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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not so much. An improviser I met recently ask about tips for using musicwell, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed. You need to make sure the audience is the most important person in the room.
Yo Yo Ma, interview with On Being
Anyone watching the Flying Circus for the first time in 2014 and expecting non-stop hilarity will be rather confused and perhaps a little disappointed. Sketches fail on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly; extraordinarily long periods can pass without anything funny happening (the studio audience tittering nervously from time to time, to compound the embarrassment). Once considered dizzyingly fast, bits of Python now seem painfully slow.
But that doesn’t matter much. Python isn’t meant to be a procession of quickfire gags – rather, it calls to mind the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit’s egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a load of rubbish.” The aim is to create a flow of unnerving and bewildering ideas, an unstable atmosphere which may produce hysterical laughter, or merely dumbfound. Those longeurs are part of the deal. Python is not about wisecracks and pithy one-liners – it’s all about the swirl.
There is, or was, another side to Monty Python. Back in the day, that celebrated silliness was only part of the picture; this was adversarial humour, part of the counterculture (in effect, if not necessarily by intention). Very rarely was Python political, but it was a protest all right – a protest against bullshit and bullying, sloppy thinking and humbug, a gleeful assault on philistinism and pseudery. What’s more, it was weird. Not “wacky”, not “delightfully loopy” – really, really weird. At its best, Python could be a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive… something close to Dada. It was not just absurd, but absurdist: cosmic satire, a mockery of meaning.
And yet, like all popular avant-garde art, its appeal was beautifully basic. This was comedy stripped to its root: two incompatible ideas colliding, noisily and painfully. Comedy returned to its primary purpose: to inform the powerful, the headstrong and the vainglorious that everything is bullshit – life is a joke, your finery is meaningless and worms will be feasting on you sooner than you think. Partly out of devilment, partly in the hope that once we’ve got that straight, we can all move on from there. That was the funniest thing of all: deep down, under the warm embrace of bad taste and the cold contempt, Monty Python cared.