“Everyday we see problems and work on solutions. It’s not going to win us any awards but it’s a form of creativity.”
John works as a magician and stand-up comedian. He describes himself on Twitter as a Sorcerer, Wizard and Conjuror, so I’m half expecting to be sitting across from Gandalf wearing a Fez. I’m more than a little disappointed to see he’s just wearing jeans and a polo shirt when we meet at Storyhouse to discuss being creative.
Asking someone if they’re creative feels like you’re requesting they transform a blank sheet of paper into a work of art, but there are lots of examples of everyday creativity that people don’t give themselves credit for. Magic and Comedy have taught John that there’s an iterative creativity as well.
He talks about when he first started learning magic tricks. “I’d get the trick and the patter and learn it all verbatim, but then ask myself how I could bring my own spin. It’s about taking what already exists and looking at it from your own perspective.”
We discuss finding time to be creative on an average day. John has two children at home so any serious work after three pm isn’t feasible. “I find it easier to create in the morning, so I’ll get up at five am, spending time working with props and going through ideas, saving the low energy tasks like emails for later in the evening.”
When first starting out it’s easy to get distracted by the little things: are you using the right font? Or WordPress plugin? But John is quick to point out how important it is for him to keep things as simple as possible, “It shouldn’t need nineteen different things to align before you can get started doing the do.”
You also need to be able to accept that some days are a washout. He acknowledges that he can spend all morning working on a magic trick or routine, “I may bounce around twenty ideas and not have one practical working solution at the end of it, but that’s all part of the process; you try your best but sometimes it doesn’t happen.”
John believes he delayed his relationship with magic for far too long, experiencing his own paralysis by analysis. “I tend to think, when I have this trick, or when I can do x technique, I’ll be good enough.” Whilst performing magic he would get told he was a natural comedian and he wanted to find out if he was really funny and it wasn’t just a case of people being nice. Rather than over analyse the situation he decided to take a different approach to Stand-up Comedy and booked an open-mic spot.
He was living in Blackpool when he booked his first ten-minute spot at a comedy club in Manchester, giving him two months to prepare material. He asked himself, “What do I know? What do I find funny? What is the audience going to relate and respond to?” He walked around his living room speaking ideas aloud because comedy has to sound funny, not necessarily just be written humorously. John estimates ninety-eight per cent of what he comes up with is unusable but you need to have lots of bad ideas first. ‘When a good one hits, you focus and explore all avenues.”
you can do material one night and it kills and the next night, from your perspective, everything is exactly the same but for whatever reason, it dies on its arse.
He reviews his first gig as ‘not bad’. When listening back to it he was shocked at, after spending so long working on his material, how many times he swore spontaneously on stage. As a comedian the order of words is important and he’d worked hard to memorise his script so it would come across as effortless.
Background prep aside, you still can’t fix the reaction. “The audience doesn’t see all the work that goes into it, all the field testing, tweaks and notes you make. You spend hours, weeks, months, even years doing this so on the night it looks effortless. But it’s never going to be perfect; you can do material one night and it kills and the next night, from your perspective, everything is exactly the same but for whatever reason, it dies on its arse. You learn that’s ok – the more you practice and hone your skills the easier it gets, chipping away at things until you find your own style.”
There is no big ah-ha moment, it’s the constant honing of your craft. “The process is so frustrating but so joyous when you see the finished result,” his eyes light up as he tells me.
It still feels like a shell I put on. It’s one thing to perform when you want to and feel good, but you still have to perform when you have a puncture
Even after years of performing John admits he still gets nervous. “It still feels like a shell I put on. It’s one thing to perform when you want to and feel good, but you still have to perform when you have a puncture, you’ve no money or had an argument. You’re booked so you turn up and have to do your best.”
He openly admits he’s his own worst critic, not enjoying thanks and praise after a show because he’s still in his head deciding what worked and what didn’t. He’d love to be the guy who’s comfortable with attention but, he thinks it’s the constant need to improve that keeps him plugged into the work he’s doing, stops him being egotistical and forces him to double check everything to make sure it’s the best it can be.
I’m always intrigued when I see people who carry around notebooks and a pen and John’s blue Everton notebook has been open in front of him during our entire talk. He’s trying to journal, “I have a tendency to flick between things and try to multitask but when I have a lot in my head, nothing gets a serious amount of focus. So I write it down, plus you never know when a new idea will pop up and you need to capture it.”
He’s currently planning a routine for a wedding as a comedy registrar, something he’s done once before, so his notes focus on gag ideas. He doesn’t want the guests to catch on to the ruse too quickly, it’s all about the slow burn for this particular performance. He talks about the first time he performed a similar role, announcing to the guests he’d give a reading by Keats, then launching into the lyrics to Carly Rae Jepson’s Call Me Maybe, pausing only to mop his brow with a pair of women’s underwear.
I ask what advice he’d give to his daughters if they were pursuing a creative goal and just starting out, “Recognise the value and worth of what you do and try not to get hung up on the little things, you’re already creative so enjoy the journey.”
You can follow John on Twitter @johnholtmagic