This month I’ve been getting more and more interested in understanding the process of writing and making art, in the hope of understanding myself and being more comfortable with how I work.
When I moved from directing to playwriting I had to learn a whole new way of working, and it’s been the same with novel writing and the visual art making I’ve been enjoying. Something I’ve battled with, like most creatives I think, is the need to ‘get it right’ or at least to ‘get to a sense of completion’ with the work, and for it to resonate as deeply as it does with me, with others. But that can be easier said than done when you’re exploring a new art form, looking for touchstones to signal you’re on a path that will get to where you want to be.
Earlier this month I watched a talk with Kazuo Ishiguro and his daughter and fellow writer Natalie Ishiguro both discussing their new books, Klara and the Sun (which I’m currently reading and highly recommend) and Common Ground (which I have yet to read) respectively. Towards the end, Kazuo, or ‘Ish’, as the interviewer affectionately referred to him, referenced a podcast he’d listened to where a writer had state that novel writing was the convergence of experience and craft. Kazuo agreed but suggested that perhaps it’s actually a convergence of experience, craft and improvisation. He went on to talk about how little improvisation is discussed within writing and recounted a memory of watching Natalie when she was younger improvising on their piano for 45 minutes. She looked so free in her playing, making discoveries and enjoying herself. Did she use any improvisation in her writing now? He asked.
Natalie became incredibly embarrassed as she had no memory of this occasion, and confessed that improv doesn’t really come into her writing process at all. For Common Ground she spent a long time researching her subject matter and building on that rather than improvising around it. It struck a chord with me though, and the more and more I thought about it, the more I began to realise that this might actually be the thread that’s run through all my work to date.
Improv is part of all drama training and Natalie mentioned the ‘yes and’* game that she remembered from her own youth theatre experience. It can be very wide ranging and there are many different kinds of improv games you learn, and it was particularly essential to the work we did at Apocryphal Theatre. Any creative endeavour is about finding the process that works for you, but I hadn’t realised how neatly theatre and novel writing and visual art go together. Improvisation had become essential to my understanding of theatre making. It totally made sense that this is something I may instinctively carry on to other art forms without realising it.
As a director developing your own process is everything: Do you block the play from the outset or let the actors find for themselves where the character needs to be? Do you spend a lot of of time analysing the script or do you put it on it’s feet and explore the characters in the space?
During my BA I was lucky enough to be taught by Katie Mitchell who was in the process of directing Ivanov at the National Theatre. At the time she was very into Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Action, and as a part of our training we would create improvisations based on experiences from our own life, play that out and then analyse and breakdown the sequence of actions we’d performed. This approach of building drama around physical ‘events’ then led our approach to breaking down the script.
At Apocryphal, everything came from improvisation. For example, in the weekly lab performers would improvise around a piece of text or a gesture and translate that through a framework called ‘levels of address’ (to themselves, to each other, to the audience, to the grid). Even in rehearsals for the first show I was part of written by our director Julia Lee Barclay The Jesus Guy, instead of analysing what Julia had meant by each word in the text she’d written, whilst reading through the script we all talked about our own associations to the text and then the performers developed a set of improvised gestures around those associations. These became their instruments, so to speak, that they would play during performance (with the text being the notes). We would talk a lot about jazz musicians, John Coltrane being a favourite, and each performance would be a different rendition, within the frameworks we’d set of the notes (text) and instruments (the gestures). Being part of this company was revolutionary for me personally, as theatre making became a far more collaborative process from its inception, and I saw how meaning can become layered.
What of a process for writing and art making then? How does improvisation come into that?
The more and more I’ve been exploring novel writing and artmaking, I’m finding I’m happiest when purely improvising around a framework already set. On and off since January I’ve been taking part in Karen Stamper’s course called ‘Free up your sketchbook and grow’ (it’s on again next month, if you’re interested I’d definitely recommend it). That’s been filled with all kinds of ways into making, predominantly by making marks first, exploring different media and then letting those marks inform what you come up with (so like the ‘yes and’ game in drama)
Earlier this month during the course I had a break through session where out of purely making marks with different materials (the theme was flowers) I produced this image (below) of flowers in a vase, which is freer and stronger than most things I’ve created to date. The balance of improvisation with different materials, layering and then editing felt really good.
Another artist I’ve found inspiration from is abstract painter Louise Fletcher who hosts a great podcast along with fellow painter Alice Sheridan. For anyone interested in thinking more about the process of creating and the challenges that come with that I’d recommend looking it up. She’s covered topics like are you guilty of people pleasing in your art?, is making art selfish? and does your personality contribute to your art? Which was something I’d never thought about before. Listening to Louise and Alice talk openly about the challenges and joys of art making is both inspiring and comforting, and funny.
And what of my writing?
When I found the five act structure for writing plays, it really helped me to understand what each act needed to do to get the overall result of the story I wanted to tell. It’s now the framework I use to improvise within (I’m not a planner, I like to just write/improv with the characters in my head, until I hit on something that I feel I can grow). Novel writing is becoming similar, and I’ve just started on my second draft of my novel, starting by filling the rather large hole in the story I discovered when I read the first draft. Then it’ll be ironing out the plot points I have in the story I now have before I go in and redraft heavily.
In all forms of art making, people talk about it being about the journey not the destination, even though you start with the destination in mind. When I decided at 16 that I wanted to be a theatre director I had no idea how my life would look over 20 years later. I didn’t realise that dedicating myself to a creative path, would bring such change and personal growth, and challenge. Part of me is disappointed I don’t have my own theatre company regularly creating and producing work. The other part of me is realising, that I have more to offer, creatively, and there’s more I want to explore.
I guess all art making involves imagining another version of the world, another future. I just hadn’t realised how much the path would change me too.
*For those unfamiliar with the yes and game, it’s a game where two or more actors are in the playing space and one actor sets the scene and the other actor builds on that scene through the improvisation. The rule is you have to go with the suggestion of the other player, you can’t say no, you have to say ‘yes and’ and this builds something together that can be very expansive. It’s also a lot of fun!