Recently, I gave a talk for the University of the Arts London with the repeated request for the audience to share any ideas or advice on creating positive creative spaces for Zoom workshops. This yielded nothing! This surprised me in a Zoom room of arts educators and practitioners – perhaps pedagogy has not quite caught up with the new needs of the digital learning landscape?
Yesterday, I shared a Zoom call with writer, coach and creative consultant Laurence Shorter with the main aim of resolving this question. He quickly had lots of ideas that I wanted to add here for future reference – many of these can also be tweaked to work towards creating visual humour and cartooning. Note, these are not in any particular order.
He also notes that it is much trickier to build a creative space for one Zoom session, that it is a ‘big ask’ to ask people to ‘get into gear’ for one creative session, and all you can do here is to offer ‘a flavour’ of what you do. It is good for me to note that it is best to offer a number of sessions and perhaps hope for commitment after providing an initial positive flavour.
- Set up break-out rooms for people to check-in.
Here, Shorter gives participants a question to answer, where each person has perhaps 3 minutes to relay their answer. (It would probably be useful to suggest that these answers are given without interruption, as I have had experiences in break-out rooms where certain people spoke for the whole time regardless of the sharing space). For Shorter, this break-out time moves participants into a ‘listening mode’, so they become more receptive, open to sharing (and hopefully/probably more generous and positive).
For my workshops on cartooning, it would be useful to ask a related question to elicit a discussion on how humour features in participants’ lives, or set a question on how to get into a mindset of levity, or how participants create a positive space to be playful and invent (if indeed they do this).
- Do nothing ‘breaks’
These are set up as ‘breaks’ but of course are incredibly generative for creativity (see earlier ‘Creative Practice Note’ 16 for details). The participants here are asked to silence devices and their ‘job’ is to notice or observe what is happening around them and within them with acceptance.
For cartooning, I could actually set this up as a ‘brain break’ where a creative intention is held lightly at the edges of the mind (see ‘Creative Practice Note’ 10 for details).
- Freefall writing
I used this exercise for years for university classes under the name ‘writing storms,’ where students get to download thoughts in a flurry of fast words without judgement for 6 minutes. This was always a great way to get students in the room – a way for them to ’empty’ (or at least better manage) the whirl of thoughts and feelings.
For cartooning, this also has the added potential of providing art-prompts, where participants are asked to circle 3 words (perhaps only nouns… or would other words be useful too?) to build images. We could then play with ideas following Shrigley’s approach (see post 33). This idea needs to be tested in my creative practice to discover which words are best circled, and also to explore whether ideas could be too personal and tricky to render. This latter point might suggest the need to channel ideas through ‘anamnesis’ (= temporary amnesia of the heart), through other characters, or through different approaches (dark humour, surrealism and so on).
Shorter also suggested ways into comedy (he did stand-up comedy training) where you write down lists of things that make you angry. Anger is apparently a particularly effective fuel for people to tap into comedy. (Other ideas included lists of things you find stupid, ridiculous, funny, or lists of people you love, people you hate (this could be done for famous people too), lists of traits and flaws – your own and other peoples.
- Change the brain state with comedy
Shorter mentioned that John Cleese tells jokes to do this in talks, but you can also show videos (or in my case humorous comics), and share personal stories. I remember my supervisor Nina Mickwitz saying that she has Modern Toss playing on YouTube before her lectures/seminars on humour.
I have reservations about doing this, because jokes can alienate people. If the ‘wrong’ joke threatens someone’s values, they could withdraw. I’m aware of the research behind this and yet found myself doing just that this week on WhatsApp when a friend posted a joke that rattled me. It took me a day or so to message back (and even then it wasn’t in response to the joke).
Shorter tends to tell personal stories and I mentioned finding it very funny when he relayed that he finds it difficult not to keep staring at himself during Zoom calls and thinking ‘I’m looking good today!’ I loved this and I was surprised to discover that one of our regular members withdrew after this comment as the ‘last straw’. He later relaxed about this via message but has never actually returned to the group.
It is clearly not possible to control these kind of personal interpretations – equally participants could also equally respond badly to all kinds of variables. Perhaps best to have the right intentions, travel hopefully, and relax about the rest.
- The ‘Jedi’ answer: you are the creative space
Shorter’s ‘Jedi answer’ was ‘you are the creative space’ – a space of gravity and levity which is forged in self-trust and responses to natural impulses and intuition. To create this space there were many suggestions:
- being vulnerable (this gives participants the permission to be who and how they are). He did say that this was mostly an ‘internal thing’ and wasn’t about relaying personal information and stories, although he often shares how he is in that moment. He considers that ‘being vulnerable’ is even more important than being positive.
- be well prepared (i.e. a strong structure with timed transitions, so if you are having a bad day, you become a servant to this process and still know that it will work.)
- be relaxed (Shorter does this by sitting quietly and then sometimes talks to someone in the room). He thinks that the more relaxed you are – the more creative space you create (I think that this also involves the acceptance of being relaxed about being vulnerable).
This conversation reminded me of my approach to teaching at university, where before classes my intention would be to ‘throw love’ at students, because then you create a positive warm space (this is logical, but also scientific as humans are wired for mirroring with cognitive mirror neurones). Overall, the conversation reassured me that my experience of real-life teaching/facilitating is transferable to the Zoom room, as I already use most of the ideas in various forms in live teaching. The exceptions are ‘being vulnerable’ (although perhaps I do this…?), ‘do nothing’ breaks, and using comedy to change brain states.
Overall, the conversation with Shorter was incredibly useful (thank you Laurence!) for developing confidence to move forward with Zoom workshops and will help me plan these better with increased confidence. There remain some ideas to test run in my own creative practice including, ‘freefall writing’ (I prefer Shorter’s name for this) with various channelling options to work with the emotional landscape. The generative lists of emotions (i.e. anger) are also interesting, although I’m not quite sure how these would lead to cartooning on Zoom… (perhaps for character creation in longer periods such as with my cartooning group).
Shorter, L (2009) The Optimist – One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life. UK: Canongate
Shorter, L (2016) The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life. UK: Orion
Shorter, L (2021) ‘Who am I – Laurence Shorter’ available at:
https://www.laurenceshorter.com/who (accessed 19.02.2021)