From Spymonkey to Actual Monkeys
I did a clowning course with Spymonkey in September and I am still absorbing the week (it was great, go and do it). My main note was to show my pleasure more, which is not surprising to me. I used to be really shy, and I still get shy in large groups sometimes. Performing standup and improv helped me to change that a lot, but it was not my habit to show emotions freely. So it was a big lesson to learn that when I started and I’m still working on it. I used to find the idea of showing emotions on stage terrifying, and it can still be intimidating but overall I’m grateful I get the chance to practice it and do something that I love. It’s really useful for characters and its fun to explore that on stage.
Showing my pleasure. That made me think about people I have seen sharing their pleasure. All the great teachers I have had, at school and later, all the best speakers and performers- they all obviously love what they are doing and love to share it. It’s a good path to follow.
What does this have to do with human evolution?
I read an article in Scientific American Mind (Vol 25, No.5) called Let’s Talk, that made me think about how performances work. It’s about the common rules of languages across the world and what they tell us about human communication.
One difference between human and animal communications is that animals rarely require a response. For example, if a chimp shouts an alarm call it doesn’t expect another chimp to reply, but a lot of our communication directly requests a response. “Hello, how are you?”. If you don’t get a response you get confused or annoyed at the other person for ignoring you.
But I think sadly a lot of communication is mixed up in real life. Not a lot of our cultural dialogue is about vulnerability and honesty so we learn to close it off. People drop hints and talk sideways then get surprised when nobody understands. Then we go to the movies or a theatre to see raw honesty played out in front of us. That’s back-to-front way of doing things.
So in my humble opinion, combining the teachings of Spymonkey and current linguistic evaluations of the true nature of human communications, I deduce that showing pleasure is a really pure form of communication. It’s saying “I am enjoying this,” and inviting the audience to come along for the ride. It’s weird and its humbling to do something that is essentially asking people to accept and trust you, as you are. It’s not always comfortable but it is always effective.
What’s your pleasure?
(I also love story-telling so check out my Epic Tales workshop this Wednesday in London. Only £5 for a taste of my secrets. Full details here.)
I watched a video on YouTube by Eric Thomas, the hip-hop preacher.
He said something unusual. To paraphrase, he said:
“You matter. I’m saying that because some of you may never have heard that.”
It’s strange that people don’t say that more often. I know people like to say it with actions, but there is something powerful about hearing that raw phrase, ‘You matter’. There are two things that strike me about this, the power of the obvious and the power of the hidden.
This is something I have learned. People avoid being direct and obvious, so playing a character that is obvious is very unusual and almost always very funny or very touching. Usually it can be both.
Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. His reaction to everything is to freak out, you know he is going to freak out and yet it’s still funny. Him trying to hide things from Sybil is also funny because you know that she will find out. I think that series plays the with tension of hiding and revealing excellently. His well-known interaction with German guests is a great example of the power of the obvious. He says exactly what he’s doesn’t want to say and winds himself up into a ridiculous frenzy. Imagine that scene where he says nothing and maybe just made jokes outside their earshot. Absolutely no drama.
It’s hard in the beginning to play characters that hide what they want, because often people don’t pick up on it. I think you need to work with other improvisers for a while to learn how to read each other. It’s not impossible though, its very close to how we live. Hiding what we want from ourselves or others.
You could try this experiment, stand in front of a mirror and say to yourself “You matter.” Then see how you feel about that. Is it weird and uncomfortable? Is that because you don’t often tell yourself that you matter?
If you aren’t positively acknowledging yourself, then what are the hidden things you say to yourself instead?
Watching random videos on Youtube is a great way to find new inspirations. Why was I listening to a hip-hop preacher? That doesn’t matter. What matters is taking something fascinating away from it.
More importantly: You matter. Just because you might not say that to yourself or hear it a lot doesn’t make it less true. Especially in a creative field like improvising drama and comedy, your voice matters.
I am temping in Westminster at the moment, on the 5th floor so I can see out over the chimneys and aerials. I was looking out the window this lunchtime and I saw a seagull waddling down a grey slate roof. I wondered what it’s like to be a seagull.
Specifically I wondered what it is like to be a seagull on the Thames, bobbing about in the cold water, then wheeling up into the air and swooping down onto the geometric coral of the Westminster rooftops. The roofs of Westminster are a desert, with gulleys that harbour bin-bags of occasional delight for a scavenger.
That is a pretty interesting transition.
When I look out, I see a distraction from the mundanity of a quiet afternoon, perhaps the seagull sees respite from the struggle for food. Does a seagull wheeling down onto a rooftop feel like a worker heading into the tea-room for a sit down?
Life is filled with boundaries and transitions.
In daily life we often go through these boundaries without noticing. The rush hour is a different place than my bedroom at night, but I rarely pay attention to how my state changes during the day.
It’s easy to miss this on stage as well. If you are having to create your environment as you go then you can’t completely be influenced by it. But you can be more aware of how you are affected, and then use that to find more nuance on stage. I think next time I get to play a bird I will notice the difference between being on land or in a tree. I think it’s more dangerous to be on the floor as a bird. I will feel safer in the trees as a bird.
I also think playing games around this in rehearsal is a good way to open up that nuance in performance. If you can play at being a deer in the woods and the same deer crossing a road you can see that a deer isn’t just a deer. A wolf in its pack is different from a lone wolf.
You might want to notice these moments over the next few days. How does your posture change when you go through these boundaries? For example coming in your front door, or getting on a packed or empty carriage. What expands in you when you move into a different environment and what contracts?
There is a lot of creative fuel to be found in the quietest moment of opening a window and hearing traffic.
I just read a great article by Arthur J. Deikman, about how to find personal freedom.
It resonated with me a lot, especially when I think of improv. When I started, without knowing it I was secretly asking for approval from the audience when I performed. The laughter or applause was the impetus to keep going. I realised that a couple of years ago, and it was very freeing to move past that stage.
We all have a steering wheel inside us. When I was hoping for a teacher to tell me how good I was, or an audience to encourage me I was letting go of the wheel and hoping somebody else would start driving for me. Then I wondered why it all felt so terrifying and out of control. Because my hands were off the wheel.
When I started experimenting and doing what interested me, suddenly I became much more confident. It was like I grabbed the wheel and started driving to interesting landmarks that caught my eye. I was no longer a passenger, I was an explorer.Of course I falter and fall back into old habits sometimes, but it’s really nobody’s job but mine to grab ahold of the wheel again.
Now when people appreciate my performance, it feels much more equal. They are jumping into the car for a while to come along for the ride, but I am choosing what sights we are going to see. And when I watch others I can relax and let them take me places. No need to be a back-seat driver.
What I realised is that it is supposed to feel strange and challenging when you do something completely new. I’m allowed to explore and make mistakes along the way just like everyone else. Trying to create a feeling of supreme confidence before I start experimenting is doing things the wrong way round. That’s like trying to draw a map before you’ve explored the territory. If you really want to grow and find something new about yourself you have to go where there aren’t any maps.
From the article above:
“Dependency kills us, for it is the unknown that gives us life. The unknown flowers when we are receptive to it, allowing it to enter. The unknown carries us to the constantly forming edge of the world where light, beauty, and ecstacy are found. There is no other path to the spiritual, to the creative, to reality.”
Check out my storytelling workshop coming up next week if you want to find more freedom in your work.
Alan Watts says many useful things. Finding your voice is very important in many fields, especially in a collaborative art form like improv. I think if you are trying to find your voice its worth looking in the right place.
If you are looking back on what you have already done, then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place. If you are comparing yourself with others then maybe you aren’t looking in the right place.
Maybe you need to listen more and talk less about your ‘self’. You don’t need to tell others what you are like, or repeat to yourself old images of yourself. You can just explore and react. Water running down a hill finds out the shape of the hill by fitting to its terrain. You can find out about yourself by observing how you react to your terrain. You need to listen to yourself before you can listen to others.
I’m keen to introduce you to the life and work of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), an amateur opera singer whose career transcended the limitations of that most mundane and stifling of personal qualities: talent.
Her cracked tones and dire prosody were hilarious enough to give her significant public success, culminating in a sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall a few weeks before her death. As long as people were eager to hear her, it was her joy to sing for them. Her commitment and bravery make the question of whether or not she was deluded irrelevant. She’s a hero of mine.
To her critics, she was said to have retorted: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Take it away, F.F.J.:
Let us celebrate Florence Foster Jenkins, but as we do so, let us not forget her loyal accompanist, the undoubtedly talented Cosmé McMoon, who supported her throughout the years, playing along for her benefit and for ours.
I was in Brighton the other weekend visiting my brother and his family. Following a deliberately catastrophic night out drinking, we spent some relaxing time on the Saturday morning with their youngest daughter, my niece, Orla, who is a little over one year old.
Orla is currently learning to walk. At the time of writing she can manage about five steps at a time. Not bad, eh? We played an endlessly joyful game in which she would be helped to a standing position a few feet away from her dad. She would then totter towards him, collapse, then he would pick her up, plonk her in his lap and she’d slide down his legs. She’d then scamper away on all fours. Every stage in this process would be encouraged by the grown-ups: “Woooh!” Yeeah!” “Aaaah!” She never got bored. You’ve seldom seen a happier baby.
How amazing to learn something new by being supported by people who help you find the joy in what you do. I found myself envying Orla.
We joked about what it would be like if Orla were learning the way grown ups learn. “Her technique’s all over the place.” “She’s got a long way to go before she can seriously expect to impress anyone with her walking skills.” “Her progress shows what great teachers we are.” “She needs to show more commitment.” “She needs to aspire to be one of the great walkers.”
When we turn into “adults”, we are expected to have the basics covered – walking, talking, feeding ourselves, going to the toilet unassisted. After that, learning new things becomes a serious business, a chore, work. We are supposed to be motivated not by the joy of the thing itself but by the utility of the task, the desire to compete, to impress others, to gain acceptance or to chase a distant objective.
Not every lesson can be a carefree romp with people telling you how great you are all the time – obviously the rewards from analysing technique and putting legwork into improvement towards specific self-generated goals are often greater than can be got from pure unguided playfulness – but I think it is important never to lose sight of how all learning begins: the pleasure of the thing itself. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that. Unless we can find joy in a task irrespective of success or failure at it, why do it?
I think this is especially true of learning improv – for two reasons. Firstly, by definition everything we do we are doing for the first time, so failure must remain a joyful possibility. An improviser who relies too heavily on their tried-and-tested skills isn’t improvising as much as they could be, and risk-free improv is a contradiction in terms. Secondly, I believe that basic improv skills are as fundamental to human development as those a baby learns: breathing, controlling our bodies, being present and attentive, empathetic and supportive, playing creatively, following ideas, communicating emotions and saying yes. Modern society drills these skills out of us as we get older, and adult teaching methods are insufficient to drill them back into us.
How to Learn
No it was not some international super-virus cooked up from the heady mix of foreign and local blood, sweat and tears. My immune system remains at maintenance levels at this time.
I will explain the title. There is a saying that I once heard and thought most true:
“Experience doesn’t give you wisdom, it lets you recognise it”
I think this is so importantly true that I often repeat it to myself in my mind. From that sentence to the title involves just one step, the book entitled Dear Mr. Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood?: Letters to Mr. Rogers. I just finished it and it is a great and touching read. If you are not familiar with Mr Rogers then I recommend checking out his defense of publicly funded broadcasting to the US senate.
Fred Rogers was a childrens’ TV broadcaster, everything he said was true and dedicated to nurturing the growth of others, especially children. I think it is a great loss that we never got his show over here after finding out more about him. That speech of his is one of the bravest things I have seen. His Daytime Emmy award acceptance speech is also pretty refreshing.
The book collects letters from children and parents who watched his show, and his replies. One of his replied resonated with me so much it reminded me of the sentence above. In response to a question about what is most important to know, this is what he wrote:
“What I believe is most worth knowing is that every human being has value. This is the basis of all healthy relationships; and it’s through relationships that we grow and learn best.
I’ve learned what is most worth knowing through living each day as it is given to me. It cannot be “taught” but it can be “caught” from those who live their lives right along with us. What a privilege to be able to look for the good in our “neighbor”!”
Internalising this attitude of being inspired by others and learning as much as possible from them certainly improved my improvising and creative output. So here are just a few of the things I caught from Slapdash, through interviews, through shows and through conversation.
- The question of who you are is important to your work
- Your voice is unique and valuable
- If you can’t do something that exists, make something new
- Chairs are uncooperative
- There is a place for every kind of art, and an audience for every kind of show
I remember my first Slapdash Festival. I was lucky enough to be improvising with Friendly Fire on the night and got to recreate and analyse the dreams of audience members. It was in the tunnels underneath Waterloo which was a very atmospheric place to perform, similar to this years Slapdash Festival which is also in a tunnel underneath trains.
Then we had the jam where all the groups performed together. It was my first jam performance, and it was a bit overwhelming being surrounded by all these people jumping in and creating a show as if they had turned up together. One of the great things about improv that many people experience is that ability to work with new improvisers on the night. That’s the job description! I had no idea what I was doing, but that was okay because everybody was there to support the scene and make things happen.
There was a nice moment in the jam that taught me something important about improv, or at least the kind of improv I wanted to do more of.
The last scene was a big musical/dance number and I stepped into the back line as a bodyguard of the main character. I noticed that Sean McCann was also playing a bodyguard type character at the same moment he noticed me and we quickly stood back-to-back with our arms crossed as the song finished, freezing as part of the scene picture.
It was fun and it was simple and rewarding, and it allowed me to find my feet in the moment. I don’t know when I realised the overall lesson from that, but what I have learned is that the best work comes out of that groundedness and connection. It’s about tuning myself to what I am doing and what other performers are doing and just following that. Right now I am writing this and feeling that flow and remembering that its always right beside me, or going through me but I’m just not paying attention to it when I feel it’s not there.
The reason I love improv, and being exposed to new improvisers and shows is because it keeps you on your toes. You have to be reacting and learning otherwise it gets stale and boring. Like life, like relationships, like love. Growth is a happy mountain.
So I’m looking forward to all the visiting performers finding that flow with the audiences at Slapdash.
What will grow from the night? Nobody knows, that’s why we do it. New friendships, new ideas and new experiences between old friends. New performances with new opportunities. New beginnings. A new Now.
And probably a great big piss-up at the end. That’s how the UK rolls, yo.