Sunday, September 25, 2022

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    Why PR boss Mark Borkowski is taking a one-man show to the Edinburgh Fringe

    As one of the industry's best-known PRs, Mark Borkowski has earned a reputation for telling a good tale. But his powers of persuasion will be tested to the limit by his next task: pulling off a one-man-show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Why put yourself through it? The publicist-turned-stand-up tells all...

    The Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the height of its powers is a fantastical breeding ground for maverick creativity.

    Convincing an audience that yours is the best of three-thousand options when they might cheerfully pick ‘none of the above’ takes a master of the craft.

    And some of these masters have inspired my return to the Edinburgh stage with a new one-man show, a kind of Ted Talk on acid, where a series of unhinged anecdotes reveal the fundamental lessons of my life and career: ‘False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to unleash your inner crazy’.

    In once again traversing the labyrinthine corridors of the world’s biggest arts festival I’ve noticed that it is following a pattern that might be familiar to those of us fighting the good fight of agency life.

    The Fringe built its reputation on the back of mavericks, whose quest for publicity inspired underwater performances, chainsaw jugglers, theatre on the back of a motorbike, vacuum cleaner operas, ghost hunts and a variety of near-fatal injuries (singed body hair, nails stuck into various body orifices, limbs crushed by cars).

    Throughout this era, similarly-minded renegades were creating technicolor chaos in advertising. Tony Kaye features heavily in my show, and the peak of Edinburgh Fringe anarchy coincides fairly neatly with him creating a classic of psychedelic avant-garde cinema to punt car tyres.

    Both in Edinburgh and in agency land, this was an era when experimentation was part of the orthodoxy and failure part of the creative process. You went to the Fringe with big ambitions and if the show didn’t work, you took lessons from it into your future work. It was the same for my agency then: clients bought into us, rather than a specific project, and together refined the creative by taking ambitious risks until we found the right formula. 

    But in both worlds times changed; the Edinburgh Fringe was becoming bigger, increasingly expensive and increasingly risky. And in agency land, clients were attempting to commodify creativity into a rigid process that guaranteed the results they wanted first time.

    Nonetheless, Edinburgh remains a learning experience in terms of seeing what energizes a crowd. The fundamental spirit of the festival is the same though promotional methods have changed. For my show, I have tried to distill that spirit into a powerful ether. By way of promotion, what can I say? My show is littered with tall tales and outrageous incidents: the truth about Hollywood Divas and fading Carry On stars; why Donald Trump won the election; a Love Island home truth; tales from the circus; stories from a less politically correct age; F1 James Hunt’s parrot and what Spike Milligan thought about Swindon. It’s a heady mixture but so is the Fringe. The concoction is made to elicit creativity in receptive spirits. 

    When I went with Tony Kaye, listening to him talk about creativity and how Polish playwrights were the fulcrum of visual theatre in the 1980s, the link became clear to me. The Fringe festival brought out the very disruptive, energising and sometimes manic states of creative flow that drove Tony’s visual sensibility.

    This kind of staging ground for ideas will interest anyone who wants to think outside the box to drive culture. The Fringe continues to provide the perfect venue for adventurous thinking, pioneering scriptwriting and striking visual juxtapositions. It’s not just about discovering the next ‘big star’, even more so it's about seeing how people are using culture to create conversations in an environment free of prejudice and drunk on its own experimental ethos. 

    Empowered by what he found in Edinburgh, Tony Kaye would come to find Hollywood actually less suited to the expression of his genius than the ad world which nourished his talent. When he presented the edit of his first feature, American History X, he refused to be wrested from the tiller, causing a clash with his studio that threw his career as a director into jeopardy. 

    Tony’s attempts to regain control of the project are in themselves legendary stunts, including spending $100,000 of his own money calling out the Hollywood elite via full-page adverts in Variety, and turning up to a negotiation with his studio flanked by a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk.

    Tony was still an unfiltered eccentric when I worked with him to try and salvage his career in Tinseltown. We did actually make some progress, but his spirit would not even be partially tamed and we ended up irreconcilably outraging a Hollywood legend via the medium of fancy dress (the full anecdote in all its offensive glory is in my show…)

    Here’s the rub: in a rapidly professionalizing and corporatising world, Tony’s style of absolutist surrender to the maverick within will always cause issues. But at the same time – and once again this is equally true in Edinburgh and agency land –process-worship, and the obsession with playing the game only within the rules, structures and orthodoxies of the day, will kill progress.

    My agency would be nothing without the Fringe and its anarchic spirit. From its inception, every year brought a show that pushed the boundaries of theatrical representation. Richard Demarco, whose theatre programming at the Fringe gave international debuts to now world-renowned performers, made the Fringe a workshop of ideas that would make the festival a hub of international exchange. It remains an invaluable resource for taking the pulse of culture and finding out what really works in our increasingly risk-averse era. 

    In an age where success is quantified by micro-analysing data, there’s room for each of us to unlock our inner Tony Kaye. It’s a mad method, but it's one that nurtures great creative breakthroughs. That’s what my show hopes to do: argue for the value of casting aside pre-programmed conclusions and instead embracing serendipity. And the Fringe is the perfect place for meandering, following uncharted creative paths and even bumping into old friends. 

    If you want to know what moves people from their seats, just listen in to audience reactions at the pub after a show at the Fringe. The material you come away with will be infinitely more valuable than anything you get from a brainstorm in an air-conditioned meeting room in Soho, but it just might prove useful in one. 

    Mark Borkowski’s 'False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to unleash your inner crazy' runs at the Edinburgh Fringe from 17-20 August, 12:00 at Assembly George Square Studio Two

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