Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Fieldwork: Adding improv to the mix

by Suw on November 14, 2023

What do you do to get yourself back in the game after an enforced break from a creative project?

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Fieldwork, the short film script I’m writing for the i-COMET project, largely because over the summer I was either interviewing ecologists or checking their transcriptions, which isn’t very newsworthy. Then, once mid-August arrived, I was almost wholly focused this year’s Ada Lovelace Day Live event at the Royal Institution.

But now it’s time to dive back in.

Back in May, I came up with a four part plan for how this project was going to shake out, and I’ve largely been focused on Part 1, background research. Talking to ecologists turned out to be a delightful experience, always the highlight of my week. I’m going back over the transcripts now and highlighting the sciency bits that catch my eye, or sections that feel funny to me or that seem to illustrate some aspect of character.

I have to admit, I’ve been feeling a bit apprehensive about starting the actual writing, because this whole project doesn’t fit in with my normal creative process. Usually, I start with an idea for a person who’s dealing with a particular scenario and then I explore what might happen through plot logic: if this happens, then that results; and through character: this person would do this sort of thing.

But with Fieldwork, what came first was the context: ecologists working in the field; and the genre: comedy. My brain has been noodling over this for the last several months, despite the fact that I was focused on other things, and building up quite a head of anxiety over whether I can actually write in this way. I haven’t written comedy for, er, quite a long time, so the question of whether I can still be funny has also been weighing on me.

To get over this, I’ve decided that my brain needs a bit of creative shakubuku – “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”.

So, to that end, I’ve started improv classes. There is a weekly class held not far from me and last Wednesday I went to my first one. It was huge amounts of fun, but I can also see how it has the potential to rewire my neurones a little, get me back into a mode of more spontaneous thinking, and help me re-find my funny.

Improv (though they seem to have shortened it further to ‘impro’!) is predicated on saying the first thing that comes into your head and not worrying about whether it is good or bad. Even in my first session, once I started to feel the flow, it stopped feeling stressful and started to be a lot of fun. It’s like opening a direct conduit between your subconscious and your mouth, giving your brain a huge playground to just throw stuff up and see what happens. It’s about being open to possibility and responding instinctually to what the people around you are saying and doing. And, most importantly, it’s about refusing to be self-judgemental.

That’s the perfect mindset for playing about with character ideas, plot snippets and humour, and it’s the antithesis of how writers often think.

I remember once being told to throw away the first solution that comes into your head when you hit a problem with your plot or character. Throw away the second one too. The logic is that these are the obvious solutions, and you want to dig deeper to find the surprising solution. But if you take that too much to heart, it becomes crippling as your brain refuses to come up with a first solution at all, for fear of it being crap.

Where writing is rewriting, improv is blurting out all your first thoughts without any opportunity to rethink. And that is, in my opinion, also the first step on the road to comedy.

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