Why should you support young people to get creative? How can it help their confidence, grow their skills and develop new careers?
In this new blog Kate Murphy explains why she’s supporting Creative Careers week 2019 – taking place 18-22nd November – and tells her story of getting into creativity with The Suggestibles.
Creativity? As Kate says, “we’d be fools to underestimate it”.
An online search of ‘things to do in Newcastle’ brought me to improvisation at 17 years old. The page I opened in the second step of this search told me of a comedy show at The Cumberland Arms in Byker, and it was performed by a local group called The Suggestibles. “They ask the audience for suggestions as they perform,” I told my drama teacher at school the next day, revelling in its simplicity. “And then that’s what they do onstage: what the audience have said. They make it up as they go along.” It was so simple that it bordered on dangerous. Not only were The Suggestibles inviting a roomful of beer-moustached adults to be their co-writers (daring enough already), it was also their only plan for the show. There was no back-up. No rehearsal. No script. They make it up as they go along. That was it.
In the bustling room upstairs at The Cumberland Arms that Saturday, I was sitting in a sea of heads as darkness fell across us and we bubbled down into expectant silence. I was at my first improv show, and my first adult comedy show. It felt like fireflies were dancing inside my chest.
Then, for the first time, I heard what would become one of my favourite sounds: right next to the front row, Alex Ross tickled his keyboard keys into a flurry of notes somewhere between a drum-roll and a ‘ta-da’, and from the speakers came an intimate but booming:
“Llllllladies and gentlemen, welcome to your Saturday night at The Cumberland Arms!”
A cheer swelled from the dark sea. Bev Fox fiddled the lights onandoffandonandoff into a mad disco-twinkle, and we glistened. Then a hot golden light burst over the stage, and on jumped The Suggestibles. As they introduced the show, they looked back at us with the giddy expectation of people ready to be entertained, the same way we must have been looking at them. It’s a new and pleasant thing to have your own excitement mirrored back at you when you’re in an audience. “We have no idea what we’re going to do,” said Ian McLaughlin, simply, cheerily. “So we need your suggestions to make scenes.”
We then got to see with our own eyes how an entire scriptless show can be powered on nothing but six people’s unbridled glee, committed imaginations and absolute lack of fear. Scenes were stopped so that someone in the audience could shout out an accent in which they wanted the improvisers to continue (Accent Coaster). If the improviser could do the accent, we laughed. If they couldn’t do the accent, we laughed harder. A 30-minute musical about package holidays was invented and performed at the same time, the equivalent of a Breaking News report breaking ten seconds ahead of itself. In one game (Two-Headed Expert), a pair of performers – or players, as they called themselves – spoke a word at a time, at breakneck speed, until the surprise sentence they’d formed made them weep with laughter and they couldn’t talk anymore. You don’t see that in A View from the Bridge. To me, what I was seeing was better than theatre: not a polished final product, but a constant work in progress, where every mistake stayed in and every moment of finesse was an accident.
I came to their shows again and again. Each time, I couldn’t breathe from laughing during Two-Headed Expert. It was a thrill to watch two people link arms and cheerfully walk themselves into trouble, taking turns to unload their brains with no hesitations, performing this bullet-fast back-and-forth where something could go wrong any second, like the Chuckle Brothers with a dynamite stick. Being a keen actor and writer, as I watched their scenes, I also thought about what I would do if I was up there on stage: how I’d respond to that last line, how I’d show where I was, how I’d move the action along in a way that also told a joke – what sentence I’d say that did all of these at the same time. I often had one. I realised that everything an improviser does is just an idea that hasn’t been rejected. Every line, every movement, every reaction, is an idea, and I had ideas. I could be a part of this.
It was in 2013 – one year after I’d seen The Suggestibles for the first time, and a few months into my Drama and Script Writing degree – that its founders Bev Fox and Ian McLaughlin came into Room 332 of Northumbria University’s arts department, for a free workshop on improvisation. I couldn’t get my name on the sign-up sheet fast enough. Over dozens of games and scenes on that December afternoon, Bev and Ian introduced us to some of the underlying principles in improv: co-operation, limiting your thinking time, freeing your imagination, and performing tasks where getting something wrong is both inevitable and fun. Failure which is guaranteed and enjoyable – you don’t come across that combination often as an adult. But once you’ve been doing improv for a while, you can start to bring its approach to almost everything you do. We’re raised to treat ‘getting things wrong’ as this monster we can hardly bring ourselves to mention above a certain decibel – you hear whisperings of it in rickety taverns, and see repeats of it on Channel 5’s ‘Biggest Pop Clangers!’ countdowns, in the form of clips from the 1989 BRIT Awards. Legend tells us it lurks it dark, damp places and eats alive all those who are daft enough to go near it. This holds us back. If we saw failure as a friendlier beast than this – as a necessary part of learning anything, and no less natural than freckles, it wouldn’t be so feared, and those who’ve been in contact with it wouldn’t have to shroud themselves in shame. If you’re going to do anything worthwhile, you have to become friends with failing. Life is one big guaranteed and enjoyable failure.
Taking on an impossible task is the basis for everything in a short-form improv comedy show. Whether it’s performing an open heart surgery scene whilst changing your accent on command, or acting out a date with someone without using the letter ‘s’, you will only master it briefly before you trip up. Your time riding high is limited, and this is precisely the thrill of it: you and the audience know you’re going to make a mistake at some point, but no-one knows when. You can never stay on the surfboard for too long, so you’ve got to learn to enjoy the whole thing, riding and falling alike. It takes the unnecessary devastation out of the falls, and it makes the victories all the greater when they happen. Really, an impossible task is the basis of all improv: be it an improv comedy show, an improvised play, or a game in a workshop, improv is someone accepting the challenge of performing a task seamlessly, armed with none of the planning it requires. It’s like building an arc using nothing but gung-ho and whatever you can find in a lost property box. It’s having all of the ideas and none of the gear. Bev and Ian came back for another workshop the next day, and I did that one too. A month later, I started a beginners’ course with their company, School of Improv. I’d just turned 19, and my life would never be the same again.
Over the next 5 and a half years, through Bev and Ian’s expert teaching, I would work my way up through the School of Improv classes and become a guest performer with The Suggestibles. I would also perform with local comedy troupe Spontaneous Wrecks in Newcastle and at the Edinburgh Fringe; undertake an internship across the sensational first-ever Newcastle Improv Festival, which was kindly funded by City of Dreams; and become a facilitator of this joyful and essential art form. In my time in improvisation, I’ve made lifelong friends, many of whom have become work partners too. I am able to learn from warm, funny, experienced, talented people, who live and breathe the same generosity, cooperation and kindness that make up improvisation’s core values.
On a weekly basis, I get to experience the support and the electricity of Newcastle’s thriving creative scene first-hand. As an improv facilitator, I get to introduce people of all ages to concepts and exercises that liberate them. Over and over again, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the moment a teenager has their voice properly heard for the first time, when they get up in a workshop and improvise a scene that makes a roomful of fellow teens erupt into laughter, and discover their quiet friend has a comedic talent and an intelligence they hadn’t yet had the chance to show in the classroom. Over and over again, I’ve seen adults who are trying out improv for the first time light up in a Wednesday evening class, after a stressful or deflating day at work, and remark – breathless from a combination of laughter, pretending to be a dragon for the last five minutes, and the disbelief in what they’re saying – “I realised tonight I hadn’t laughed for two weeks.” Those same skills that help you get up in front of people in a workshop and try out a scene with a stranger are the exact same skills that help you walk confidently through the door into any job interview. And that fizzing, glowing feeling you get from laughing off your tension for two hours every Wednesday is a feeling that doesn’t just brighten your day; in today’s mental health climate, we need it more than ever.
That’s why I’m supporting Creative Careers Week, 18th-22nd November 2019. Anyone who follows a creative career path isn’t merely going into a career. They’re dedicating themselves to keeping alive a space in society where people are heard, valued for their left-field ideas, and celebrated for showing the vulnerability, gung-ho, self-belief and optimism we think is only reserved for children. We’d be fools to underestimate any of it.
Find out more about Creative Careers and how you can support them at the Next Generation event om 8th October. See details here.
To find out more about Creative Careers week on Tyneside stay tuned to the City of Dreams website, or look for the #CreativeCareers thread on social media.