|004| Tide swelling

This week as it was to me

First off, I missed a week. I was going to squeeze something out a couple of days late, but the reason for missing last Sunday was the killer book deadline that I’ve only just passed, so it needed to wait.

So there hasn’t been so much to report until the last few days.  Had a nice roast ham dinner in the workspace we use for improv. Went to the Newcastle Late Shows yesterday and saw some random arty stuff. And had a lovely day out at Tynemouth today and did some more coast exploring.

Building

Shipped the book on Friday. Already knee deep in revisions from the editor, but this is the lion’s share of the work done, and to contract. Phew! Feel like there is more I want to talk about soon regarding the writing process.

Art and improv

Singing at the Beamish Museum yesterday was a ton of fun. Got costumes and everything! If you want to give Sacred Harp a go, the UK resource page is here.

Also had a fun improv rehearsal this week where we introduced Annoyance Theatre-style catchphrases and gestures into the monologue work the guys had been doing in the past weeks.

Giving and receiving

Spent my celebratory night after finishing the book cheering up a friend cut up about relationship stuff. Was actually nice, I was too tired to do much else. And my flatmates had an barbecue yesterday that I swung by, and also mysteriously turned up at the late shows and gave me a lift home!

Recommendations

My mate Jayne I sing with also does cool electronic looping folk. She did her stuff at the Late Shows and it was great. Album crowdfunder here.

If you’re local to the North East and want a lovely harmonic barbershop quartet to charm you, Late Shows also introduced me to the fact that my mate Andy is in one and they are great.

Marvel stuff: Thor Ragnarok was really excellent. Black Panther was… ok? I remember being quite engaged at points but now I’m not sure why.

I’ve finally got the Key and Peele series on DVD and it does deserve the hype.

Branches outward

Scots believe they have met mythical creatures

Pat Kane on creative companions in an AI world, and work and play

Reading

Went back to start Origamy again (review here), as I left it a month and now can’t remember what’s what. It’s a science fiction book about circus-skilled reality weavers who travel through space-time and celebrate and protect life. There is a lot of science, especially heavy amounts of biology; the author is an academic of experimental architecture, which seems to involve a lot of chemistry and synthetic biology, so she knows her stuff and it shows.  It’s an overflowing, abundant book, fecund and alive; Sometimes I feel like it needs a stricter editor to cut down the proclivity for lists (over forty shades of black, 11 different kinds of material processed in this stomach, 9 in this one, etc etc) but I can understand that stylistically it feeds into the abundance vibe, overwhelming with richness and plenty. There is a question, of course, if that ends up grating for the reader; we’ll see.

Thinking through

Who this? Extended excerpts from a profile of an intellectual superstar, with gender and minor details edited to keep you guessing

A few years ago, XXXX was an obscure academic… and then, overnight, he/she was famous.

It’s a measure of how much his/her life has changed that during a whistlestop few days in Britain he/she has had a private leadership session with banking executives in the City, an evening in front of a capacity crowd at Alain de Botton’s School of Life, an all-day workshop … and a whole string of interviews to mark the launch of his/her latest book,

On the one hand he/she’s now reaching the kind of audience that most academics can only dream of. On the other he/she seems, well, a bit exhausted.

Later he/she told a friend how embarrassed he/she was that he/she’d opened up like that and how terrified he/she was that … “up to 500 people” might see it. Or, imagine, a thousand. “My life would be over,” he/she said. But a few more than that did – the video went viral.

XXXX: ‘I want to be brave with my work and I want to be brave with my life.’ People will find a million reasons to tear it down, so you have to be really sure about what you’re doing, because in the end, if you believe in it that’s enough.”

It’s quite a speech – both heartfelt and a bit defiant – and it’s a reaction to a series of questions I’ve asked him/her. Doesn’t it put too much onus on the individual, I ask. Given that many people have problems – such as being poor – which they can’t necessarily fix? And has there been independent research into whether his/her theories actually work? Because as well as the books he/she’s written, he/she’s also spun two companies out from his/her research.

And while it’s understandable that you are uncomfortable with “the cult of personality”, people are buying into your personality, aren’t they? They believe you can help them.

And yet… and I struggle to put this diplomatically, the presentation of his/her work seems pretty gendered.

XXXX: “I think it’s something I wrestle with a lot, because if you go to my talks the majority of the audience is men/women. Let me go on the record and say if you want to put me in an a room with AAAA, BBBB, or CCCC, I’ll take that date any day of the week.

[03] Gut muttering

This week as it was to me

Said goodbye to London and headed up to Nottingham for the BPS annual conference. Saw some of my colleagues there and took some photos together. Then up to Newcastle again. Nice to be back.

Over the weekend I’ve had friends up, Alice and John. It was really great to see them, but the experience was marred by screwing up my digestion, badly. For years I’ve avoided milk and gluten-containing foods which does a lot for my digestive health, but every so often I get slammed, in a pattern I’m starting to tie to alcohol and spicy food. So I’ve been a bit of a ghost for the last couple of days, that’s also the reason I’m late with this.

We did manage to make a day trip out to Belsay Hall, though, which was really interesting. The gardens are built into a quarry to produce a microclimate sustaining unusual plants for the region.

me alice and john standing in front of a flowring tree in front of a country house
The Dream Team at Belsay Hall

 

Building

I’ve officially entered Beast mode for the book, as the scale of what’s left to do has become clear. As I write this section (Thursday) I’ve made 12 steps forward.

2 rounds of nothing to something

5 rounds of “something to first

3 rounds of “first to second

2 of “second to final

I can break this down in fact I’ve done it at this post here.

(Update: since writing this the beast has had a thorn in its paw, so I’m now behind schedule. Eek.)

 

Art and improv

Saturday John and Al gave back-to-back workshops on two sides of improvisation, “Explore and Exploit,” and it was really fun to take a class from my friends and see their philosophies given a bit of time to be spelled out. It was also really great for our students to have new people about.

The only touch of sadness I have is how few of the local performers / improv students with the other school seem to have appetite to take new classes with different teachers. I don’t think I’m unusual in always being hungry to learn new perspectives, and especially when this is the first class from out of towners all year, I would think that would be an exciting prospect…

We also did a Dreaming show as part of the Newcastle night we run, and we had a great time, everyone else did great, and it was a ton of fun.

Giving and receiving

Mainly family stuff in London, and also ferrying around an unexpected family guest from overseas back and forth from tube stations and to the supermarket to buy my mum a gift.

My Newcastle housemate was a lovely co-host for my guests, and we wouldn’t have made it to Belsay if it wasn’t for her volunteering to drive; (I was too zombified to be trusted in front of a wheel).

Branches outward

Hostile architecture: definition, example, podcast.

Blogpost on advertising industry. A few gems, including the importance of sleeping on it – Have you ever tried to have an idea. Any idea at all, with a gun to your head?” and  on the entrapment of creative types: The compulsion to create is unstoppable…Apart from the occasional severed ear or descent into fecal-eating dementia the creative impulse is mostly little more than a quaint eccentricity. But introduce this mostly benign neurosis into a commercial context.. well that way, my friends lies misery and madness.”

Recommendations

I don’t need to point you towards the Donald Glover video that’s trending everywhere, but it’s good. (rough in places.)

Stan Rogers:

Other than that, I started watching Outlander with Alice as sick day solace. First episode is slow but still involving. It’s got action, history and some ideas but is unashamedly a romance story, and it’s interesting to see how it differs from a more male-centric genre in how it plays with desire, love, and tension.

Reading

As per the last few weeks, nothing much beyond work reading (I’ve nearly finished Slime Mould too).

But I brought a bunch of books back from my mum’s house, including Philosophy in the FleshSuper Cooperators, and  my copies of EF Schumacher’s work. I have a feeling that I had a reason to re-read one his books for input on something I’ve been thinking about, but can’t remember what it was…

And also some books I inherited from my great aunt, including TH White’s The Once and Future King. So a big ole pile to get through.

Thinking through

I had a quick trip to Nottingham mid-week for the BPS annual conference, and sat in on an interesting late night session on open science and moving psychology forward. One proposal there was to move scientific authorship to a more horizontal approach, allowing people to build a scientific career without having to be first/last author on publications (which typically involves “having the idea”). Instead, people can use their strengths and participate as analysis design/delivery or method development. I wonder whether skilled science (or humanities) communicators could also take part in this process and gain academic credit for writing? Or can you be academically credible for putting someone else’s idea through its mathematical paces, but not for putting it into accessible and more understandable words?

From concept to completion: getting non-fiction writing done

I’m knee-deep in a big writing project with a really tight deadline. Perhaps during peak #nanowrimo I was banking more raw words, but this project is asking for a finished product rather than a first draft. I’m certain that for me this is a new level of text generation and re-tooling, and thought I’d share the process that seems to be working in getting it done.

Continue reading “From concept to completion: getting non-fiction writing done”

|002| Bone regeneration

This week as it was to me

Mainly been hanging at the family casa as my mum’s foot heals. This is probably the last week I’ll spend here, as she’s going to put it on the market soon. I moved into the house over 30 years ago, so that’ll be the end of an era.

Thursday I had lots of nice friend catchups one after the other, including a nice walk in Postman’s Park with Jay. (And Jay links into me from his roundup; I love how blogging allows this reciprocal, parallel linking and conversations that are easily visible but brush past each other rather than being one chugging chain a la Twitter.

A plaque denoting GF Watt's Memorial to Self-Sacrifice
Postman’s Park is awesome. Google it.

Friday me and Steve went for a dusk walk while it was mizzling, hopped the cemetery gate and having a good explore.

Today I had a fairly rare experience of my parents in the same room; they split up over 25 years ago and my dad has mostly lived in Spain since. It’s incongruous. It wakes up a memory of a life that feels a very long time ago, especially that the encounter isn’t in a wedding venue but the living room where we all used to live.

Picture of two people at a wedding
These guys specifically. Wedding photo from when they were cool.

Building

In the fevers of book-writing. It’s a commissioned project, psychology told through a series of quotes. It’s the biggest popular writing project I’ve tackled, and working at this scale is gruelling but good. Also my writing is getting better. More when it’s done.

The improvisation festival I run in Germany also needed some energies, finalising our workshop descriptions and signing off on a bunch of decisions. It’s really a labour of love, so it’s great that they really are a lovely bunch of people.

Art and improv

Went to see my friends new improv comedy night, which was apocalypse bunker-themed and pulled off really well. It was nice to see London comedy folks I haven’t seen in years – some from the 2010’s era of weekly improv jams near Mount Pleasant, and also people from Edinburgh runs even further back. Nice to have that long history in this weird artform.

Giving

This week I’m trying to make sure I have change for homeless people and give it to those who ask without evaluation. It feels like the right thing to do.

Branches outward

Recommendations versus guidelines

6th C Constantinople theological rap battles

Rachel Armstrong – Architecture that repairs itself

Recommendations

A couple of guitar bands, moodier I Heart Hiroshima  via Jay

and fun The Lovely Eggs via Ran.

Other than that, I’m mainly listening to the same stuff over and over to work to. At the moment it’s Keith Jarrett.

Reading

Confession: Nothing this week, beyond speed reading for the book. I guess working my way through this humungous Janet Malcolm article, The Impossible Profession, might count as a thing I’m reading?

Thinking through

“Fuck those moon rocks. It’s always the same sort of people who get to go on the space missions, so I’m not prepared to pay attention to the things they brought back.”

Someone said

All ideology is toxic, because ideology is a kind of insult to the gift of human free thinking. 

Terrence McKenna

|001| what the days have provided

The plan is to blog regularly again, and to get me started (and keep me honest) I’m going to be writing a regular review of what the days have provided, narratively, imaginatively, experientially, in the spirit of many of the newsletters I subscribe to (and also Jay’s awesome blog). Right now it’s going to be a seven-day view every Sunday, although that might change. I’m going to play around with the regular categories, and try and be mindful of taking photos in the week a bit more as well. Some of the sections are there as little enchantments, to keep me doing the stuff I should be doing.

This week as it was to me

I’ve spent most of the past week down south, starting with a visit to our old seaside haunt before the extended family flat gets sold. Splashed around with my family in a swimming pool as warm as some people like a bath. My niece enjoyed ordering her dad and I to race it in laps.

A picture of the game Mah Jong being played on a circular table
Also Mah Jong. Hadn’t played in years, and the first round I got a score of 1536.

 

Mid-week I skidded up to Newcastle for a job interview. It paid off. I’ll be working in the NHS as part of my exploration of the therapeutic side of psychology (the thing people already assume I do when I tell them I’m a psychologist). I live in Newcastle now, which you may not know.

Back now in London; my mum just had an operation so me and my sister are doing nursing shifts at the moment. Cosy home atmosphere, TV and plenty of hot drinks on the go.

Building

This site. A bit more about it here.

Also, my rss feed again. I used to be intravenously connected to Google Reader, and then it died, and the world of blogs seemed to be fading out, and now we’re stuck between the hellsite and the corporate NSA. That’s why I’m back to blogging, less consumption and more creation. But consumption is still needed, and it’s important to break the variable reinforcement schedule of thumbing through twitter for 15 minutes hoping for an article that might actually be satisfying. Curate your own feed and read stuff from people you find thoughtful, and come back to again and again in a reader relationship (or, you know, comment and shit). I’m using Feedly, but you got plenty of options.

Art and improv

I did a Dreaming show on Friday with John – Alice was ill, and Joe couldn’t make it, so it was a straight-up duo. Was super fun, it’s nice to have people tell you that you are showing them something new and inspiring.

One of the reason I like this group is that we come across thematic, meaningful stuff without deciding that we have something to tell. We played a scene as Tetris pieces, which was inspired by the positions we were lying on the ground and the bar-stools we were shoving back and forth rhythmically. After the show was done I realised that the scene became an allegory about being gay in modern Russia, but that just flowed out, it wasn’t the product of one person’s wish to demonstrate an idea. Ten years in, and I’m not sick of this artform at all.

Giving

Not so much. An improviser I met recently ask about tips for using music  well, and I told him what I had in my head. I might do what I did the last time and write it up as a primer in the spirit of this.

Branches outward

Sing Your Heart Out: community singing as part of mental health recovery

Henpower

Time to Rise – Cli-Fi and the Responsibility of New Visions 

Why do we think of the future as being in front? New clues from study of people born blind (by me)

Recommendations

Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Jay recommended this food program and it’s great. History and fun facts interlaced with conversations about cultural ownership, a ton of enjoying food vicariously, with engaging hosts and real dialogue.

Reading

The Uses of Slime Mould, a collection of essays by Nicholas Mosley. Mosley seems in many ways to be an intellectual precursor of Jordan Peterson (whose 12 Rules for Life I read a couple of months ago). They have many of the same preoccupations with therapy, totalitarianism, the nature of religion and the Christian message, darkness, order and chaos. Mosley is less of the straight talker, which might just be that he’s English nobility, not the product of a Canadian prairie town, but I think it’s more about the complexities that Mosley met directly – his father was the fascist Oswald Mosley, which is quite the shadow to grow beneath.

His writing often dips into the psychoanalytic preoccupation with contradictions and tensions. This can be a bit hard going, and reminds me of how I abandoned Adam Philips’ Side Effects despite having the sense that there was something original in there trying to peer out at me. In Mosley’s case, I’ve been ready to push through the opaque stuff, knowing his writing can reward – although I did put aside his epic Hopeful Monsters meaning to return to it (and I should).  I read his Experience and Religion over a decade ago, when my interest in the topic was tentative and academic – something I certainly can’t say now – and that book played its part. Once I’ve finished this book, I might say a little about one or two of the essays.

That’s it for these days.

 

Thoughts for people who want to start teaching improvisation

I got contacted recently by someone looking to run an improvisation course and looking for a few tips. I thought my reply could be useful for a general audience, so here it is.

I was asked about syllabus and general advice. I’ll come to syllabus at the end because it’s a tricky one to answer, so I’ll lead with the more practical things, written with a beginners course in mind: a couple of tips on preparation, a couple on how to run content, and a few more on how to engage with those participating.

Plan a variety of activities, such as

– whole group
– small groups (eg 3-4) in parallel
– pairs in parallel
– solo/pairs/groups in serial, with the remainder watching

Often start with group activities and then use a blend of the rest, not spending too long in one type. If possible, warm-ups are in service to the topic at hand, but it’s never a wrong move to build connection, attention or energy.

Prepare a few more exercises than you need
Sometimes things don’t go quite as you expect, or for practical reasons prove undesirable (a running game when two people turn up with foot injuries). Sometimes things get done really quickly – there was a lesson you thought everyone needed to learn but they already knew it. So it’s always nice to have a few backup exercises in the bandolier. However, bear in mind you should…

Run fewer exercises than you think
This took me a long time to learn! As workshop leader, we often get fixated on working through our Agenda, and we’re so buzzing with ideas and activities that we miss that there can be a lot of pleasure and learning that comes out of an exercise repeated. There is no rule for how many you should do, but often, aside from warm-ups/energisers, two to four exercises (maybe with variants or add-ons) can be enough. Even in beginner workshops which are heavier on the warm-ups, if the group is really into a game you can stick with it for a while. Even 30 minutes or more if it is helping the group coalesce. You can always tweak the game a bit, which brings us to

Be open to tweaking on the fly
As a teacher you are also improvising, so always be prepared to pause an exercise and suggest something to improve it, from the more obvious “let’s do that again but with four times the commitment” to the seemingly arbitrary “let’s keep passing the ball but continually shift from sitting to standing.” Trust your intuition in the same way as you are asking your students to. Sometimes students themselves will suggest tweaks; teachers differ on how to handle this but personally I’m open to trying these out, while making it clear that the responsibility for the workshop remains with me. Speaking of students,

Allow participation
Allow time for students to reflect aloud on their experiences of doing exercises. When things are allowed to be spoken it helps us to really know what we are thinking and feeling, and sharing these insights with others helps them to understand things better. Also encourage students to ask questions, to check understanding or to voice doubts or uncertainties they have. As the leader of the group you may need to restrict this kind of dialogue when it risks turning the workshop into a talking shop, but it’s important the opportunity is there. You can plan check-in points in your teaching plan, but also be alert to what’s needed. After all

You’re mainly a listener
Again, impro basics, but again it’s true. What’s the energy like at the start of the day? How are people responding to high-energy stuff? How about now? Is everyone integrated or have things shifted into a few sub-groups? Are those two people just a bit anxious or ‘have a reassuring word with them in the break’ anxious? Could we do with a break now? How do people feel when they pair up with that energetic person with the massive voice? Drinking everything in with every sense you’ve got. You don’t have to get this stuff right! You just need to care about it. And active listening includes asking a question and getting the answer. And be prepared to act, because

You’re also a leader
Make the calls that need to be made: if you think an exercise must be abandoned, abandon it. If you don’t like content in a scene, call it short and say why. Take responsibility for the atmosphere and make sure people feel safe. I strongly recommend taking time at the start of the course to set out expectations for how people treat each other in the class. It doesn’t need to be a fully scoped code of conduct but you should let people know that respect and comfort are key to the work you are doing together. You can also ask participants to contribute to these expectations.

I haven’t said too much about personal style. There are almost as many effective ways of teaching as there are types of people. Some teachers are preternaturally calm, others cheer at every opportunity; some stay seated, others gravitate into the scenes they are coaching; some reassure whereas others tease. Be decent, be encouraging, be fair, and be you.

Now, syllabus. This is a general question that is impossible to provide a general answer: it depends on the particulars, on your philosophy and the style of improvisation you want to seed. Many people in the UK began by learning shortform games, but I know many schools that don’t. Some people might consider open-ended group performances to be advanced-level stuff, but when Randy Dixon taught the organic Harold, I asked him whether he could see teaching beginners with that form, and he could. I very often use masks in introduction courses, which to others might seem too niche an area to call on.

If I was to give any explicit advice it would be to make sure that the early weeks focus on connection, getting to know each other, positivity, finding fun in mistakes, and the simple joy of playing games together. Other topics that I might focus on would be status, letting go of control, staying in the moment, mime/space and playing different types of things, story structure, emotional reactions, truthfulness, the idea of ‘platforms’, more complex games with restrictions. But most of all, unpack the vision that you care passionately about in improvisation.

 

 

An image of ten improvisers posing in garish t-shirts
My continuing group in Germany last year – we had a cheesy t-shirt theme to the final class, an idea I stole from iO’s Todd Edwards. Any gimmicks you’ve found useful to beginners?

 

A dreaming phoenix

image

Last week, I reflected about the fun I’ve been having recently with Storybag. Another delight in late 2014, appearing like a phoenix from the flames, was The Dreaming.

The Dreaming was born back in 2012 – briefly called Carnosexual before we thought better of it. I formed the team, coached and occasionally played when our numbers demanded. And here I have to make an aside, if you’ll bear with me. I’ve noticed that improv teams, like many groups of people outside of formal structures, can struggle with naming and recognising ownership and authority, often preferring to promote a consensual vibe and muddling through when it comes to crucial decisions or matters of vision. (I think these tendencies are magnified twice: once by the conflict-avoidant, passive aggression of the English middle class, and the other by training that can be [mis]characterised as prizing consensus over standing up and playing your part.) This finger points at no-one more-so than me, which is why I’m owning up, explicitly, to authoring the group into existence, and shepherding it forward according to my goals. It was my baby, even if its manifestation was utterly determined by the great players I was lucky enough to touch and be touched by. In the end, this iteration burned bright – a slew of really fun gigs –  before real life and geography dispersed us.

This September I found myself sharing a few days with founding members John Agapiou and Clare Kerrison at the Maydays Impro Comedy Festival at Osho Leela in Dorset, and the idea came up: why not get the band back together? So, with the help of superb musician and Mayday Joe Samuel, we did. And then we did it again in Cambridge, and – back with Joe again – in Brighton at the end of the year. So, it’s kind of a thing now.

And you know what? I wouldn’t call it my thing.

I formed the group with a simple and selfish agenda of giving my friends new to London a forum to play in. As conditions have changed – my buddy Brandon is back in the US, and John is plenty busy on his own terms – that need simply doesn’t exist anymore.

On top of that, in 2012, I had come back from the Improv Olympic with a clear picture of pursuing  long-form highly organic sound-and motion touchy-feely morphy stuff – what the Dreaming are all about. During the hiatus, I’ve become more focused on other components of improv: on slower, longer scenes, unearthing character, that sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t rate the morphing abstract stuff, it’s just that the desire to do it has been sitting quietly, waiting to be woken up. And it got woken up loud, by John and Clare, with John in particular driving our rehearsals and revealing to us something hidden inside our work together: that we had to embrace looking like pretentious arseholes to get close to doing the kind of work that excited us.

I am totally invested in what I get to do with Clare, John and Joe. But it’s important to recognise that this is not my thing anymore – my thing lived its mayfly life and was done. From the bones of that we’ve boiled up a new soup. New philosophy, new direction of energy. It feels good to recognise how that can happen, the phoenix, the new thing directly from the old thing, wearing its skin, but new again.

The Murak-army

image

Yesterday I got back together with my improv family Storybag to rehearse our latest show, an improvised play based around the themes of Haruki Murakami’s novels.

Storybag was a project that took time to come together. Perhaps rare among improvisers nowadays, who aim to get as much stage time as possible from the off, we spent nearly a year rehearsing together to find our groove, form a group mind and develop trust before asking audiences to come and see it.

We did a string of shows, a few being some of my favourite things to have done on stage. But over 2014 it began to feel less inspired. As I wrote about in the past, in the absence of genre, our stories all began to accrue that particular impro-story genre. We needed a shot in the arm, which we got last September when Sue (Harrison) proposed Murakami. Not only our first genre show but a genre which is specific, challenging and inspiring to our own perspectives. As Sue is a Murakami superfan she’s been able to provide clear artistic direction from the off, and as we immerse ourselves in the work, our group mind reattunes itself around the landmarks and milestones that demarcate this world.

image

I’m particularly happy that Dylan (Buckle), our musical performer, has leapt on the opportunities and challenges that Murakami brings, from a forensic interest in Western music styles from jazz to rock and even classical, to the tonal demands of the work, which he’s deftly exploring using his Kaosmaschine (I don’t know either, but it’s cool piece of kit).

Our debut in December was a real delight; we played on the tips of our toes, toppling into characters that stretched us and exploring mood and emotion. We’ll be kicking into gear with the show in 2015, and excited about where it can bring us. If you’re in London on the 9th March, we’ll be bringing Murakami to the wonderful Duck Duck Goose night.

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness. Whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. No account of the universe in its totality can be final that leaves these disregarded. How to regard them is the question – for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.

William James, one of psychology’s founding fathers, ruminating on his experiences with hallucinogenics. Quoted by Prof David Nutt in The Psychologist.