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Making It Up As You Go Along - What Business Can Learn From The Edinburgh Fringe

30/08/2016 10:46 | Updated 30 August 2016

If you have never been to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival - go. For most of August, the creative industry takes over the city, and nearly 2m visitors from all over the world jostle to see over 2,000 acts demonstrating their skills in everything from improvised rap, stand-up comedy, dance, music and theatre. It's taken me more years than I care to admit to get there - but the injection of talent, energy and pace is like an adrenalin shot in the arm.

Inevitably it seems a far cry from business. But like everything, there are life lessons to be learned from spending a few days at the Fringe, and not just learning to navigate an unknown city in a matter of hours.

First up was the sheer level and volume of talent. Funny beyond belief; able to rap, sing or create entire plays about subjects handed to them on the instant. Powerfully emotional or physically powerful - this was like the Theatre Olympics.

Faced with so much skill, it's easy to feel humbled - these people were so much more talented than us mere mortals. So it was interesting to hear both the rap improviser confess he had no memory for his past life, and could only remember facts, and the mind reading act (who went to University at 15) admit he has an eidetic memory (photographic to you and me). These people are sometimes not like you and me. And, in truth, they'd probably be rubbish at what I do, so I will try not to feel like a massive underachiever.

Second was the parallel between improv and real life. Improv was definitely the new black in Edinburgh this year. Improvised episodes of Dr Who, improvised adventures of Sherlock Holmes, improvised musicals, Jane Austen and Game of Thrones. If you had an interest, they'd make something up about it on the spot. It's fascinating to watch - but when you see a number of repeat shows you realise that what they do is not so dissimilar to what I do for a living.

Someone gives you a subject. Often at short notice.

They expect you to comment on it, add value and find a structure towards a goal that they haven't always clearly identified for themselves.

Characters come on from the wings to steer you in different directions. You have to both take it on board and try to keep your narrative thread on course, keeping the end goal in sight.

Someone in the tech box switches off the lights in the middle of your talk and you have to end the act (aka project) unexpectedly. Someone else turns on some music (aka emotional implication) that inadvertently changes the tone of what you are saying completely.

How do you cope with that pressure to perform? By bringing all of your experiences to bear for that particular moment. If a client asks you a question you don't actually make the answer up entirely - you scan your brain for a relevant piece of experience which can throw light on the situation.

According to the amazing cast of the improvised musical we saw (set in a morgue by the audience - obviously) they reuse formats and structures all the time. It looks improvised (and indeed is) but it's based on years of practice and past examples.

If you watch the same improv shows more than once you see some of the same jokes being used. One cast will also reuse tropes to good effect that they've seen in other people's shows. News and pieces of information from the outside world filter in and are swept into the narrative seamlessly. In that light, improv is a bit like the internet for theatre.

Perhaps that should be the strapline for Edinburgh Fringe 2017.

Whatever it's called, be sure to be there.

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