Mastering Creativity: lessons from improv

Fresh from his critically acclaimed one man show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Claire Bridges speaks to Max Dickins, stand-up, writer and improv performer, about how he works and what creatives can learn from his process

Max, you put yourself on the line every time you step on stage. Can you tell me how do you shut your personal inner critic up? 

“I am not sure you can ever shut it up entirely, but you can turn the volume down. You can also focus on something else entirely.  In improv we try and act ourselves into the future. By which I mean, when we try and make something, rather than trying to produce something fantastic straight away, we simply start making and know the answer will emerge in the process. When you improvise you walk backwards through the scene: the scene is moving forwards dramatically, but it is only as it does that you know what it is. You have an ‘aha!’ moment: ‘So that’s what this is about!’ When you know what it is, suddenly you can pour petrol on the fire. But you don’t know the answer at the beginning.

So, in terms of linking this back to silencing the inner critic, we know that what we make initially might not be right or good. But we also know that it is only in the act of making that we will chance across something brilliant. So we ignore that critic for the greater good! See ideas not as intrinsically valuable, but valuable instead for where they might move you.”

What do you think people trying to generate ideas for business can learn from your process?

“Firstly: sharing your work early with others allows them to make it much better. In improv we talk about group mind: what we will create as a group with 5 minds working on a problem will be much better than if there was just one mind on it. The trouble is, this means that everyone has to surrender what he or she thinks the idea should be. That surrender is required for genuine co-creation. I would say: trust the process, listen, be prepared to be changed by others and you’ll end up in amazing places. Even if those places are different to where you thought you might end up.”

Where do you get your own creative ideas from? 

“The truth is, I don’t know. I find improvising an almost religious act. Things come out of me that I didn’t know I knew; that I thought I’d forgotten; that I didn’t know I thought. It seems to come straight out of the middle of me somewhere. It’s genuinely thrilling. But what I do know is that being interested really helps. If you think of your mind as a sausage machine making idea sausages, then you’ve got to fill it full of meat for it to make the sausages with! Read lots, watch lots, do lots. Try different things, meet different people, explore, learn, ask questions, cry, laugh, travel-you get my drift! It all goes in the old noggin. If ideas are networks, that is: combinations of other ideas in your brain to create new things, then filling your brain with information allows it to breath out ideas effortlessly and forever. I hope.”

How do you define creativity?

“I saw a BBC4 documentary about the painter Francis Bacon recently. He was interviewed in his chaotic flat, strewn with the residue of his process: all brushes and easels and paint. He was asked about how he does it. How does it create? The truth is, he says, he just picks up a brush and then:

‘…chance and accident take over. Consciously I don’t know what I’m doing…By making these marks-which I don’t know how they will behave-suddenly there comes something which your instinct seizes on as being a moment from which it can begin to develop.’ He goes on, ‘I want a very ordered image…but I want for it to come about by chance.’ This is creativity: catching the dull light of instinct, glowing dimly at the back of the dark cave, and then making it burn magnificently with the bellows of your learnt craft. If I may be so bold!”

 You can see Max Dickins and Katy Schutte from Hoopla Impro in action in this short film. The picnic basket exercise demands that each performer builds on what the other ‘finds’, and you’ll see what happens to ideas when they do, and don’t, accept the offer using the ‘yes, and’ prompts.

I interviewed Harry Dromey, now Group Marketing Manager at UK broadcaster Channel 4 (formerly Head of Mischief at bookmaker Paddy Power) for my book [In Your Creative Element], and he told me how he’s benefited from practising comedy: “I draw from loads of different reference points – being curious means that you do different things, you need food for thought. I took a course in stand-up comedy, and it has done wonders in all areas. You’re totally laid-bare, and you go through thinking ‘oh my god it’s so hard’ and you have so much more appreciation of the work that goes in. Ideas don’t just happen, they need work and it makes you better at creative work.”

If you’re still wondering if any of this has a place in a real-world scenario then watch Karen Tilstra’s TED talk. She’s co-founder and director of Florida Hospital’s Innovation Lab and explains how using ‘yes, and’ has had a profound impact on how they innovate and work as a team.

Claire Bridges is the course leader for Creative Review’s new Mastering Creativity course, which starts on October 10, 2017. Exploring how to develop a creative mindset is one of the modules discussed on the course and features more examples from Max Dickins and Katy Schutte from Hoopla Impro.

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