Learning Improv and How To Change the World with John Paul Flintoff
On London, improvisation, the importance of community and neighbours in the city, how to change the world and why losing control isn't so bad.
Today’s guest is John Paul Flintoff who is the author of How To Change the World, published in 16 languages. Formerly a writer and editor on mainstream newspapers and magazines, he now uses improvisational theatre to change people’s lives. He talks about London and how it influences his work. He also goes into improv, why and how he teaches it, and also provides some improv tips.
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Hi, JP. How are you?
I’m very well, thank you very much.
JP, you’re a fellow Londoner. How does your London influence the work that you do in the world?
I’m very keen on thinking about whatever is going on in the moment. Right this moment, my London involves building work on both sides of my house. My office on the top of the house is literally shaking like in an earthquake quite often and unpredictably. That’s how London affects me. It’s an interesting thing because I’ve lived in this place for quite a long time and so I’ve seen the building that they just destroyed outside my window for many years. We had a campaign to try to save it and now we sort of let that go. It’s quite exciting to know what’s going to happen next. Lots of grainy little things about the area that I live in, a very, very small part of the area I live in. I know lots of bits of London and what I found from living in one place is I got to know more and more about my neighbours. I know everybody by name on my side of the street, nearly everyone on the other side of the street and there are several other streets. It’s quite exciting to build up that kind of network of people.
That’s really curious to me because as a lifelong Londoner, my experience has been that many, many people do not want to engage in eye contact, which I happen to believe is really important. Opening yourself up to cultivating relationships with your neighbours, to me, has proven to be really fruitful and hugely important to my happiness. I’m really intrigued that you’ve just shared that with us because I don’t think that’s very common or certainly not in a city like London. How do those relationships and connections evolve?
Almost in every case it was because of a perceived need. It wasn’t that I just always wandered down the street and go, “I’m going to go and be nice pointlessly to someone.” The very first day that we moved in, I made a stupid mistake with the new front door and it didn’t lock. We got burgled in the night while I was upstairs with my wife in bed. He came in to the room downstairs. We just moved in and it was quite devastating. That very first day, the lovely guy across the road, we didn’t know he was lovely until he came over holding his spare TV. He said, “I heard what happened. Would you like to borrow our TV?” As it happened, no one had nicked our TV so we didn’t need to. How could you not like someone who did that? That was the first thing. It was because he perceived that we had a problem and subsequently maybe I have been a bit like him when I heard about other people. Occasionally, I’ve asked people, “Can you help me with this thing?” When there’s a sense of a genuine need for something, it’s just so easy to engage.
I really, really love that story. That’s fantastic. Do you ever fantasise about moving anywhere else?
Additionally, but not leave here. Yes, of course, I’d love to have an island multi-millionaire resort with a volcano and I’d love to live in Dorset. I wouldn’t mind somewhere on the mountains in Scotland and blah, blah, blah, it could go on forever. But I would miss this place because you invest so much. There’s that idea about social capital, isn’t there? Every little connection that I’ve had, it’s all going right back to Bryan bringing his TV over. If I went somewhere else, I’d have lost all of that.
What about on your local high street? How do those neighbourly and community connections continue to ripple outwards?
You mentioned my book How To Change the World. One of the things I talked about in the book is the importance of being a good neighbour. This only just came back into my head, that that’s what I say in the book. I do spend quite little time talking to the people in the shops about various things that they’re getting up to. The other day for some reason, I found myself offering to write some marketing materials for the local printer. I was like, “Why did I do that?” It just amused me that he was telling some interesting stories and he’s clearly not enormously confident in English. I am a writer so I can do it in probably about an hour tops. He just looked so happy. When he felt that the story that I could write would involve a customer with a problem, so it was going to be me, so he took a photographer of me.
Then it became this very circular thing, but it’s also quite entertaining. Probably, chances are that lots of the people that get this are going to be my other neighbours, so it would be a bit weird. It’s about the heart of people in the neighbourhood actually popping into each other’s spaces a lot. It’s not something I do with other people’s houses but at shops, I go in to their shops all the time, like a second home, as if I own the place. It’s quite funny. I sit in the cafes sometimes for hours. If he came to my place and just sat down and had one coffee for two hours, what a cheek!
Isn’t that so important though, to be a member of the community and to be visible and present and actually engaged? Because how often have we heard of people lamenting the closure of the local butchers, or worse, the library and various different local hubs, let’s say. Actually then it transpires that they like the idea of it being there but in fact they haven’t shopped there for a long time and they’ve done all their weekly shopping online or at their out-of-town superstore. I think really really being engaged and present is actually really valuable, even if that does mean lingering over one coffee for a couple of hours.
Also, at the same time, I think what you said is a great opportunity for us just to let go of all the complaining. If you don’t go to the library, just have a lovely time not complaining about its closure. It would be so much more fun. Just don’t worry about it. If you didn’t use it, you’re not going to miss it. Don’t complain about it on behalf of someone else who hasn’t even asked you to complain about it.
Why do you think people do that?
Because we don’t like to lose control and we’re all losing control every day. This is coming back to the idea of the improv. The reason that people get scared of improv and the idea of improv, especially doing it in front of other people, because we’re all improvising all the time, aren’t we? I didn’t know that I was going to say this and I don’t suppose you knew you were going to say what you just said. When people get scared, it’s because there is some recognition that we don’t have much control. When you don’t worry about it, you just carry on blundering about and nobody minds at all.
Every day, other people make choices that affect us. A lot of us grow up thinking, “Oh, no. I’m going to wring my hands for a little while.” That’s okay, that’s fine if that’s what you want to do. You’re probably just not having much of a good time with it. My key insight for an impro is, “What can I do with that?” If you’re on stage with someone and they do a thing you weren’t expecting and you wanted to have a scene where you’re having tea with the vicar and they’ve gone and got an Uzi machine gun out. It’s like, “I didn’t want that.” Then as soon as you can, acquire the skill of very quickly saying, “What can I do that? Hands up, vicar!” You still are to be able to take advantage of everything. Really and truly, what is the great opportunity of your library closing?
My local libraries are not closing, thankfully, but it’s a good question and ’m not very good in improvisation so I’m not going to answer it!
No, fair enough. It may not occur to you straightaway but after a while, most of the time, we find that, “Actually that’s brilliant because that means that I can do this instead.” It’s just about looking for opportunities.
When you’re working with people around improvisation as a helpful tool, I just froze right there, what’s the typical reaction?
That’s really common and it’s important that that should happen because you’ve noticed it. You have a chance to be more aware of what your everyday performance is like by looking at your life through the special sunglasses of improv training. You’ll go, “Right, that’s the thing that happens.” You know that it’s likely to happen again. Also, you can recognize that it’s not something you need to panic about. You can go blank for hours and just sit there smiling and you say, “I don’t know yet. I haven’t had an idea yet.” They will all be really happy to wait for you. What makes people not so happy is if there’s a terrible, awkward and anxious things; if we’re all going to die or someone’s going to explode in a second. That’s okay, but the key thing is to ask someone for help. That’s one of the things that people forget. Audiences love it, going back to this idea of theatrical improvisation, not this amorphous, general improvisation all over the place in general life.
If you’re on stage and you go blank, the most wonderful thing you can do is say, “Wow, I’ve just gone completely blank.” Everyone knows that already, so they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh with recognition because you don’t look like you’re having a bad time. You’re just smiling about it and then you say, “Can anyone help me with this? What could I have said?” The audience loves that. You’ll probably get a couple of people, usually men, I’m sorry to say. They will call out something inappropriate or obnoxious, as if you didn’t hear those. You keep waiting and then someone else will say something much more delightful and splendid or you can even invite them up on the stage. People love that.
Of course, they’re slightly scared. But if you treat anyone who you have invited on to the stage like the most honoured guest imaginable and you’re incredibly grateful to them, you don’t do anything to embarrass or humiliate them, the audience feels like you’ve treated everyone in the audience like that one person. Your kindness with that one person and the way that you send them back into the audience with a huge round of applause, everyone feels like, “Yes, he’s looked after me.”
That’s very powerful. How did you get into this kind of work and transition somewhat away from writing for mainstream, big titles in the media?
I suppose the answer to that depends on my mood. If I was feeling depressed and whiny, I’d say the newspapers are all losing money so I had to find something else. If I was feeling really upbeat, I’d say, “Actually, I think I’ve done as many things as I wanted really.” I’ve done as many different types of story. I’ve went undercover, I’ve been a business reporter, I’ve been a celebrity interviewer, I’ve done all those sorts of thing. It felt a little bit like I was repeating myself but with different names involved. I wanted something more exciting. I started to write a book about my own attempt to save the planet. I started to tell stories about it. It just made people laugh, which is not an expected result from a book with that title. I realized I love talking to audiences. I just loved it.
I had previously hidden behind my keyboard. Now I was in front of people, often getting things wrong and people were okay with it and I didn’t die, and sometimes not getting it wrong and making people laugh where I actually wanted them to laugh. I just found out more and more about it. That was a shaggy-dog story about how I really did attempt to make a real big difference but it was a bit idiosyncratic because it ended with me trying to save the planet by knitting my underpants out of nettles. I’m not going to try to explain that. I’ll just leave the thought in your mind.
Beautiful. Thank you.
They don’t sting. I thought, how could I write the framework for how anyone goes about trying to create a campaign or a movement or something? That became the book called How To Change the World. It’s not about necessarily saving the planet. It could be about anything. While I was researching How To Change The World, I was looking for who are the people who are really good at making change happen. I looked for stories from actors because an actor can go to work and be a murderer and then come home and have their tea. I thought, “How can he be that good at that switching?” I’ve read lot of very boring books about acting so I don’t recommend those at all.
But I did read one book by a man called Keith Johnson. I thought, “This is it. This is the magic potion. This is my new religion.” I’ve read it six times in two years. I was full of sadness that he had died because I thought I could have written about him for the Sunday Times. Then, I found out he hadn’t died, he only moved to Canada. I managed to get myself some training with Keith. I trained with him over several years and it was as brilliant as I’d hope. It taught me to find value where previously I saw only a heap of manure or ashes. That’s the magic. It’s not the heap of manure that’s valuable, it’s the capacity to see it as a glittering part of gold dust. That is the value, the learning how to be seeing opportunity and delight everywhere.
How do you think this practice helps a person cultivate resilience in an ever changing, fast-paced world?
It’s closely related in a sense that I think it could work the other way around, too. Cultivate resilience and you’ll have this practice. What it comes down to is essentially, to sound a little bit more like a yoga teacher for a moment, it’s a lot more to do with being incredibly, powerfully present at all times. Maybe you can’t plan ahead, but knowing what’s going on is the most wonderful skill. Because I can stop when I remember to, which is quite a lot now because I’ve made it a practice. I can say, “This is what’s happening.” I can describe it in whichever way I choose, which gives me so much more choice because I can say, “Here’s a man staring miserably at a heap of manure.” If I said that then I can laugh at myself because why would describe it like that? I say, “Here’s a man still looking to find the value in the stuff the he didn’t want. Here’s a man who’s discovered the value in the thing that he didn’t want.”
Just constantly just saying what’s happening is so powerful. I see this again and again. Depending on who I’m talking to, I make more or less about the fact that this is improv. If I’m doing training with executives who want very serious stuff, I don’t say, “Let’s do an improv game.” I’ll say, “Let’s do an executive training exercise.” It’s the same thing. What happens is for example we might role play that, and this happened enormously memorably recently. A woman was trying to describe how difficult it is to get her very alpha male boss to pay attention to her suggestions. I said, “Can you just show us what he’s like?” Someone else role played the alpha male boss with his groin thrust forward and waving his arms around. She kept on pleading and trying every different line of attack intellectually. She tried any number of different intellectual propositions to break into his sense of complacency and none of them worked.
We could see her getting more and more frustrated but she didn’t quite realise that. I said, “What was it like? What was that like?” She kept on trying to explain what she was doing as intellectual propositions. “Don’t tell me about the ideas or the intellectual content. What was it like?” She said, “Really frustrating.” I said, “What else was it?” “I felt really hurt, small and ignored.” I said, “Okay, that’s interesting.” I turned to the audience, I said, “Did you sense that she felt like that?” They all nodded, “Yeah, that was obvious.” She thought it was somehow cleverly concealed by her professionalism while she put forward variations of intellectual proposition. It wasn’t, everyone knew.
I said, “Let’s try something else. Let’s just try the same thing again and then when you feel like it, just say exactly what you said to me.” She carried on doing these things and he kept saying, “No, we’ll do it my way.” She tried, “But do you think we should, if we could do …” and she tried that. She just stopped and said, “Wow, I just feel really frustrated and small.” It was only a role play, granted, but he could not be human without stopping then and going, “Why?” She said, “I just don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. I’m not making any progress at all. I don’t feel like anything I suggest ever gets heard.” “Oh, sorry about that.” Then he had to explain why he was overruling her and the conversation opened up because she was real and she honestly said what she was experiencing. That is a thing that people are so scared of. “I must not say that I’m frustrated,” even though everyone can see it. This is quite amazing, isn’t it?
Very, and it’s making me feel really vulnerable for that individual in that moment but also exposing this side of herself actually is forcing the awful boss to be more human and to stop. I’d love to know how this actually unfolded back in the office in the real world. What I’m hearing is that there’s such value in actually getting in tune with how you’re feeling and identifying those feelings in the present moment and choosing judiciously to share them in a way that accelerates the conversation and brings it either to the resolution or put it on the track that you want it to be on.
I’m so glad you said that word, judiciously. I think what can happen is people get so carried away with this that they think, whether they do this or not after I can’t tell because I’m not there with them, but I try to give them this warning. It doesn’t mean you have to go out after and over-share everything that you experienced with everybody. You don’t need to do that because actually what really matters is for you to acquire the habit of noticing it yourself. Once you notice that yourself, you can either just withdraw from that conversation with that guy or you can find another moment to say something different when you’ve talked yourself down.
It doesn’t have to be delivered as some kind of a wigging to the bad person who was giving you this bad experience, because actually he wasn’t making her feel like that. Nobody can make you feel like anything. Someone could try to really humiliate you and you could laugh because you think it’s really funny. Only we are responsible for our emotional response to anything. Another thing that this does is creates the most incredible amount of freedom from thinking that our well being or our feelings depend on anyone else’s behaviours at all.
I love that. That’s really, really important to remember. JP, it sounds like that’s quite a mindful approach to the day-to-day, both in how you live and how you work with clients in a training or consultancy capacity. Do you have any specific meditation or mindfulness practices that you adhere to additionally or not?
Yes, I do. I’ve been a bit of a searcher in my life. I wasn’t brought up with any religion. As a journalist, I wrote lots of stories where I wanted to try to be that person in that kind of faith. I spent a month being a Muslim, as much as that was possible, with friends, going to the mosque, chanting the 99 names of Allah, praying five times a day and fasting on a Thursday. I did that. I did six months as a Christian in the Financial Times, trying every different denomination I could find. I’ve been very interested in Buddhism for a long time. I used lots of different practices there. I really recommend that people actually get down on the floor and pray five times a day, like a Muslim. You don’t need to know what the words are. You don’t need to know it in Arabic. You might want to look into it.
When you get down on the floor and you put your forehead on the floor and you’re bum sticking up in the air, you’ll know what it feels like. You can’t do that without actually physically doing it. It’s very different. It’s a physically different experience from sitting in lotus position and counting your breath. They’re just interestingly different. Kneeling in church, somewhat different. I find all of them fascinating. I recently was lucky enough to be sent to Rome for some work. I went to the Vatican. I bought this little rosary. I’ve never had a rosary before. I’ve been doing things with the rosary, trying to count in tens because there were ten beads. I didn’t know that. There are ten beads and a cross. What can I do with that? What different thoughts can I have for each bead?
Practising prayers. I’ve got a friend on Facebook, he’s a church vicar. I’ve asked him for some prayers. What happens when you say those things? You don’t have to buy into the whole belief system, you don’t have to. You can if you want. If you do belong to one faith, I have lots of friends who do that too and who go along to your mosque or synagogue or something that isn’t their thing and join in. It’s just fascinating, brilliant.
I’m hearing two things here. One is experimentation and exploration, which I am really intrigued by. The other thing is that it’s, a being in the present moment act. It’s a mindful act to pray up to five times a day like Muslims do. I’d like you to talk a bit more about how they’re different. Because I find for instance, going for a walk is an amazingly important thing for me to do for my wellbeing and my creativity. Recently, I’ve reached the conclusion that actually going for a walk, whilst really powerful, is not the act that’s going to soothe my busy, over-stimulated mind because I go for that walk and I get amazing, creative inspiration and sparks and ideas and there’s a value that I place on that and I have now identified that.
I love the fact that you mentioned the physical stuff because the things that we do in our body affect how we are at any given moment. They simply do unavoidably affect it. The reason why Muslims bow down like that is to remember that submission. You can’t bow down like that and feel like you’re in charge. It’s your body is telling you, “No, I’m being submissive.” If you stand on the top of the mountain and you put your arms out like the statue in Brazil, you feel powerful and that’s what happens. Being curious about how your body works and what you’re doing with your body. Are you sitting cross-legged? Are you always walking around with your arms folded so no one can get in my knee? It’s just amusing. There’s no extrinsic rule about it. It’s not like there is a book somewhere that says, “If you are doing this, then you are like that.” Only you can make sense of it.
It’s very difficult to do certain types of things with certain types of body shape and posture. I find that very interesting. All of them bring me back to the present. Right now, why am I rolling my pen around on my desk? What’s that about? Why would I be rolling that pen? Probably because I love pens. It very much identifies as a writer and an artist. If I’m holding a pen, I feel quite powerful. Why am I rolling it? Interesting. Probably because of the quality of the way that we’re talking right now. It’s a little bit like this is my rosary or the thing that people helpfully fidget with.
There’s a Buddhist practice I really like, which I could tell you. It’s much easier if I could see you but it is a good challenge for me to try to describe it to you and anyone listening. If you look at your hand now and you look at your fingers and each finger is divided into three bits and probably you’ve got four fingers, you’ve got twelve bits. If you start at the base of your index finger, so the bit nearest to your thumb, you count that as number one. You move up to you next finger, that’s number two. You move up again, that’s number three. You move across the fingertips, to the middle finger, that’s number four. The ring finger, that’s number five and the little finger is number six. You go down the little finger, it’s number seven and eight. Then you travel across the bottom of the middle fingers, that’s nine and ten. You move up to the middle of the middle finger, that’s 11. You move to the middle of the ring finger, that’s number 12. You’ve identified it and you’ve done a little spiral shape.
It’s a little bit like a rosary. You can count your breaths and just move your thumb from one to 12. You’re not trying to hurry your breath, you’re not trying to slow it down either. You’re not trying to do an idealised breath. You’re just doing a breath and you’re noticing your breath. You go from one to 12, and then you go back 12 to one, and that’s the most basic simple one. I actually use that with someone to help her give up smoking. What she really wanted was just to have a thing to do that was related to breathing and fiddling with her fingers. That’s all she wanted. It also calmed her down. She gave up smoking by just counting numbers one to twelve on her hand, which is quite nice.
Wonderful. Thank you for that, JP. I just mentioned there about how important walking is to me. Do you like walking in London? Is it something that you do and if you do, is there a particular favourite spot that you’d love to go for a walk?
Yes, I live in north London. I do love the obvious green spaces around Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill. I really, really love those. My latest practice oddly is quite similar to that thing I just told you about with my hand, is to go for a walk from my house but without any destination except coming home to my house. It’s been quite interesting to try to work out spirals around my house that I’ve never done before despite living here for 17 years. Going along little side allies that break me into that road that I’ve been on before, but I’ve never been on the side allies so I come out to the new way and I see something new. Then going to out to some residential street that only leads to another residential street, and then you have to cut through this thing to get through to that other thing that you would never normally go because why would you, because nothing is there. Yet, it becomes part of a circular walk that takes me around and back to the house. I’m doing quite a long distance but without ever actually going very far.
I would love to hear a little bit more about some of the work that you are doing right now in relation to the improvisation impact.
I’m very excited. In a couple of hours, I’m going to be doing my first training for people who want to use improv as a way to create a thing, a lot like what we were just saying that you’ve done with your website. I’m going to be showing people how to have that skill of finding something valuable in what they already have. I’m having quite a good time this way because I spend a lot of time studying the tricks of marketers. I quite enjoy it. I watch their training videos online and have a jolly good laugh. One of the things that I love is that they always take out these rather mysterious and amazing box where they show you, they put, “Just buy now and we’ll send you this amazing book. It’s got all these DVDs in it.” I’ve decided in order to demonstrate how it works on my thing, I’m going to use an old Weetabix box which is quite clearly just an old Weetabix box. The whole point I think is whatever you’ve got now is valuable.
So I hope that it will look to the people, like a very shabby book with terrible label stuff on it. What I’m trying to say to them is whatever they’ve got in their house, if it’s a Weetabix box or some other old bit of toot, it’s probably really valuable if they could find a way to let it be valuable. Get it out and I’m can say also that a lot of the marketing people, they’re going to show you lots of DVDs because they’re going to send you these video courses and things, which is a bit of a joke now that everyone is streaming on YouTube anyway. I’ve put a Peppa Pig DVD in my Weetabix box and I’m going to show that too and just see what people make of that. They either think, “This is really, really low budget and it’s not for me.” Or they’ll think, “This guy must have some confidence in his system.” Let’s see how that works.
I’m dying to find out what the next chapter will reveal.
Excellent, I’m very glad to hear that. Thank you.
The final question that I ask every guest is what are you curious about right now and why?
I’m curious about what’s going to the fence that was put in at the back of the street by some of our neighbours as a barrier against all these building work. Now they’ve been told they might have to take it down. I’m very, very curious in a snoopy neighbour kind of way. I’m very interested to know what’s going to happen and whether there’s going to be some do over it or whether we can make peace and all have a low-rise brick wall instead.
You’ll have to come back on the show and update us on that important question.
I will because it’s going to seriously affect the quality of the walks if we have unpleasant fences. That’s quite an important point.
JP, it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you today. Thanks so much for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity Podcast.
Thank you for having me.
Find out more about John Paul’s work at Flintoff.org.