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Joz Norris

  • Tape 107: How To Be An Expert

A couple of weeks ago I went to a recording of BBC Radio 4’s comedy-and-medicine discussion panel show, Best Medicinehosted by Kiri Pritchard-Maclean – huge thanks to the brilliant Tashi Radha for inviting me along to it! Tashi works on the show and wanted me to come to one particular recording so I could see and meet one of the guests, Dr. Roger Kneebone (incredible name). I’ve been having a really fascinating conversation with Roger over email since we met, and I thought I’d share some of what we’ve been talking about, and what Roger has spent many years working on, here.

Roger was on Best Medicine to talk about the concept of “becoming an expert,” an idea he’s spent many years researching and has written a book about. He’s a GP and a surgeon, and at some point in the past started wondering what an expert in one field (say, medicine) could learn by talking to experts in other fields that have seemingly no crossover. He therefore made it his business to sit and practice attentive listening to people who seem to have completely different areas of interest and expertise, and look for the connections between these different disciplines. He gave the example of an expert puppeteer, who explained the extensive process of warming up the individual joints and ligaments in their hands before a performance, and was surprised to hear that doctors who conduct keyhole surgery don’t carry out such warmups despite it being an equally dextrous and precise job. He also talked about a method for dealing with extremely high-pressure situations and finding space to think within them that he learned from a fighter pilot and later learned to apply to high-pressure operations. His ultimate point was that, by practicing attentive listening to people who seem to have little crossover with your own lived experience, you can discover an endless wealth of stuff that you can incorporate into your own life, or work, or way of seeing things. The audience really enjoyed Roger’s talk and voted his idea as their “best medicine” of the night, and obviously the whole thing was like catnip to me.

I think one of the things I’ve been trying to document in this newsletter over the last two years is exactly the thing Roger’s spent the last few years chronicling in his own work (albeit on a much smaller scale in my case) – the way you can enrich your creative practice by following your curiosity about other disciplines, other forms, other industries, and folding what you learn back into what you do. The things I create will always ultimately boil down to “Man prats about in an unusual way,” but I’ve made a conscious effort to fold in ideas I’ve learned from theatre, film, philosophy, vaudeville, magic, visual art, academia, puppetry, etc etc. It doesn’t even matter to me whether those ideas necessarily come across in the finished product – I’m sure lots of people saw Blink and left with no idea about the multi-disciplinary approach that went into it, and just thought “Well that was fucking stupid” – but what I love about this approach is that it makes me feel different in the making of things, more like I’m expanding my own understanding of how to make interesting work. From this newsletter last year about the way comedy and magic function on identical technical principles, to this more recent one about how to adapt a live experience into a recorded experience that doesn’t feel like a weak facsimile of a live experience, I’ve often tried to make this newsletter a place to archive and document those experiments in fusing different disciplines, and combining different schools of thought that aren’t always put next to one another, and it was really exciting to listen to someone so much more well-versed in the same lines of thinking talk so fascinatingly about it.

Roger’s book. You should all order it or something, I guess. I have ‘n’ all.

When Tashi introduced me to Roger, she introduced me as an “expert” in comedy, and also reminded me of this newsletter from way back, which was about trying to foster a spirit of uncertainty in my life, and about my own reluctance to entertain the idea that I might actually know what I’m doing. This is a mindset I’ve only recently started to unpick and question, and talking to Roger and Tashi about it helped me to get to grips with why that might be.

As I think I’ve mentioned here, I’ve recently started doing a bunch of “creative consultancy” sessions on people’s Fringe shows, to help them get to grips with what their show is doing and saying, and how to make the most of it (they’ve been going well enough that I’ve decided to do a day of workshops and exercises at the Bill Murray in a couple of weeks, if any readers want a bit of guidance with their shows!) I’ve always felt wary of positioning myself as a “teacher” in this way, because I’ve always felt like someone who’s continually learning how to master their own creative practice, so the idea of trying to outline any system of rules to other people when my own rules are still in flux, felt a bit disingenuous. The first time I ended up in that “mentor” role was as the director of Cerys Bradley’s brilliant debut show last year, and I was surprised to discover two things:

  1. I was helpful! I actually did know things about how to make a show that, when I outlined them or suggested them to Cerys, seemed to improve their own mastery of their show, and make them feel more confident and in command of what they were making. My feeling that I didn’t know enough to be of use to anyone else simply wasn’t true.
  2. I learned stuff! My idea of what a “mentor” or “teacher” figure actually is was so rigid that I had seen it as a one-way relationship, where a “master” of their craft imparts wisdom to a novice. I had struggled to ever see myself in that role because, as I said, I still see myself as someone undertaking their own creative journey, and learning their own lessons from it. The extent to which collaborating with Cerys deepened and changed my own ideas about how to make work made me realise that teaching is a two-way process.

Those two discoveries have carried over into the consultancy work I’ve been doing this year – not only do I seem to be able to help move people towards material discoveries and improvements in their work, but the act of sitting down and talking to them about this stuff opened up doors in my own head that felt just as exciting for me as it did for them.

Roger found this interesting as he said the vast majority of the experts he’d spoken to in his research didn’t initially consider themselves experts, they considered themselves students. When the extent of their own expertise was pointed out to them, or made clear to them, they were eventually able to concede that they did have knowledge other people didn’t have that would prove valuable to others, but all of them were principally concerned with the idea of continuing to develop their own understanding of their craft, rather than positioning themselves as a self-styled “expert” or “master.” He said the ones you want to be wary of are the ones who genuinely believe that they are experts, and are keen to see themselves that way, and be seen as such by others as well.

That willingness to continue learning, then, is a core component of what expertise actually is. I’ve been really enjoying talking to Roger, and our conversation has helped me get to a healthy place with my own mentoring/consulting work on other people’s shows, as I feel like I’ve been able to strike a reasonable balance between believing I have knowledge and experience that helps other people make progress when I share it with them, while also practising ways of maintaining a student’s mindset, and seeing even those “mentor” relationships as further opportunities to develop my own understanding as well.

What do you guys think? Let me know your thoughts! Is there anything you consider yourself an expert on? Do any of you teach or mentor others and feel the need to maintain some level of self-styled “mastery” of your field in order to play that role, or do you prefer to adopt the mindset of a novice or a student even when teaching others? I’d love to hear how these ideas intersect with all of your experiences and fields of work, so let me know what all of this sparks off for you!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Can’t really think of anything this week, so I’ll just go with the fact that the Fringe programme has launched! Look at all those shows, yum yum, wow.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This Japanese animation was screened at Chris Cantrill and Sam O’Leary’s Adult Film Club this week, and it’s absolutely nuts. I adore it.

Book Of The Week – I’m reading Sanford Meisner On Acting at the moment, in order that I might become the greatest actor of my generation. He made his students sit and say “You’ve got brown hair” over and over again, for hours and hours, until their spirits were broken and they discovered the spirit of True Acting. The guy was absolutely loopy, I think.

Album Of The Week – Paranoia, Angels, True Love by Christine and the Queens. The days of Christine and the Queens’ pop hits like “Tilted” or “Five Dollars” are long gone. He’s now making 90-minute albums of weird, drawn-out electronic soundscapes for Madonna to do spoken word pieces over the top of. I think the epic scale of this album is part of what makes it so awe-inspiring, although I feel like maybe there’s not quite enough brilliant songs in there to justify the epic length. But the highlights are amazing, especially “Full Of Life,” which beautifully repurposes Pachelbel’s Canon.

Film Of The Week – Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Been meaning to watch this for ages. It’s a fascinating documentary about Jim Carrey’s troubling descent into the abyss of method acting when playing Andy Kaufmann in Man On The Moon. There’s some amazing moments (the Playboy mansion prank is incredible), but I also couldn’t help but clock how often the archive footage would pan over to Danny DeVito looking fed up to the back teeth of his co-star’s behaviour, and it made me wonder – did Carrey have to act like that? Would his performance have been just as good, and the film just as good, if he had just had a bit more respect for his colleagues on set? Or is that sort of self-indulgent “genius” behaviour part of the cocktail for how to tell great stories? I’m sceptical myself.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoyed the newsletter enough to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS Here’s me and Bilal Zafar launching our new double act at Adam Larter’s Big Pitch show at the Bloomsbury Theatre last week. Tag yourself, I’m etc:

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