She was beautiful. I couldn’t believe my luck. She took my hand on the dance floor and smiled an ultraviolet smile. The pounding dance beat morphed into the beating of my heart as we found ourselves standing outside my flat. I fumbled with the keys. Somehow I got the door open. Taking her hand, I led her inside.
There was something strange about the flat – but what could it be? Was it a spaceship? A submarine? Maybe it was slowly sinking underground? Or occupied by chimps?
“Cut! CUT!” The director clapped her hands and we turned to face the audience.
She smiled: “Mark, you’re trying too hard! You’re trying to anticipate and think of a really good answer – I can see the cogs turning in your mind! Just relax and say the most obvious thing that comes into your head. Your obvious is your talent. It’s obvious to you, but the audience will love it, trust me!”
We started again:
Dancefloor. Outside flat. Keys. Door. Leading her inside …
“Here we are,” I said, “make yourself at home”.
“It’s a bit dark” she replied.
“Hang on a minute, I’ll fix that.”
“Where’s the switch?”
“Just here, don’t worry.” I reached out my hand and felt something soft and warm.
“Why do the walls feel funny? It’s like we’re…”
“… Inside something.”
“What’s that noise? It’s like a heart… beating.”
I looked up into the darkness and smiled. “I call her Nelly.”
The audience laughed and applauded. We bounded off the stage.
That was my first taste of stage improvisation. We were playing an acting game, where the class was split into pairs and had to take turns on the stage in front of the group, improvising a scene around the following scenario:
You two have just met at a nightclub. One of you has taken the other back to your flat. But when you get there, you find there’s something unusual about the flat…
By the time my partner and I took the stage, we’d watched several other couples perform. This was my first time doing any kind of acting since school, and the group included professional actors and some very talented amateurs. As I sat there, watching scene after witty, amusing, entertaining scene, I couldn’t help feeling anxious: What am I going to say? How am I going to do anything like that? Will it be funny? Will I just freeze up and look like an idiot?
But as the director – Deborah Frances-White of The Spontaneity Shop – pointed out, you can’t anticipate improvisation. You can only do it. In the moment. The harder you try to be original, funny or entertaining, the more unoriginal, stilted and boring you become.
Yet the moment I relaxed and said the first thing that came into my head, the scene came to life. It stopped being about me and my self-image, and started being fun. Like throwing a ball and trusting the other person will catch it. Or the actors’ ‘trust game’ where you have to deliberately fall backwards into the other person’s arms.
I don’t think I’m in any danger of being invited onto Whose Line Is It Anyway? but for me, something magical happened at that moment. I had no idea that we would find ourselves inside ‘Nelly’, and I couldn’t say which of us thought of the idea first. Nelly just appeared, in that charmed space where we found ourselves finishing each others’ sentences. And the audience laughed.
Is Originality Overrated?
We are used to thinking of originality as very important to creativity. An artist’s worst nightmare is to be called ‘unoriginal’ or accused of copying others’ work. But it wasn’t always like this.
Shakespeare famously never invented a plot. His Hamlet wasn’t the first Hamlet to grace the London stage – he was recycling material from an earlier play with the same title, as well as popular legends. A bit like a modern rock band playing a cover version of a classic song. He was working within a long tradition of writers whose chief concern wasn’t to create something original or radically new, but something that did the job – that entranced the audience and made them laugh or cry.
Compared to Shakespeare and his forebears, a lot of modern writers look like restless egomaniacs. They aren’t content to stand on the shoulders of giants. They not only try to reinvent the wheel but ask whether we need a wheel at all, or something completely different.
The danger with trying to be original is that – like me, waiting in the wings – we become so concerned with ourselves and our self-image that we forget to trust our instincts. Because as Deborah pointed out, your obvious is your talent. It may seem dull or unremarkable to you, but to others, with different life experience, it will seem fresh and surprising. Original.
This is the kind of originality you can’t help – any more than Shakespeare could help being original when he wrote Hamlet, or Michelangelo when producing throwaway sketches. It’s unconscious, part of your creative DNA. You may not even notice it – but the clues may come from your audience, or a sensitive critic like Deborah.
It doesn’t come from straining to think outside the box or trying to create something wild and wacky. It comes from being yourself and doing the obvious – and trusting that will be enough.
How Original Are You?
Do you think originality is overrated?
Have you ever created something amazing without realising it?
How do you stop yourself trying too hard?
PS – If you’re interested in improvisation, check out the amazing work of Keith Johnstone, starting with his classic book Impro. And if you’re in London I highly recommend the workshops at The Spontaneity Shop. Tell Deborah I sent you! Deborah and Tom Salinsky (co-founders of The Spontaneity Shop) also share their skills in The Improv Handbook.
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.