About John-Paul Flintoff

John-Paul Flintoff is a writer and performer. His non-fiction books include Sew Your Own, How to Change the World and The Family Project. He has published books in 16 languages: two memoirs, a novel, and three books of non-fiction. He has spoken about them to audiences on four continents.

His sixth book, What If The Queen Should Die?, is a novel about the final days of the reign of Queen Anne.

Website: www.flintoff.org

1. We hear a lot about impro- but what is it?

If I answer the wrong way, I’ll lose your readers right —>>here<<—. But hey, if the bored people have gone then it’s just us, the people who want to be here. Just you and me, which is lovely…

The word impro is a shortening of improvisation, and usually applied to performance. But it’s not just for theatre people. Because we’re all performers, from the moment we wake up in the morning till we shut our eyes at night. Impro teaches us that we can alter our performance whenever we like. It shows us a variety of effects available to us all, at any given moment. In that sense, its a kind of liberation theology. Speaking for myself, I can affirm that my first encounter with impro was a kind of spiritual revelation. It taught me (which I frequently forget, and need to remind myself, like any spiritual practice) that I’m just right as I am, can allow myself to be seen like that, and I don’t need to do lots of preparation. I’m ready now.

But all this makes it sound terribly ponderous. One of the great things about impro is that it creates space for a great deal of good-natured laughter.

2. What are the main benefits for a non actor to try impro?

In a general way, I’ve answered that already. So perhaps I could give you a specific example. A bit of background: I had done lots of training in impro, and mucked about with it extensively, before the story I am about to tell you.

I was invited to speak to the AGM of a company, about a fun community project that should have gone down nicely. I wasn’t going to use impro, exactly. I was going to give a talk that was broadly clear in my mind, though I had not written it down.
But when I arrived at the AGM I noticed that the audience was restive – in fact, hostile. The board of the company was sitting on stage, protected behind a long table. They took questions from the audience that verged on abusive. Audience members were given microphones to ask their questions, and clung to them jealously.

I noticed, looking around, that this might be a tricky audience. But impro had taught me that I would be OK.
So the time came for me to do my talk, and I was introduced by one of the people on stage. I walked up, and took hold of the microphone I had been given. But before I could speak, a man in the audience used his own mic to say: I think we should postpone the speaker, or do it another day.

I was stumped. Should I do my talk? Not if it was unwanted. But how was I to know if he was a lone voice, or spoke for the majority?

I stood still, and looked around the audience for a while, trying to read people’s faces. I thought some looked uncomfortable, as if embarrassed on my behalf. Others, a smaller number, still looked combative. And then I did a thing that I owe entirely to impro: I said the truth.

“Well, this is a bit awkward.”

And I carried on standing there for as long as felt right. (I can’t give you a time, I followed my instinct.)

While I was standing there, I noticed that more people looked uncomfortable and fewer looked combative. And then I said: “I guess I have two choices. I could just leave the stage now, if that’s what people want, or if you want me to do my talk, I’ll do it quickly now.”

I didn’t know in advance what the response would be. That’s the whole point of impro. I couldn’t possibly know. All I’d done was say how I was feeling, and what the choices were.

The vast majority of people in the room cheered and applauded me. I thanked them, and got on with it, knowing that they wanted me to.

It worked out better than I could have hoped. But it didn’t take any particular genius. Quite the opposite. What I did well was trust what I’d learned from my impro teachers. Before, I would probably have bluffed, made a joke, pretended that I didn’t feel awkward. Because who wants to admit that to a roomful of strangers, right? And I could have pressed on with my talk, without getting the permission of my audience, which would have been rudely to ignore the man who wanted it postponed.

There are two things I want to spell our very clearly: I’m not clever to have done this, because the ideas just popped into my head involuntarily, and the words came out unrehearsed. I was given them, by some higher power which others might call God. I didn’t choose the idea, or the words. They just happened to me. All I did was put myself out there, and trust my instincts / the god of impro / whatever you want to call it.

And we can all do that. Not just on the stage at a company AGM but on any stage. In our offices, at home and in the streets.
I hope that makes sense.

3. Is musical impro hard for the less-than-musical?

The only thing hard about musical impro or any other kind of musical impro is thinking it is hard. If you think it’s easy, it works really well. But that sounds glib. As with any other artistic enterprise, you can learn things by practice. But I’ve seen many people who call themselves unmusical sing beautiful, moving songs without any preparation whatever. They sing things they don’t know until the words come out of their mouths. Watching this is beautiful – until and unless doubt sets in, and it all falls apart.

4. What is the most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to improvise?

Put your faith in whatever comes to you, and trust your instincts.