Nick Skillicorn interviews Tom Salinsky, head of London’s ‘The Spontaneity Shop’ on overcoming fear of judgement and how he doesn’t let creative blocks stop him
Nick: I want to talk to you about your work on improvisation in London and working with people who don’t have a background in it, such as corporates or beginners, and what you think they struggle with.
Tom: All of the stuff we do with corporates and also beginning improvisers begins with getting them into a better state. When you’re in a good state, everything is easy and when you’re in a bad state everything is difficult. The classic example, something I get asked to do a lot, is help people with their presentation skills. When you ask people about their presentation skills often they will say they feel unconfident in front of an audience, or – if they are a bit more self-aware – that other people can see how nervous they are. They are so used to the idea that presenting even in front of a small group should feel traumatic that they don’t question it. But in reality what is asked of them is trivial. They have to stand up and talk (which is easy), on a subject they know all about and having had the opportunity to prepare their remarks in advance. It’s the context that puts them in a bad state. Having all these eyes on them makes even the simplest tasks – like remembering your own name or knowing what to do with your hands – extremely difficult. Similarly, improvisers in a bad state on stage will do all sorts of ridiculous things, they’ll block each other and make stupid offers which completely ruin the scene. It’s out of sheer desperation to try and make something funny or interesting happen. When you see people who are brilliant on stage they are usually in a very good state and look entirely relaxed and comfortable.
When coaching a corporate group you have to establish a certain amount of trust right away. They need to know straight away that the session is going to be worth their while and that I know what I’m talking about. Over the past seven or eight years we have reduced the amount of work we do where we just give a corporate group an introduction to improv skills. When we did that, we would always get the feedback from at least one person saying “that was fun but what was the point?” Today what we do in the corporate world is take principles we know from the theatre and improvisation, and apply them very specifically to running a meeting, giving presentations, negotiating for a better price, and working more creatively.
Nick: I assume that beginning improvisers would have a different mind-set. They want to improve and are more likely to come regularly. What are the moments when they “get it” and go from one level of ability to the next?
Tom: The Level One syllabus is quite structured and usually people go on the same journey. They make roughly the same mistakes in roughly the same order. We begin with work in pairs so people don’t feel too exposed. When we do get them up in front of the rest of the group they’re playing status games, so they are not thinking about the content. Often people take a leap when we introduce ‘jumping and justifying’, get them to take an action now and figure out what it means later. In the fourth session, when we’re doing scene work for the first time, that’s where you see all of the pieces click into place; you see people who begin to trust the process and those who haven’t yet let go. They like their own tool box and don’t like the idea of emptying it out and using someone else’s. That’s when you tell them that we are merely adding to it not removing it at all.
Nick: Let’s talk about your playwriting and your personal creative process. Was it just you writing this play?
Tom: I had a cowriter, Robert Khan, who is not an improviser or performer, and he and I wrote a play just for the fun of it to which we ended up taking the Edinburgh Fringe festival. It was called “Coalition”, and it was quite successful in Edinburgh, after which it had a short run in London. This got us an agent who is now trying to get it on tour. She’d better be quick though. It’s about the plight of our current deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, and therefore has a very short shelf life. At least until about 20 years into the future when I suppose it could be revived as a period piece.
One thing I’ve got good at through improvisation is being able to have a furious debate about content without it reflecting on the people.
Nick: And tell me about your writing process. Did you set aside several hours a day or just write when inspiration hit you?
Tom: It was very haphazard, we wrote when we found time. The good thing about having a cowriter is there is someone standing over you cracking the whip. Usually we would take turns writing a bit, and then when we ran out of either time or inspiration we would hand it over to the other one. At this point it was their go, and if they were taking too long you could send them a text or email saying “you promised to have a look at scene four, where is it?”
While it was still in its early stages, probably too early, we sent a draft of it out to fringe theatres known for reading scripts on spec and received no interest. So for the benefit of the script, and to get some feedback, we decided to do a rehearsed reading. We got a cast of people we knew and the response to the reading was incredible. At this point we understood we had something here, but also saw how some of the material needed to be changed. After additional readings sparked further interest we realised that we had to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was just lucky that the timings happened to coincide with the applications for Edinburgh.
Nick: so the writing was very much a collaborative process between the two of you. How did reviewing work?
Tom: We were constantly rewriting. The good thing about being an improviser is you don’t get attached to the words. I’m used to everything I create being instantly disposable, so it’s very rare that there’ll be a disagreement with Robert where I feel I need to dig my heels in and say you cannot cut that. We each agreed to have one line that we are allowed to defend to the death, everything else has to go if it doesn’t work or it doesn’t fit.
Nick: So in the situations where you disagreed on the way that the play should be written, how did you resolve these creative differences?
Tom: We would argue! Robert studied to be a lawyer so he has a lot of enthusiasm for structuring a logical argument, and we would debate back and forth by email. One thing I’ve got good at through improvisation is being able to have a furious debate about content without it reflecting on the people. Your egos don’t get bruised; you’re talking about the words on the page not the personalities that put them there. In the case of unresolvable debate, it was referred to the Court Of Appeal, my partner Deborah, whose rulings were binding.
“writing is easy, you just stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds”
Nick: And when it was your time to write, were there times when no matter how hard you try, things were just not coming down on to paper? Did you experience writer’s block?
Tom: One of the nice things about having a cowriter is you are free to write rubbish. We always had an outline, so I could always look up for the next scene was supposed to be, write something related to that and get my cowriter to provide their feedback and amendments to it. At least they have something to work on and it works both ways. It only occurred to me very late in the process that because of we were communicating by email it was impossible for my cowriter to know whether what I was sending was something I really crafted, that I had been thinking about all day and thought that was the best I could do, or if it was something I’d just dashed off in 20 minutes in one go, expecting him to make it better.
Sometimes that first draft is great. Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ was plagued by writer’s block and often said: “writing is easy, you just stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds”. There’s a passage in ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ where the hero learns to fly, and Adams recalls how easy this passage was to write and that it just flowed out of him in a way that was very unusual, and because of that he became rather superstitious about it and wouldn’t change a word of it. He subsequently said having re-read it there are things he’d like to change, but at the time he felt it was golden. So I firmly believe that nobody ever has writer’s block, it’s a lie, they just don’t want to write rubbish. If your task was to write 1000 words, you could write 1000 words of derivative drivel, but you might get a good idea while doing that. People are afraid that if they write something and it isn’t good enough that they’ll be judged on it. Douglas Adams, again, is an amazing example of this as he has a heart-breaking story. After he finished his final ‘Hitchhiker’s’ book he felt incredibly blocked and could not come up with anything new he liked, so he decided to retire, go travelling and accept that the books that he had written were his life’s work. And the longer he lived without thinking of himself as an author, the more his head filled up with ideas, some of which he liked and jotted down as notes. After a while he found he had had an incredible collection of ideas and he said in an interview “the problem I have now is, can I, in the time I have left to me, make the best possible use of all of these ideas?” He was dead three weeks later, at the age of 49.
Nick: It’s much like how recent research has shown that the moment of insight, an idea popping into your head is the result of you giving your mind an input and that working in your creative subconscious over a period of time, be it hours, days or weeks.
Tom: Exactly. My partner Deborah describes inspiration as a frightened animal. If you try to shine a light directly on it, to excavate its burrow and see it, it will hide and refuse to come out. Sometimes you need to turn off the lights, sit back and wait for it to appear, which can be when you least expect it.
Tom Salinsky is one of London’s most respected teachers and performers of Improvisation, and runs The Spontaneity Shop, which runs regular shows and classes and is available for corporate functions.