Assembly George Square Studios) and it’s a salute, in the form of a TED Talk on acid to my greatest publicity stunts and the geniuses I collaborated with to pull them off.
Whether it was performers being burnt at the stake or crushed by a car, the underwater gig, the vacuum cleaner ballet, the world’s smallest theatre on the back of a motorbike, or turning Marlon Brando’s soiree into Hollywood’s most inappropriate fancy dress party, serendipity had a role to play in most of the moments that have defined my life as a publicist.
Nowadays it is estimated that half of scientific discoveries come from this mad method. Sandra Erdelez, an information scientist, divides people into three types—non-encounterers, occasional-encounterers, and super-encounterers, depending on our ability to find treasures in odd places. The non-encounterers see the world through a narrow lens; they consult their to-do list when opportunity calls. We can become super-encounterers, says Dr Erdelez, by becoming more receptive to chance encounters, and to valuing randomness a way other people might overlook.
That’s why we need entities like the Edinburgh Fringe in our lives; the world’s biggest arts festival is so huge, varied and colourful that it’s impossible to pre-programme. You run into someone you haven’t seen for twenty years; you meet a new acquaintance who turns out to be the friend or collaborator you needed. You have no choice but to get carried away by a garish poster, a flyerer on a unicycle, a roar of laughter from the basement of a pub…or a man offering you a suspicious looking pork pie.
If Dr. Edelez, the expert on serendipity, is right, we can all cultivate that part of ourselves that recognises an unplanned discovery. What makes the super-encounterer different is the ability to see opportunities when they come out of nowhere. Paradoxical as it might sound, its really about expecting the unexpected—easier said than done.
Which takes us back thirty years to Archaos. We had the concept, we had the equipment, we had the madcap performance to create a stunt for the ages, but we also had to stay out of reach of the long arm of the law.
But lady serendipity was on our side; a passer-by overheard a large group of police officers discussing breaking up our stunt and then stumbled across preparations for a wheeze that clearly matched the description of the eaves she had just dropped. She tipped us off that the fuzz had been tipped off and we were able to wrongfoot them with a last-minute change of location to the Royal Mile which, as well as being copper-free for long enough to pull off the stunt, actually made for a better photo.
The Fringe is such fertile ground for this kind of joyful coincidence because it is home to so many brilliant, pioneering imaginations. This both means there is stiff competition for attention, acclaim and ticket sales, and that there will always be a friend, collaborator, acquaintance from twenty years ago, or even complete stranger with the vision and comprehension to lend a hand to feats of genuine ambition and imagination.
The dirty secret about serendipity is that it’s a collaborative, social process – the Fringe’s ability to producer such magical, mythological moments of madness and wonder is a team effort, built on a community of artists and those, like me, who support them.
So if there’s a lesson for Fringe performers and punters alike to take from a group of French clowns vandalising a hatchback thirty years ago it’s this; keep an open mind, don’t be afraid to help likeminded people out with their mad schemes, and embrace the possibility of happy coincidence.
False Teeth in a Pork Pie Hat: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy, 12.00, Assembly George Square Studio.