Need a Big Idea? Ask a small question.

There’s a quote from tech leader Marissa Mayer that I think about a lot. It goes:

“Creativity loves constraints.”

The first time I heard it, I thought this couldn’t be more wrong. Surely all the best ideas come from ditching the rules and just letting your imagination run free?

Well, no. Not unless you have the kind of self-confidence Muhammad Ali would envy.

Personally, I don’t. So I find myself coming back to Mayer’s words whenever I’m confronted with the limitless possibility of a blank page.

On Tuesday I started a graphic design course. The tutor, Ruth, talked me and the other students through some of the basic principles we’ll be exploring over the next couple of months, then gave us our first brief.

London Zoo is moving premises. Design the announcement card.

Sketch out your ideas for the design.

You have 20 minutes.

This is an excellent brief. It gives four simple constraints:

  • One required short-term output (multiple sketched ideas)
  • One specific medium-term objective (design an announcement card)
  • One clear message to be communicated (London Zoo is moving)
  • A just-about-manageable deadline (20 minutes. Definitely no time for navel-gazing, then.)

Before Ruth had finished speaking, my normally blank page-phobic imagination was buzzing with ideas. Here are the ones I shared once my 20 minutes was up.

idea 1idea 2idea 3idea 4

Some good, some not so good. But you know what? Every single one is better than white space.

These sketches only made it into existence at all because the constraints in the brief forced my brain and hand to get over the inhibiting concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas and JUST DRAW SOMETHING, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

And now I’ve now got some ideas to build on, the whole task seems a lot less daunting.

This afternoon, in work, my team-mate and I applied the same technique in a workshop with a charity. They are looking for ways to get more young people involved in their campaign to tackle youth homelessness.

How do we end homelessness? is the kind of question a hundred brilliant brains could – and frequently do – puzzle over for weeks, months, and years, without finding a satisfactory answer.

We knew that asking it here would leave us confronted with nine blank faces and zero ideas that would help an audience understand the issue, let alone tackle it.

Instead, we presented the group with a list of campaigning actions that we know young people like to do – donating things, making things, wearing symbols, sharing stories and photos.

Then we asked:

How could people help tackle homelessness by doing each of these things?

One hour later, we had 16 brilliant campaign ideas, and 9 excited grins.

My point?

Next time someone tells you to ‘think outside the box’, ignore them.

Build your box, climb in, and the thinking will take care of itself.

Let’s Make Feminism the Biggest Joke in Town

Three weeks ago Caitlin Moran ordered me to stand on my chair and shout ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’

Gleefully, I climbed up alongside the rest of the 2000-strong audience. Grabbing each other for balance, we precariously boarded our theatre seats, everyone loving this chance to misbehave.

Why? Because it was funny. And if there’s one thing I’m bored of hearing when I ask to be treated equally to a man, it is ‘you take yourself too seriously’.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 23

Since showing up in 2011 with a manual for modern feminism so funny it had women in stitches (and often pencil skirts) recounting their favourite chapters to each other in bars, Moran has become a household name.

With her trademark combination of wit and mischief, she decisively subverted the myth of the feminist as an apoplectic, serious-minded man-hater undergoing a massive sense of humour failure.

Suddenly, feminism was human again. And we all wanted in.

There’s nothing like comedy to get people taking something seriously. And it was this that inspired myself, Louise Rickwood and Crooked Pieces to create comedy podcast And Then She Said a Funny Thing….

We wanted to promote female comedy writing talent in an industry where women are notoriously under-represented, but in a more sociable way than getting a handful of women comics to write a script, record it in a studio and fling it out onto the web.

Instead, we’re running regular contributors’ workshops, open submissions callouts, and live audience recordings to build a community of women making brilliant comedy.

We hope this will help carry women’s voices in a field depressingly riddled with sexism. Because, let’s be honest – from the male compere who introduced a female act to an audience by claiming that she’d given him a ‘sexual favour’ backstage, to the misogynist abuse directed at Sarah Millican, to Jenny Collier’s all-too-familiar account of being dropped from the token ‘woman’s spot’ on a gig billing, if they gave BAFTAs for Services to Sexist Bullshit, the comedy industry would be a shoo-in.

But we also want Funny Thing to help tackle the everyday problem that’s allowed the industrial one to develop; the fact that our culture doesn’t consider being funny to be feminine.

Humour, we’re told, is a boys’ game. Men are taught that their friendships should be forged in pranks and banter, while women are instructed to take the serious stuff – problems, worries and secrets – to their female friends.

The ‘rules’ of (straight) romance say success depends on him complimenting her appearance, while she laughs at all his jokes… and so on.

The consequence is that some of us only find ourselves questioning this when we’re confronted with evidence that humour is – of course – a genderless trait. Like the guy who told me on our first (and final) date:

‘Girls don’t usually make me laugh, but you’re quite funny.’

Sounds pretty sexist, right? But in that moment, I didn’t even react. This idea was so pervasive in the world I knew that I didn’t even think it worth remarking on. Scary.

The fact is I’ve always considered myself funny, and frequently felt less ‘feminine’ because of it. But then, I’ve always valued wit above the nebulous quality of femininity. Making my friends laugh just seemed like a more useful skill than knowing how to plait their hair.

But as an adult, I started to realise how weird it was that I’d come to consider it an either-or choice.

If other women felt like me, there was a strong chance that here was another, bigger reason for their conspicuous absence in comedy line-ups. How many had never explored their talent publicly simply because it jarred with the self-image they’d been handed?

The more I thought about it, the more probable it seemed that, underneath all the industrial misogyny keeping women out of comedy, we have an even bigger problem: lots of women simply don’t instinctively feel they have a right to be there.

For Funny Thing, the challenge was to build something that included these women and supported them to explore their talent, as well as championing those who had already stormed the stage.

Like Moran advocating the ladies’ loo as the spiritual home of the feminist revolutionary, I’d observed that women-only settings enabled myself and female friends to lower our guard; to say and do things we wouldn’t in front of men. I also knew that to make good comedy – or any other creative product – you have to find a way to lose those inhibitions.

So we’ve set out to build an all-female community that’s open to any and all funny women – from the ones who make their friends laugh to those gigging on the circuit every night of the week – and connects them to create both fantastic comedy, and a culture in which being funny IS feminine (as much as it is masculine), together.

But this isn’t a comedy podcast about ‘being a woman’. Our brief is deliberately open, allowing writers to make use of their full observational range. And few have opted to send us tampon jokes or monologues about chocolate.

But what they do send us is so funny, I defy anyone not to take it seriously.

Crooked Pieces is currently accepting submissions of material for the #FunnyThing pilot, to be recorded on 12 Sep at Omnibus Clapham. The deadline is 4 Aug. Submit your writing.

@crookedpieces #funnything

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post on 30 July 2014.

Where is the plan for a Cultural Legacy?

The word on everybody’s lips just now is Legacy. In this last week, a brand-new 10-point plan to secure the sporting legacy of London 2012 was announced, including a raft of initiatives designed to capitalise on the momentum gained during the Games to embed sports participation in the lives of all UK young people.

And what better time to lay out these plans, than when we’ve so recently witnessed the capacity of sport to unite people of all nationalities, cultures, faiths and ages?

But let’s not forget that it wasn’t just sport doing its bit to ‘inspire a generation’. Four years before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Cultural Olympiad began, with Britain’s culture sector launching a myriad of  projects intended to showcase the vibrancy of the British arts world, and – more crucially – to bring its communities together through art. Six weeks before the Olympics, the London 2012 festival –  the biggest celebration of UK culture in a generation and the culmination of the Olympiad – began.

The Olympiad and the Festival included thousands of opportunities for  young people to get involved in creative activities. Many were introduced to the arts for the first time, taking part in projects such as Stories of the World, which invited young people to partner with museums and galleries  as curators and contributors, helping to shape the way stories were told through their collections.  For others, like Azekel – a young musician who came to the Olympic Park bandstand with other performers from the Roundhouse, and made such an impression that he found himself invited to play a gig at the top of  the 376ft Orbit tower – this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show off their talents with the world watching. For all, it was an opportunity to make a memory that would stay with them forever.

At a time when UK youth had more to feel despondent about than they had in decades,  they were engaged and inspired by cultural projects that were, for the most part, being delivered without new facilities, or increased media attention, or – crucially – much of a cash injection.

So where is the 10-point Cultural Legacy plan to build on this work? Erm, nowhere to be seen – at least at present. So far, the government have outlined only a  two-point plan to communicate their future aspirations for UK Culture, with the appointment of a ‘part-time’ Culture Secretary with little experience in the arts and a split portfolio that gives her even less time to spend on them, and a warning – via the Arts Council’s Simon Mellor  – that further, deeper cuts to the sector are on their way. As plans go, this is pretty devastating.

It’s fairly clear, then, that this is a Government with little understanding of culture’s value to society. Curiously, it seems to have been rather quicker to grasp the benefits of sport – perhaps due its more obvious health benefits, or the greater emphasis commonly placed on it in British public schools.

Whatever the reason, one hot topic that ministers were clamouring to wax lyrical about during the Games was the need for greater priorisation of school sports, in particular Team Games. In the Today programme‘s debate on their importance to children’s development, David Cameron himself asserted that there were some qualities – such as collaboration; commitment; problem-solving; perseverance; fair play – that could only be developed on the playing field.

Deconstructing his remarks, some commentators countered with stories of the humilation, and sometimes bullying, that school sports represented for them during their teenage years. I sympathised, but as I listened I couldn’t help but think that the argument was missing something vital.

And that’s because those very same qualities are all ones I see every day – in spades – in young people who participate in creative activities.

Evidently, then, there is more than one way to ‘inspire a generation’. Despite what our politicians may think, even the woefully un-coordinated can learn the importance of thinking laterally to overcome obstacles, of dedication to a task and to a team, and the rewards of sheer hard work, from working on a theatre production, editing a school or college magazine, or playing in a band or orchestra. In fact, a recent Cambridge University study shows evidence that active participation in musical activities, in particular, significantly boosts empathy levels – arguably more so than grinding your rugby studs into an opponent’s shins on a weekly basis.

As I remember my high-school drama teacher once telling my class before an opening night, “This is different to the football pitch. When you go out there, no one’s supporting another team – they’re all rooting for you.”

Now, more than ever, UK youth need us all on their side. They face the toughest set of challenges to any generation since the war years, with one in five 16-24-year-olds unemployed and opportunities for under-25s narrowing by the day as the spiralling cost of a University education prices many young people – whose families are neither extremely wealthy, nor have a sufficiently low-income to make them eligible for help with fees – out of the market.

The stakes, then, are high. This is a world in which young people will need all their creative thinking, self-confidence, audacity and enterprise to carve a niche for themselves. Which makes participation in any activity that develops these faculties absolutely invaluable in giving them the tools to build their own futures.

We can be certain that this Government not going to do it for them. By (at best) overlooking or (at worst) penalising the arts, it is jeopardising all the work done by the sector to invest in and nurture these vital qualities, and to continue to develop one UK export that does still have currency – Great British Creativity.

I sincerely hope that Ministers’ commitment to ‘inspiring a generation’ is more than skin-deep, and borne out of a real inclination to invest in young people’s futures, rather than a cynical desire to capitalise on the post-Games swell of enthusiasm for sports.

Based on the current evidence, I’ll take some convincing.