The Joy of Happenstance

John Battelle has a wonderful reminisce about what’s lost as information moves from analog to digital. He specifically writes about the college course catalog and what’s lost as these guides have moved online in Digital is Killing Serendipity. In the comments, I shared an experience I had with a printed catalog at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and found there was more I wanted to share about that experience so here we are.

In the ’90s, I toured Europe by bicycle and one evening rolled into Edinburgh, Scotland during a three week festival called Festival Fringe. I did not know it at the time (I had to ask why all the hostels were booked solid) but this is the largest performing arts festival in the world. For three weeks there are literally hundreds of performances of stand up comedy, theater, dance, musicals, opera, children’s plays, spoken word, circus acts, street performers and everything else.

What inspired me to share this story is that my entry into the Fringe performances was via their printed catalog which was found in stacks around town. The guide was the size of a small phone book and had hundreds of entries with details of the where/what but also a few lines written (usually by the performer or producer) to entice people to come. As someone who has spent many long days solo, on the road, I was gobsmacked at the richness of what was on offer and overwhelmed with choice.

Festival Fringe programme entry, 1994
Festival Fringe programme entry, 1994

I was in town for three days and I realized I had spend most of the morning of the first day just reading the guide. In some effort to give my days a rhythm and theme, I went to the index (which was also a wonder in its variety) and chose “Vincent Van Gogh.” Over the course of three days, I was going to see several plays about Vincent Van Gogh.

Being a lone traveler it was easier to meet people and during those three days I had the chance to fall in with a group of Australian performers that had an excess of energy and talent. They were in town for a performance but they wanted to do something else on the side. The idea was they wanted to put on a cabaret to curate and showcase all the talent that was in town. One of them had a friend that had a space with a stage that was empty during the day so all we needed to do was line up some talent and we could sell tickets at the door.

Each of us pulled in people we had met during our stay. One guy had his haircut by a barber that told hilarious jokes so he was invited, I invited a busker who was popular around town, others performed short bits from their plays or performances as teasers for their scheduled acts.

I forgot what we called this extemporaneous cabaret show and couldn’t even tell you where the venue was but I do remember having the best time because the whole thing was totally chaotic in a wonderfully theatrical way. The audience was part of it, we all wanted to make it work. The show must go on! I remember a bunch of burly rugby guys were in the front row and getting antsy because the barber got stage fright and the punchlines to his jokes were falling flat. One of our group ran on stage and explained that he was actually really funny and, perhaps, if anyone would like to come up on stage to get their hair trimmed for free, it might calm the barber’s nerves so he could deliver his jokes. It worked brilliantly, the rugby team calmed down and someone got a free haircut.

On another night, I was in a pub and the band didn’t show up or maybe the electricity went out. Anyway there was no music or entertainment. Somebody jumped into the fray and started reciting a sports commentary of an entire soccer match of as if it were live. I don’t know if he was reciting a famous match from memory or just making it up as he went but as he described the skillful blocks of the back line, pinpoint passes and near misses hitting the crossbar in such wonderful detail that the entire audience in the pub was right there with him, “oohing” an “ahhing” at each turn it up as we could all see in our collective mind exactly what he was describing. Somebody later borrowed a couple of spoons and made music for awhile and, of course, there was singing. It was a night to remember, one reminding me that humanity is always able to entertain itself.

There were so many things I experienced during those three days in Edinburgh and the printed catalog was my trusty guide the whole time. There were things happening all around me and I loved the fact that I could thumb through the listings and immediately find something interesting. There’s something about the printed magazine form factor, rolled up in your back pocket but immediately available with calendars, listings, reviews of places to eat, maps, and other pages designed to quickly tell you what you need to know. The heft of the pages made you appreciate the expanse of the festival. I’m sure there’s an app that puts this all into a screen on your phone with drop down menus but it’s just not the same.

Update: Looks like they are still printing the “programme” and you can even request one via mail. The festival also uploads all 350+ pages of each year’s guide into a PDF viewer so you can see what last year’s guide looks like and they even have an archive of all guides back to the festival I stumbled on in 1994. It’s nice to see they’ve recognized that print information design is sometimes better than online.






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