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October 2nd 2018
The US Supreme Court is upside-down broken.
If you keep a weather eye on US politics - or, indeed, follow more or less any American celebrity on Twitter - you will be aware that Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, and that his confirmation has been held up because of accusations of sexual assault from Dr. Christine Ford. This blog post is not about that. For what it's worth, I hold to the view that (in or out of a courtroom) people are innocent until proven guilty, but that anyone expressing a view on Kavanaugh's guilt or innocence, if they're not familiar with the people involved, is talking nonsense. Particularly if - as is almost exclusively the case, it seems - their view just happens to chime with whether they vote Republican or Democrat.
Anyway, as I say, that's not what this is about. The problems with the whole set-up of the Supreme Court are far deeper than one nomination hearing, or even the preponderence of old white men involved. As far as I understand it - and, fair warning, I'm piecing it together from the West Wing, occasional news reports, and Wikipedia - the Supreme Court fundamentally doesn't make any sense.
There are nine justices on the court, and when they have to decide things, they take a vote and the majority wins it. So far, so good. And, being judges, they're not trying to decide what is right or wrong; they're trying to decide what is lawful or unlawful. Or, indeed, constitutional or unconstitutional. Being British, the whole constitution thing is a bit alien to me, but the idea of judges deciphering the law is fine. All makes sense.
But here's where, as an outsider, it gets weird. Because, as it turns out, Supreme Court justices tend to decide that what the constitution means just happens to align with their own personal opinions on any given topic. In favour of gay marriage? Well, as it transpires, you also think the constitution agrees with you. In favour of a Muslim travel ban? Well, knock me down with a feather, so is the constitution.
So, while in theory Brett Kavanaugh's beliefs on the morality of any of the day's big topics are utterly irrelevant, in practice the exact opposite is true. Take Roe vs. Wade, for example. For half of the USA this is a triumph for freedom and women's rights; for the other half it is responsible for tens of millions of untimely deaths. Kavanaugh is anti-abortion (as, for the record, am I). This shouldn't be relevant to his position on the Supreme Court - after all, the job just involves interpreting a document; not deciding on what it should say - but, of course, the theory and the reality are a million miles apart.
But there's more. Each Supreme Court justice has got the gig for life, unless - like Anthony Kennedy - they retire, at which point the sitting President nominates a replacement, who is confirmed (or not) by the Senate. As a mechanism for making sure the Supreme Court is as partisan as can be, this is difficult to improve upon. Republican presidents nominate right-leaning judges; Democrat presidents nominate left-leaning judges. The Senate, depending on which party has the majority at any particular time, can either wave through the nominee or make themselves difficult by, say, playing down the clock until a new president rolls up. Given the length of time a judge is on the court - Kennedy was there for 40+ years - the timing of a death or retirement can have a huge impact on the key policies of the US for decades to come. This is partly - chiefly - why the Kavanaugh hearing is such a big deal for all concerned.
When I first came across the notion of the Supreme Court - on an episode of the West Wing, where key White House staff were trying to decide upon their nominee - I couldn't quite get my head round it. Surely a judge should be as independent and non-partisan as they come? Particularly in a country as wildly divided as the USA, I would have said it was imperative that the highest court in the land stands above party politics. But, somehow, the exact opposite is true.
The UK has a Supreme Court, too. Ours is pretty new - established in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and starting work in October 2009 - and its powers are more limited, but the appointment process makes a lot more sense: a selection committee comprises the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court and a member of the (independent) Judicial Appointments Committee. The commission then informs the Lord Chancellor of their nomination, and (s)he accepts, rejects, or asks them to reconsider (which sounds a lot like a rejection to me). Thank you, Wikipedia, for all of that. Now, the Lord Chancellor is a political position, so in practice I'm not sure if our approach will work much better, but it's a start... and, actually, the UK is far less divided than the USA, anyway. Oh, and judges are probably all Tories, let's be honest.
So, a modest proposal: shake up the Supreme Court nomination process so that an independent body does the nominating. Cut the president out of it as much as possible (and not just because of this president), and maybe the Supreme Court would be filled with justices whose opinions couldn't be easily guessed based solely on who was in the White House when the last one died.
And maybe, even, the good people of the USA would be able to have faith in the process.

October 26th 2018
As readers of this page will know, I have a "40 by 40" list of things to achieve before the age of 40, and one of the things on that list was to do an improv course. My history with the world of improv was that my good friend Rich was heavily involved with it at Uni (and, indeed, still is), and I'd been to a few workshops with his improv group. They were great fun, and I'd always rather wished that I'd done more of it - y'know, in the same way that I've always wished that I'd got involved with the Warwick Boar student newspaper, or found love so putting it on my list was a good way of forcing myself to take the plunge. And I love it. Let me tell you a bit about it, and (slightly ruining my big finish) implore you to give it a go.
The only kind of improv that I'd ever really seen before on TV or in the flesh was the Who's Line Is It Anyway style of short-form games. You know the kind of thing: playing out a scene when three people have particular quirks, and sometimes the fourth person has to figure out what they are. Or the kind of game where everyone plays out their version of 'world's worst cab driver', say. These are good fun and, particularly when done well (Ryan Stiles & Colin Mochrie are masters of the genre), hilarious, even if there is a risk of them becoming rather formulaic. However, I hadn't really realised just how varied improv could be.
Some of the first inklings came when I watched the Groundlings in Los Angeles, and later Austentatious in Bristol. The Groundlings built an entire evening off the back of a single sketch: they performed the sketch (based on audience suggestion), then built new sketches off it, introducing and re-introducing characters and motifs; it remains the best improv I have ever seen. Austentatious were also fantastic, creating a lost Jane Austen novel based on a suggested title; basically creating a whole improvised play. However much I've enjoyed Whose Line and similar games, both of these for my taste took improv to a whole new level. It was after watching Austentatious in the Bristol Polish Club (as it was) that I decided I fancied giving improv a go. I even tweeted about it at the time, and started researching Bristol Improv courses.
That was in late 2015, if memory serves, but not long later Jim asked if anyone wanted to get involved in his drama group; I said I fancied giving it a try, and suddenly my evenings were taken up with acting (of the sort that requires lines to be learned rather than made up on the spot. Er... mostly). I've loved getting involved in acting, and I still enjoy it I'm even in the slow process of writing my own play but it meant that improv was on the back burner. To be honest, the fact that I'd know at least one person in the drama group, as opposed to taking my chances with complete strangers in an improv course, played its part in my decision.
Fast forward to 2018, and the 40 by 40 list compelling me to sign up to one of the BIT (Bristol Improv Theatre) 'Discovering Improv' courses. I'm fortunate that Bristol has a thriving improv scene and, indeed, the UK's only dedicated improv theatre, as the aforementioned Polish Club had become, although this course was not there and there was the opportunity to sign up to a course just round the corner from my office. In the method that I occasionally adopt (with mixed success), I'd committed myself in advance to something I found scary, so that I couldn't back out of it when the time came. And, when that time did come, I was pretty scared.
What if: (i) I make a complete fool of myself? (ii) everyone else is a flamboyantly confident performer? (iii) they're all unpleasant... or a decade younger than me?
Well, (i) I did make a fool of myself. Many times. As we all did. It's kind of the point. In fact, in the "improv pledge" at the start of the session actually different every time, and probably not legally binding we committed to making fools of ourselves and not caring about it. (ii) At the start of the first session we all said a little bit about why we were there and how we were feeling about it. Of the 15 or so of us on the course, almost all of us said that we were nervous. The course had been promoted in part as a way to build confidence, but even so it was gratifying to know that I wasn't only one who was scared about what it all entailed. (iii) Everyone was lovely. And, while I was in the upper quartile of ages, shall we say, I wasn't the eldest and they weren't all students.

Discovering improv

The overwhelming feeling throughout the Discovering Improv course was one of support. The two fab instructors Stephen & Caitlin were, of course, supportive; everyone else followed their lead and seemed eager for the rest of the room to be enjoying themselves. If someone messed up, that was fine; and it was even better if someone else could help them get back on track. It is rare, anywhere, to be part of that kind of atmosphere (I've found it in various church groups, but sadly not in all of them), and it made it an utter joy to be there. From having been scared the first time, I was soon looking forward to Monday evening as one of the highlights of the week, and I think everyone else felt the same. At the end of the course we were doing our final thank yous and goodbyes, and I think it was Caitlin who noted that every Discovering group has its own distinctive feel, and ours was defined by kindness. Long-term readers of this page will know my feelings on kindness. (What's that? You haven't memorised my blog entries? OK: I said I thought it might be the greatest virtue of all).
One of the surprising things about Discovering Improv was how much of it I wouldn't necessarily have thought of as improv at all we played games where we stood in a circle and everyone took turns to make a sound that the rest of the room would repeat; we walked round the room with our eyes closed until someone tapped us on the shoulders; we got into pairs and mimed taking things out of a box. The focus in all of these was not on being clever or funny, or even being distinctive: it was trusting our instincts, stopping our self-censorship, listening and responding, etc. all vital improv skills, as it turns out, and sometimes difficult to do, but not requiring any particular natural talent. And that was a key point of this course: anyone can do it. Anyone, indeed (and this is my view), should do it, even if it sounds like the kind of thing that you'd normally roll your eyes at (full disclosure: it's the kind of thing that I'm sure I have rolled my eyes at before, and may even do so again; my loss). Don't be scared that you'll be the worst person in the room, because that's not how it works, particularly on an introductory course. Even if you find yourself utterly unable to think of a word to say and that happened to most of us at some point saying "blagh" is fine. Better than fine. "Blagh" is fun.
Doing the improv course is also a great way to meet new people and make new friends. I would be lying if I said that the people I've got to know through improv represent all walks of life the groups have been predominantly male, largely in their 20s, almost entirely white, and with a preponderance of what I tend to think of as "improv facial hair" (myself included). But I've met great people that I wouldn't have come across otherwise, and I'm happy to call them friends.
It was after the final Discovering session that, having a drink or two in the bar, several of us decided to sign up to the follow-on course that was coming up later in the year, one of the four 'Performing Improv' courses run by the BIT, this one focusing on narrative. After all, we'd all had a whale of a time and here was the prospect of doing it all over again, but building on what we'd learned and developing it for an audience. 'Performing', if you will.
Spoilers: the performing course was even better than the discovering one. There's a lot of crossover, obviously, but this course introduced a lot more structure to what we learned before. One of the questions I've been asked about the course by friends is: how is it possible to practise improv? After all, isn't it, well, improvised? It's a fair question, and we didn't spend any time learning actual plotlines, characters or even scenarios. Instead, we learned things like how to make sure it's clear as soon as possible who the characters are in a scene and what their relationship is to each other - otherwise (and it's easy to make this mistake; I certainly did) you end up with two people chatting without either of them having a clue who they are or what's going on.

Performing improv

I won't spend time going into the details of everything our instructors - Caitlin & Imogen; still fab - showed us, because you can do the course yourself. But I think it's notable that, although we had started considering the audience, there was still no direction to be funny. This was a narrative course, after all, and we were being guided to make a coherent story, not necessarily a comedic one. Or, more precisely, the idea was that if the story was there, the humour would follow: improv is intrinsically funny. Another point that was repeated from Discovering was that we shouldn't worry about saying the most brilliant or amazing thing: often the best thing to say (or be) in a scene is also the most obvious thing.
Anyways, everyone on the course was still great, and I would love to keep working with them. As we developed further, I got to figure out more what each performer was about, as everyone improvises in a distinctive way: with some of them I generally reckoned we could hit a rhythm fairly quickly; with others I was kept on my toes because they often did what I didn't expect. Several were particularly joyful for me to watch (if you're reading this - yes, it's you, of course), but every single person made me laugh repeatedly and I would happily get up on stage again with any one of them. Or just watch them do their thing.
The highlight came at the end of the seven-week course, when we did our 'sharing' for friends and family (careful not to call it a show; after all, it was our first attempt). We'd largely stayed in the world of fairy tales during the course, and so it was on the night, as we split into two groups - a five and a six; sadly our 12th member didn't make it - to perform an improvised story based on a fairytale location suggested by the audience. The other group started off in the kitchen of a dungeon and told a merry tale involving estranged sisters and magical invisible rabbits. We kicked off by a waterfall and told the story of quarrelling brothers (Nigel & me) who put their disagreements behind them after they encountered a pair of dragons (James & Lyle); every other role was played by Ollie.
I have come to the conclusion that there are few better feelings (for me, at least) than making an audience laugh, particularly if I'm working with friends to make it happen. I love being on stage. Performing in an adapted Four Yorkshiremen sketch while at Uni; playing a vicar and a detective inspector in a pair of comedies with the drama group; even (and I know this isn't the point) making a few jokes at the start of my only sermon - these are some of my favourite moments. And, although there were only 12 people in our audience (aside from the other improvisers / instructor-directors), there were several times when laughter filled the room - for both sets of performers - and I was still on a high from it days later. There really is no feeling like it.
So, as I said up top, you should get involved. Yes, you. Even if you don't think of yourself as funny (as an aside, Rachel McAdams is on record as saying she doesn't think she's at all funny. Which is mad. Actually, I don't think I really trust anyone who would say that they're not funny. Or, especially, anyone who would say that they are funny. Although I'm sure I must trust some people. I've become distracted). I'm intending to keep coming back for the other three Performing courses - although sadly I won't be able to make it to the next one scheduled, about singing - as well as continuing to watch plenty of shows and taking part in workshops and one-offs. I'll hopefully see you there.

what was I listening to?
Shining Like a National Guitar - Paul Simon
what was I reading?
Fear - Bob Woodward
what was I watching?
The Resistance Banker
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