Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Deborah Frances-White: “Imagination crisis? What imagination crisis?”

Deborah Frances-White is the 2016 Writers’ Guild Award Winner for Best Radio Comedy for her hit BBC Radio 4 series ‘Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice’. She is an Edinburgh Fringe regular, a screenwriter and is hugely in demand for her corporate seminars. She is co-founder of The Spontaneity Shop, and co-author of ‘The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond‘ (second edition out now).  She hosts the very popular ‘The Guilty Feminist’ podcast.  I started by asking her whether she shared my thinking that we live in a time of imaginative poverty or, as William Walsh, writing in 1958 put it, “an anemia of the imagination”.

“I really don’t. For example, I have a very successful podcast which in the old days I would have had no way to broadcast and find my audience, ‘The Guilty Feminist’. If I’d pitched that to TV networks before podcasts were available, they would all have said, “Oh, we don’t think feminism will play on television. If we did, we’d want someone more famous than you”. You know, they would put all these roadblocks up.

Whereas what I’ve been able to do is put the podcast out there, and see. Playfully see if there’s an audience for this. If I’d done 10 episodes and no-one was listening, what have I lost? I’ve had a go at doing a podcast. But as it is, people have really responded to it. It doesn’t really matter what the TV people say. I can play, build this format, develop it, have a go.

It’s changed quite a lot in the year and 3 months I’ve been doing it, because I’ve got a play space. But the audience and the listeners who found it, and the audience who turn up to the live shows, have also engaged with this as a play space. There are no gatekeepers.

If you work in television, there’s 100 producers standing over it. There’s “we’ve got the budget”, and a lot of the play in the format development is killed and replaced with, “We think this will work. This will be safer”. I can broadcast now as a comedian, no one can stop me and it doesn’t really cost terribly much. I can listen to what the audience are saying. I can come up with new ideas. If I’ve got a new idea I can try it out next week.

I’ve another podcast called Global Pillage which is a comedy based panel show. I get to host it, just because I want to. Because I said so. No other reason. I book diverse comedians because it’s all about cultural diversity and on the weekend we did one, I was the only white person on the panel. Often there’s no men on the panel. We can create our own world, and create our own play space. It’s so fun and so playful and so delightful.

I just get to be as imaginative as I like and I do it with Ned Sedgewick who writes the questions and keeps the scores and fills us in on more details on the facts and we have such a playful relationship. No one would have employed us to do that. Everyone who comes in and plays, nearly every comedian we’ve ever had on has commented on how playful the space is. The audience love it because they get to play. The hive mind gets to play so it’s two teams of comedians versus the hive minds.

The audience always gets to answer. And they’re so playful. They often make jokes. Anyone in the audience can shout out an answer. The hive mind can shout out an answer, and then the hive mind has to buzz for the one they believe in. They have to back an answer so everyone in the audience gets to play, even if they haven’t shouted out an answer. They buzz for the one they think. And sometimes they back the wrong horse. Of course someone said the right thing but they didn’t get behind it. They get very playful!

But sometimes they will deliberately back the funniest answer, although they obviously know that’s not the real answer, because they want to commend the audience member who made the good joke. And it’s so playful. It’s so fun. They’re not always going, “We’ve got to have the maximum amount of points”. Sometimes they go, “We want to have the maximum amount of fun”.

Now, I just get to do that show. And people, thousands of people listen to that show. Every week, thousands of people listen to that show. I would not be allowed to do that on television. The fact that artists control the means of production now, that’s huge. That’s happened in the last 10 years. Everybody edits their own newspaper now, news on social media. Everybody.

We choose what we share. We choose how we edit what we share. We have editorial on everything. We have to comment on everything. Sometimes that’s exhausting and I think the social and emotional consequences of having to have an opinion on every news story, or worrying people will think you don’t care if you don’t share a certain news story, or haven’t got a comment or opinion, is probably pretty exhausting for us.

But I have a newspaper now. A little mini newspaper where I go, “Oh, this is a feminist story. I really care about this and I’m going to share that… Oh, that’s interesting. I saw that on someone else’s newspaper, but it’s not really something that I’m interested in sharing, but I’ll like that… This is something that I feel I’ve got a really good comment on, so I’ll create a little bit of editorial and opinion. I’ll write a little op-ed piece for my Facebook wall or a link on my twitter feed to a blog”. When did we have that?

Okay, I’m a comedian, I’m a writer, but ordinary people with regular jobs in software development, people who work at KFC, have a newspaper. They can comment. They can write.

We’ve become photographers. When did we take photos in the past? Birthday parties, Christmas, holidays. Three times a year. Anything like that. Now, “Oh, I’ve walked past a beautiful tree and there’s light coming through it”. I will not only take a beautiful photograph of that, I’ll edit it, I’ll filter it and I have an online gallery where other people can share what I’ve just seen. So people take pictures of their foot in autumn leaves, or a cool cloud, or you can take 25 photos of your friends doing funny poses and recreating an album cover, and edit, process he best one, and put it up on Instagram.

My goddaughter makes pop videos and puts them out on YouTube with her mates from just little apps that she uses. They go down to the beach. She lives in Jersey and they go down to the beach and they make videos that when we were kids we would have seen on MTV. And they make quality videos. I know people who have made full feature films on their phones.

So personally I feel like we have never been in a time of more imagination. I see children inventing, creating and also having a place to broadcast, because the more validation you get for your imagination, the more likely you’ll put some more stuff out.

This is an incredible time for imagination in the way people can connect. People can put their ideas out there. Say climate change, it doesn’t cost anything for a company to build a website that people can write their ideas in. You could set them problems and there are always a certain amount of people on the internet who are looking to come up with creative problems. You could do hack days.

I worked with a company here called Rewired State, doing creativity stuff with them. I was helping them pitch their creative stuff. They do these like 48 hour hack days, hack weekends, and instead of saying, “Oh, how can we save electricity?”, they say, “Okay, it’s the zombie apocalypse. We’ve lost all electricity. You have 48 hours to find a way to reconnect and rewire humanity so we can save ourselves”. And then the ideas they come up with, they can then take into third world places that don’t have access to electricity. They use imaginative scenarios.

I knew that they use teenagers for those hack days, but a lot of the people I was working with were teenagers. I was like, “Aren’t you meant to be at school or Uni?” They were like, “Oh yeah, I go to sixth form college two days a week, and then I do this, and blah, blah blah…” And one of the guys was like, “Yeah, I did a term at Uni but University’s kind of an old technology now because we all want to do IT in artificial intelligence, programming and we all know more than the lecturers because we’re actually working in it, and it changes so fast”.

I asked the guy running it and he said, “I’ll work with anyone. I don’t care if they’re 15 and they’re just amazing at programming, or they’ve got a first from Oxford. It’s not what you know. It’s how fast can you change, how fast can you learn, what can you break, what can you make. And I’m equally delighted to have someone with a first from Oxford, as I will the 15 year old. It’s how fast they can learn and break and make stuff.

I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting”. They were all so thrilled to be doing this kind of thing and they were in such an imaginative place, these people. I couldn’t believe how unbelievably creative and imaginative they were. When I was that age, 15 year olds were just stupid grown-ups who had to learn what the grown-ups knew. Now a lot of companies are looking to young people who know more, who are more plugged into that, who are digital natives, who’ve got ideas.

Now young people get to be the imaginative experts on things because they have it in their DNA in a way that Generation X will never have that kind of digital imagination in their heart and soul. It just comes out of them. When I look around I see children having access to extraordinary imaginative worlds. They’re not just coming home and sitting there in front of a television.

My godchildren, I say, “What’s the cool TV show at school?” And it would have been Not the Nine O’Clock News or The Fast Show, where everyone goes to school and quotes the show. And now it’s like, “Oh, we don’t really watch television”. I’m like, “What do you watch?” They’re like, “YouTube and we talk about Minecraft, and we make this, and we do that, and we make pop videos and YouTube videos and we like each other’s and we share.” There’s a lot more making. We used to just sit there and watch television. And then quote television. We weren’t making our own sketch shows. Well I wasn’t.

That’s an extraordinary thing that’s happened. It doesn’t replicate the play that we had. So when we went out into the garden when we were 7 and 8, to play police and bad guys or whatever other scenarios that we came up with, where we’d run around and pretend to be characters, I don’t think children do as much of that as they used to. But that doesn’t mean they’re not imaginative. It means that they’re responding to the imaginative stimulus that’s in their world.

One of the questions that I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed has been if you had been elected as the Prime Minister on a platform of ‘Make the UK Imaginative Again’, what might you do in your first 100 days?

Probably teach grown-ups how to play. All we tend to be only interested in is glorious successful scenes or crash and burn failures. But if you stay happy when you crash and burn, the audience adore you, because they’re not used to seeing people fail and stay happy. That’s what clowns are. Clowns are people who fail and stay happy. If a clown gets in his little clown car, drives across the circus ring, picks up a pint of milk and then comes back, that is not a successful piece of clowning, because it’s too competent.

What a clown needs to do is drive halfway across, all the wheels fall off his car. Then he or she gets out, to try and put the wheels back on but they fail at that. The wheels keep coming off, and every time they get back in the car the wheels come off again. But because the clown stays happy and curious, it’s entertaining to watch. If the wheels fall off the car and the clown goes, “Oh fucking hell, it’s going to be hours before the AA gets here and I’ve got to get to the other side of the circus ring”, and looks all pissed off, that’s not a successful clown either. Because we can see that on the side of the road on the M40. So understanding that if you fail and stay happy, you’re a clown, that kind of thing.

I would teach grown-ups process for play, and remind them, because when you point this out, they laugh, and they go, “Oh yeah. Why do I care?” And they see it, and they get it, and they experience it. Mandatory impro training doesn’t seem like fun either – but I’d give people an option for impro training. Or, if that’s not your thing because performance makes you anxious, drawing. If that’s not your thing for some other reason, music. Or it could be sport. But what’s the thing where we can break down the process of play, get people to enjoy it, and get as many adults as possible…

You know, if you’re making a fantasy island you have a condition of entry that everyone does this. If it’s real world, well we say we make these things freely available for people and we encourage communities to have this. Then I would actually just create environments for children, because children know this intuitively.

I would get the grown-ups working with the children to play together. You have to allow the grown-ups to lower their inhibitions, because we have a lot more inhibitions than children. But once you’ve done that, get the children teaching the grown-ups. If I ever teach children I always say you’re much better at this than grown-ups. There’s so many things I just do not need to teach them. Don’t need to teach them. At all. They are already 10 steps ahead of grown-ups in so many things.

You talked about how when you did the stuff with the kids when they were ten, and they get it and they have no fear about making fools of themselves. And then you do it with the 30 year olds and they do. What happens in the middle?

It’s probably our formal education. That’s what Keith always blames. If you’re a kid and the teacher says write an essay about what you did on the holidays and everyone else is writing, and you’re just relaxed and happy and looking out the window, what will happen is the teacher will shout at you, and say, “You, you’re not even trying”.

The teacher would know if you were trying because trying looks like something. If you’re hunched over the paper looking worried and not up to the job, the teacher will come round and do it for you. But if you’re looking relaxed and happy and you’re not doing anything, the teacher will say you’re not trying. So we learn to look like we’re trying as children. I remember doing that. I remember not being able to do the high jump. Being terrified. Like I would just fall on it. I didn’t know how I would do it.

No-one had shown me how. I didn’t have a natural aptitude for it. I wasn’t a very physical child. I remember looking like I was really going to try and jump, and then stopping at the bar, like I couldn’t quite make myself do it. I never intended to jump. But I knew that if I just walked up casually and walked away, the teacher would shout at me for not trying. But as I was seen to try, then I was alright. We force our children to look like they’re trying, and we punish them for looking relaxed.

We don’t like children to look relaxed. Not if they’re in a work environment. We’re not comfortable with it. We like them to look worried and anxious. We train them to do it. And likewise after things, if you’re a kid and you’re washing up and you drop a plate, and you go, “Well never mind, everyone drops things from time to time, these things happen” and you just clean it up in a relaxed and happy fashion, your parents will shout at you, because that in our society is a bad attitude.

A good attitude is to cry and feel worthless, and then your mother will say, “Never mind darling it was only an accident” and clean it up for you. We train our children to punish themselves before they are punished. I see grown-ups do it in impro class. They get up and they look really anxious. They go tight. They do the scene and then they go, “Sorry” before they’ve had any feedback. Like before you tell me it was terrible, I already know. So we train them.

Of course they do that. When they’re little they just come out, they have goes at things. They don’t beat themselves up. Honestly, we talk about children with bad attitudes if they look too relaxed. I think also adolescence kicks in, doesn’t it? You get more self-conscious about your body. You get more worried about what the opposite sex, or the same sex, will think about you. You generate your own fear because suddenly you don’t recognise your body anymore and you’re understanding that you have to be sexually attractive in some way, or you’d like to be sexually attractive in some way, or you need to be up to making the first move. And all of those things inhibit that natural playful, game playing, imaginative openness.

So it’s probably a combination of education, adolescence, just response to the world outside, which doesn’t reward and encourage imagination.

In ‘Improv’, reflecting on the impact of improv on your own life, you wrote “I’m more playful, more likely to say yes even when I shouldn’t, less frightened of doing new things, more in touch with my imagination and I’ll have any sort of opportunities for performance”. As somebody who’s involved in work around climate change and trying to get people involved in trying to make the world a better place, those struck me as the qualities that we could really use in making that sort of change happen. How can we cultivate that sort of spirit more widely in society do you think?

A lot of what you learn in improvisation is about trust. To be open to what your partner is saying, and really respond to that. We talk about saying “Yes, and” and when we first say “Yes, and”, what people want to do is say the words “Yes, and” but not really mean them.

So it’ll be, “Let’s go to Paris on holidays.” “Yes, and let’s go up the Eiffel tower.” “Yes, and let’s go down the Champs Élysées shopping.” “Yes, and let’s go for dinner.” And those things all “Yes, and” Paris, but they don’t “Yes, and” the last suggestion, they “Yes, and” the first suggestion. So in other words, while you’re talking, I can be thinking of my thing.

To really “Yes, and” in the moment, that’s what takes trust because it makes you feel vulnerable. Because if I have to “Yes, and” the last thing you said, then I have to be changed by you. And ultimately we only want to be changed by people we really trust, because otherwise you could change me. You could say something that’s going to make me uncomfortable.

You might say, “Let’s go to a strip club”, and then I might say, “Yes, and let’s watch the strippers”, and you could say, “Yes, and let’s get up and start stripping ourselves”. Now if I don’t feel comfortable with that, it’s really easy for me to block and withdraw. So if I’m working with someone I don’t know very well, or I’m working in a genre I don’t know very well, or a medium, I might hold back more control. Because in impro it’s play, it’s all pretend, it’s all jokes. It’s all imagination.

We are probably safer to go to those places and to explore that side of ourselves. But when it’s real world, if I have to “Yes, and” what you say, I lose control with consequence. In an impro scene, not so much. Even if it’s like, “Oh, I’m going into an area I personally wouldn’t go in to”. But it’s pretend. It’s made up, it’s imagined. It’s not truthful, it’s not real. So the training to “Yes, and” just makes you more open to life.

We put up lots of no’s because no’s keeps us safe. We’re all survivors, and we have an instinct to survive, by which I mean we all want to survive. We’re expert at surviving. We’ll assess constantly where there’s danger. If you’re walking home in London, for example, you’ll see a dark street, a light street. You’ll go down the light street. You’ll see where there’s lots of people who are together in shops, and you’ll go towards that as opposed to the side of the street where there’s one guy on his own and you’re not quite sure what’s going on there.

We’re just making these choices all the time. Impro pushes you into yes, and then you discover yes is really fun. There’s a lot of times in real life where we’d say no out of habit, or out of this idea that we’ll be safer. We won’t be safer. We’ll just have less fun, go on less adventures or fewer adventures.

In terms of exploring for climate change, the first thing I would say is create a playful space in which there are no consequences for ideas. Because people want to censor as they create, all the time. They want to edit as they create. I always say there’s a reason that the editor doesn’t follow the director round on a film set going, “We won’t use that”, “I wouldn’t bother shooting from that angle because I’m not going to use it”. The editor is in a different time of the process.

What the director is shooting is choice. Lots and lots of “Yes”. Then the director goes and sits with the editor and the editor is saying, “No. We don’t need that, we don’t need that, we don’t need that”. I always think if you’re not happy with your end product, it’s usually because you didn’t say yes enough at the beginning, or no enough at the end. So you need yes and you need no. But those are best off in separate processes. That’s the mistake people make.

You discuss climate change, and someone says, “Well I think we could do this”. Someone else immediately says, “Well they tried that in Japan and it didn’t work because…” or, “Well we wouldn’t have the budget for that”. So there’s so much no. So much no. So I would say find ways of genuinely creating rewards for yes in the first instance, and playful environments where we’re not editing as we go, we’re editing later. But reassure people that edits will happen later, because then they panic. They panic that yes means conclusion, it’s done. Yes is just we’re looking for quantity not quality at the top. And then through this massive amount of quantity we will find quality.

I love the A-Z storytelling exercise you do about different things…

The alphabet creates a creative or imaginative trigger but also a constraint. Because if you put nothing into the Google search and hit search, it’ll say you haven’t narrowed it down enough. So sometimes we give ourselves the option of everything, and then there’s just too many things and we can’t choose. Whereas if I say come up with a profession that starts with a letter B you can immediately think of baker or bus driver. If I say, “What should this character do for a living?” you think, “Oh, well I don’t know. What’s good?”

“What’s the right answer?”

Yes, absolutely. But “name a profession starting with the letter G” is easier than, “what should Gary do for a living?” So sometimes narrowing down the options can be the best thing you can do for yourself.

What happens to a culture when it loses its ability to play? How does that manifest, do you think? What are the risks with that?

Almost all innovation that works and is useful is probably borne out of imaginative play of some sort or another. No one comes up with their best ideas where there’s strip lighting and a white board and someone saying, “Come on now, we need 10 good ideas”. If you ask people, they always say, “Oh, I came up with that when I was just falling asleep and suddenly it occurred to me and I woke up and I wrote it down on a notepad”, or, “I was swimming”, or, “I was riding my bicycle”, or, “We were sitting in the pub and we put it on the back of a serviette or a napkin or an envelope or something”. That’s the common experience.

We all know we’ve come up with incredible ideas when we’ve been in a playful mood with someone that we really trust and we’re really open to. So my concern if we were to be in an environment where there wasn’t any play, then we would lose an awful amount of innovation. That’s why if you go to visit Facebook, they’ve got lots of games everywhere. Partly that’s to keep people wanting to stay later, because where are they going to go that’s more fun than somewhere that has a Taco bar and an X-box, but partly it’s to create a spirited, playful environment where people are feeling like they’re imaginative. They’re playing games. They’re joking about. Because those things are likely to inspire innovation in technology.

Is there much work on what’s going on inside peoples’ brains when they do impro?

I actually don’t know. But I’m sure your brain lights up in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways when you improvise. My impro teacher, Patti Stiles, who’s one of the best in the world, she always says, “Don’t make an offer, assume an offer’s already been made”. So how is your partner sitting? How are they looking at you? Are they not looking at you? What are they doing? Or what did you pick up from that tone of voice? And respond to that, rather than wildly thinking what can I come up with next? What wacky idea can I come up with next?

That’s what I think often gets missed out, is really being there in that moment. I don’t know what the neurology of it is, but something different is definitely happening in my brain if I’m really there. And if I can tie up the intellect, that’s what Keith Johnston always talks about, who wrote the very seminal book ‘Impro’, and he taught Patti, and Patti taught me. I worked with Keith on and off, but Patti really trained me. But he talks about “tying up the intellect”.

It’s a bit the same as what they’re trying to do in yoga. You’re trying to turn the conscious controlling brain off, which is on all the time. I really can get into that state fully I notice if I do a one person impro format where I play all the characters. Because if I’m having a conversation with myself, I just don’t have time to plan. I can only be in the moment. It’s a very different state. You feel it.

I’ve done scenes like that where I can hear the audience laughing, and I remember thinking, “What are the audience laughing at?” It was like I can hear an audience laughing but it was like they were laughing at something else, because I didn’t have enough space, given I was physicalising for two people, verbalising for two people, emoting for two people, and there were no breaks in between. I didn’t have enough brain space to be conscious that there was an audience watching me. And certainly to plan to do anything intellectual at all. Something different must be happening in your brain then. It’s almost like an out of body experience.


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