Alex MacLaren: Hello, Deborah.
Deborah Frances-White: Hello, Alex.
Alex MacLaren: Hello, Tom.
Tom Salinsky: Hi there.
Alex MacLaren: So, I’m Alex as you know, and – are we podcasting?
Tom Salinsky: We are yes, I’ve been podcasting for a while. This is your first opportunity. Deborah of course is the podcast queen.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, let’s not exaggerate, Empress, that’s more appropriate.
Alex MacLaren: As you know, here I am not exactly kicking and screaming. But I like talking in rooms with people. And today we’re doing that, which is great. I want to really talk about what it means to talk together. And I thought a great way of kicking off would just be for us to talk about the first conversation we ever had. And I wonder if you can even remember it.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh, I can, I can remember it really well.
Tom Salinsky: I remember the occasion, certainly. Do you think you can remember the first conversation?
Deborah Frances-White: Yes, yes I can.
Tom Salinsky: Go for it.
Deborah Frances-White: So we were doing a comedy improvisation show. And by we I mean Tom and me with our comedy improv group, The Spontaneity Shop – that’s the origin of the name. And Alex had just graduated from Oxford. And turned up. Well, actually, I think, no, I think he’d graduated from Oxford and then Bristol Old Vic drama school.
Alex MacLaren: That’s right.
Deborah Frances-White: And he turned up, watched the show, and clearly had enjoyed the show and not just slunk off into the night, thinking I don’t wany anything to do with these guys.
Tom Salinsky: We must have been on form.
Deborah Frances-White: I think maybe he’d heard that we were good at improvising or had an improvisation company he might be interested in joining. And he approached us afterwards in the pub downstairs. It was the Canal Cafe in London.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it was
Deborah Frances-White: And we were talking to a man called Piers Torday who is now a children’s author. But at that time, was running the Pleasance a very famous venue in Edinburgh. And so we were trying to get a slot from him, Piers, and Alex had been to Oxford University together. And so when Alex came over with his CV saying, I’m very interested in joining your group or learning improvisation from you and being involved in this outfit. He said, Oh, hello, Piers. And they said, Oh, remember the days! And we thought well, we definitely want Piers to like us, because we need a slot at the Edinbrugh festival. And so we must, of course, include this old drinking buddy of Piers’s.
Tom Salinsky: And see, I don’t think I’d even put all that together at the time. Obviously, I’ve heard the story since but I’m pretty sure that when I was first introduced to Alex, I thought you were you’d come with Piers, you were also somebody important from a big Edinburgh venue that I needed to impress and be especially nice to.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, I often – if it’s not too rude of me to say – pick up on the finer details of the relationships between people
Tom Salinsky: That is not inaccurate.
Deborah Frances-White: So, I assessed very quickly what was going on here. And it was the fact that Alex had his literal CV in his hand…
Tom Salinsky: That was a clue
Deborah Frances-White: That was a clue. I was like, This guy really wants to be part of us. And I thought that made us look good. Because if one of Piers’s friends is sitting there going I’d love to be in group. i Could you teach me what you know. Could you include me in the shows? Then, clearly, this is a show worth taking to the Edinburgh Festival. Now, listeners, I need to tell you that we were not offered a slot from Piers Torday.
Tom Salinsky: Which I blame you for, Alex.
Alex MacLaren: I take all the hit. Yeah
Deborah Frances-White: Piers is doing very well. I went to see a play of his a couple of Christmases ago. But he did not offer us a slot despite the clear old school tie bonding that was going on.
Alex MacLaren: Disgraceful!
Deborah Frances-White: But we did end up with a wonderful Alex MacLaren in our lives.
Tom Salinsky: What was your take on joining us that night? Tell us the story from your point of view.
Alex MacLaren: I love this. This is a little bit like when you hear husbands and wives talk their own perspective on how they met and I feel it’s very like that. So I did bring my CV to an improvisation show and I’d never heard of you and I didn’t know your names. I don’t think I contacted you in advance because I don’t even think I had an email address at the time.
Deborah Frances-White: So, you just turned up to the show?
Alex MacLaren: No. I needed a good reason to meet up with somebody who I’d been going out with and I wanted to give her her clothes back and so she and I met and went to the theatre together.
Deborah Frances-White: Oh, so this was an ex-girlfriend and you had a bag of things that she’d left at your flat? I had no idea. Tell me more.
Alex MacLaren: And now that you mention it I remember that Piers was there – I’m so sorry Piers. But I also remember… am I wrong about this? Wasn’t Henrietta Finch there as well, who is now a very famous producer who runs the Donmar Warehouse.
Deborah Frances-White: Ooh… maybe what was Henrietta doing now? But she working for the Pleasance at the time?
Alex MacLaren: She was agenting and she was working for Marc Berlin who did end up being your agent I remember
Deborah Frances-White: Oh my god, yes! She introduced us to Marc Berlin and got us our first agent!
Alex MacLaren: I think so, that may be the connection. I’m gonna have to check with Henny now. And weirdly, that was the connection because I know Henny better than I know Piers, although we were all at college together. And I did take my CV because I just read a book about improvisation. And one of the formats in it was Gorilla Theatre, from Keith Johnstone, and your show Gorilla Theatre was in Time Out. And I think one reason why I got excited about your show. Now unusually, I think I then subsequently discovered you weren’t hosting it. Philippa Waller was. You were playing,
Tom Salinsky: I think we pretty much took it in turns, actually. I think it was shared out pretty evenly.
Deborah Frances-White: Before we started doing the DreamDate format.
Tom Salinsky: Yes, on DreamDate it was then you and me hosting then it pretty quickly became you hosting, Deborah.
Deborah Frances-White: And then that’s when I wanted to transition into stand up because I realized I like talking to the audience, a lot more than I like to pretending to be characters. And I just got to the point where I was like, it seems undignified when you’re out of your 20s to be pretending to be a 12 year old boy or a dog. I just was like, no. I’m aging out of this silliness. But I love talking to the audience. I loved that lively feel. And that’s when I decided I wanted to be a comic.
Alex MacLaren: Well, this is very much an origin myth for everybody. Also, particularly if what we’re talking about today, because I remember the show, and I remember it – and this is not by any means a criticism – it was not slick.
Tom Salinsky: That was deliberate.
Alex MacLaren: I know it was and I remember…
Tom Salinsky: A carefully cultivated lack of slickness.
Alex MacLaren: But so often, when I was seeing improv shows, I think I was seeing really, actually just marginal variations within a very, very slick format. And so I didn’t really see people taking the risk of going out and not really knowing what choices they were about to make.
Deborah Frances-White: That’s making me miss improv now.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, no, happy days…
Tom Salinsky: How much?
Deborah Frances-White: You know, a little bit.
Alex MacLaren: But that vulnerability…
Deborah Frances-White: That moment of going out and really not knowing…
Alex MacLaren: No, I don’t think you miss that. Because I think actually part of what makes performers exciting to watch is that they are doing something new live. And that was what was exciting to me. And why not only did I want to be in the show, with the performers, I wanted to get to know you. And so it’s almost like I met you before I sat down and had a conversation with you. And I think that’s something that performers will often experience – people know them before they know the people.
Deborah Frances-White: And why was it important that Philippa Waller was hosting? Philippa Waller, by the way, who also now works in communications…
Alex MacLaren: Great genius.
Deborah Frances-White: Yeah. And runs a company called 4D Human Being. Why was it important for you to remember that?
Alex MacLaren: Well, because now I’ve worked with you two for 20 years. And I feel like it’s me and you two and our gang. And in fact, there were, I suppose maybe the first people I saw were Philippa, Chris Harvey John – hello, Chris! And people like Jacqueline Haigh, Gary Turner, all those other performers as well. But I suppose the tone was set by you two, because it was your show. And so that openness and that vulnerability was really, really important. I think it’s something that happens when people connect with friends. And so you do not need to be a performer or a comedian in order for those dimensions to really feature in the way you communicate with others and the way they communicate with you.
Tom Salinsky: And you quickly became a huge asset to us both as a performing company. And then also because we have a lot of teaching, and teaching is something which some people who are brilliant practitioners can also do. And it’s something that some brilliant practitioners struggle with. I’ve often said, I think it’s very difficult to be taught by a genius, because typically geniuses have no empathy. They can’t understand why it’s not just as easy for you as it is for them.
Deborah Frances-White: PE teachers!
Tom Salinsky: Yes, or maths teachers.
Deborah Frances-White: PE teachers were always good at sport at school. And that’s why they became PE teachers, but they don’t understand children who are uncoordinated, who are not fast at running and who don’t enjoy it. And so they tend to get rather cross and think you’re not making an effort. When in my case, well, I wasn’t making an effort, but that’s because I hated it and was no good at anything. So I think that that’s right, that sometimes if you have to learn something by rote, you’re a better teacher.
Tom Salinsky: But you Alex actually, I think took to improvisation very easily, at least from my perspective as somebody helping you through that, but also immediately became very, very good at conceptualizing it for other people.
Alex MacLaren: Well, that’s interesting. I think the reason why it came relatively quickly to me and certainly not completely is that it’s so much of Keith Johnstone’s approach, which was the school we were all schooled in and via Patti Stiles is that it actually faces the fear. And I am interested in how taking fear away, makes people better at things, makes them able to be their authentic selves. And yet, we can’t live in a world in which that is entirely taken from us. At least that’s not yet happened to me. There’s always something and we often have to function in our working lives, in which we’re under pressure, and we’re dealing with anxieties, and we’re dealing with targets we’ve got to hit and maybe even people with whom we don’t have the strongest kind of relationship, Maybe we are given tasks to do in terms of connecting with people, which we wouldn’t necessarily choose for fun. But that is something we all have to tangle with. And I think that at work particularly, there is fear, which is invisible, because it’s so universal. And so I’m really interested in actually at the moment, looking at the intricacies of it all. Because we’ve had some time now where we haven’t been able to be together and talk about the kind of challenges that we face in communicating. And I think in that time, I’ve really been missing it. And thinking about what it is that I miss. And also noticing which dimensions of my own instinct, experience and talent are actually transferable into other formats like the Zoom work we’re doing, which we’ve been getting very, very positive responses from. And I’m interested in actually asking more intricate detailed questions that we have time to in our everyday training sessions when we’re actually tackling client’s problems, specific challenges, rather than actually looking at the problems behind those challenges.
Deborah Frances-White: So I haven’t looked at any of your prep, and I know you’ve been thinking about this quite deeply. Can you give me some kind of insight into things we might be discussing in future episodes? Because I’ll be one of the discussers. So I’m very intrigued. I mean, in some ways, I want it to be a surprise,
Tom Salinsky: Like Christmas!
Deborah Frances-White: Yes. I’d like to know what’s… just the shape and feel – you know, when you feel your presents just before Christmas when you’re a kid? Could that be a PlayStation? Is this the shape of the new dress that I wanted, or whatever it is? So could you give me… could you let me feel your presents?
Alex MacLaren: Absolutely. Hey, feel away. It’s basically going to be short, we’re thinking something about 25-30 minutes. And what we’re going to do is each week, we’ll look at just one question about the nature of communicating and talking to other people. So it might be about making a first impression, first time you meet somebody and our feelings around that.
Deborah Frances-White: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Alex MacLaren: So it seems. We’ll be talking about what happens when we go too far. When we cross a line, and we only realize afterwards that we socially screwed up, what can we do about that? As well as what can we do to anticipate that challenge? I want to look at the different kinds of people that we engage with and which kind of person we are. I’m interested in introversion, as well as extraversion. And I’m interested in exploring what that concept means or what it means for when we’re communicating with others.
Tom Salinsky: And I want to look as well at what happens in different environments. Why is it that some people if you put them on a stage, in a big venue, some people absolutely come alive? And other people, the majority I would say of people diminish, and they are a bit overawed by the experience and they can’t do their best, they’re much more effective one on one. Why some people actually prefer Zoom interactions to being physically present with people and other people feel almost like they’re having to juggle with one hand behind their bag.
Deborah Frances-White: And can I add to that, I’d love to hear from some different guests, because some of my closest friends because I’m a stand-up comedian, are extremely introverted stand-up comics, who, if you put them on the stage at the London Palladium, or even the O2, they will have the time of their lives communicating with thousands of people at once. Then you try and chat to them in the bar and they’re looking at their shoes, they’re awkward, and you try and say that was a fantastic set. They go no, no, don’t say that. They love the applause. But they don’t want you to look them in the eye and tell them: you’re a great comedian. What’s that about?
Alex MacLaren: Yes, well, it’s absolutely fascinating. I mean, and in fact, it’s interesting to me because one actually thing which is interesting is how do we communicate with people that we do know as well as people we don’t and I want to explore the fact that I’m basically a kind of – somebody recently said to me, I don’t switch on until I’m in a room with people. And that’s true. But my partner Zoe is not like that at all. She likes company and she’s great company, but it uses her up in a different kind of way. So she would probably put it that she’s an introvert and I’m an extrovert and I find that exciting that people who can be so different from each other can want to be with each other more than anybody else on Earth. And that is part of what we want to explore – variety.
Deborah Frances-White: Similarly, I get my energy from other people. And that’s how I recharge my batteries. And then I need some time alone to process that. Tom absolutely can only be on charge if he’s alone – maybe if I’m there, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have to talk, he doesn’t have to be “on”.
Tom Salinsky: Yeah, I’m the Zoe.
Deborah Frances-White: But you’re good with people, Tom. You’re good at a dinner party. But at one of those freeform parties, where you just have to wander around talking to people with a drink, Tom will last half an hour. And then go. Once Alex, this is true. I had to, I had to, you know what I’m going to say?
Tom Salinsky: Yes, yes I do…
Deborah Frances-White: We went to a friend’s wedding. And the music was extremely loud. He was very fond of the bride and groom but didn’t know anyone else.
Tom Salinsky: I was not having a good time.
Deborah Frances-White: And after a while, he said, do you know I’m really not coping at all. I’m just going to have to go. I’ve said my pleasantries to the bride and groom. I’ve wished them well, I’m not enjoying talking to other people here. And the music’s really too loud. And I said, you’ve only just got here. And he said, I’m going to have to And I said right, okay. Don’t say goodbye. I will just pretend you’re here. And I’ll cover for you. And every time the bride – who absolutely loves Tom, and she calls him Tomlumbo because it’s a running joke about Columbo – every time she came by and said “Where’s Tomlumbo?” I’d go “He’s just over there” and I’d point to another man with dark hair, and she’d say “I must go over and say hello.” And then of course, she’d get waylaid, because she was the bride. A couple of times, I said he’d gone outside with the smokers because he needed fresh air. It was freezing cold, it was snowing, it was actually snowing. He didn’t. But every time I just would point in a direction, like “there he is!” I maintained that Tom was there for hours, I left at eleven and said, Oh, I think Tom’s just got ahead of me to the station to just make sure…
Tom Salinsky: Which I had by two and a half hours.
Deborah Frances-White: Yes, indeed. But I have had to cover for Tom because I didn’t want the bride to get hurt feelings. I have since – because that bride is no longer married to that groom – I have since, one night after we’ve had a few drinks to revealed this to her. She thought it was absolutely hilarious.
Tom Salinsky: But that’s what I find fascinating about this, that somebody will look at someone like you, Alex. And they’ll see you very socially adept, very confident, and they won’t know what is the situation that is your kryptonite, they will push your buttons. And I think people often say the same thing about me. It was interesting when I had a brief flirtation with doing close up magic, that an anxiety and nervousness that I hadn’t experienced for years suddenly came back. Because when I’m on stage, whether it’s talking at a conference or doing an improv show or anything like that, I’m on very familiar ground. But when you’re doing a magic trick, you will either do it right and it will be successfully fooling. Or you’ll screw it up and everyone will see straight through you. And that put a lot of extra tension on me and my hands were literally trembling as a result.
Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny, I get very anxious when I need to almost extract myself from the performance. Reading in church funerals makes my knees knock, because that’s not a time for grandstanding. Except in some cases – it all depends on who’s in the box. But…
Deborah Frances-White: If I die – I want you to grandstand away, Alex. I want a big performance.
Tom Salinsky: If you die? Is that in doubt?
Deborah Frances-White: Hey, all right. If I die before you, Alex, and you are able to attend the funeral…
Alex MacLaren: Well, even if I go first, I promise I’ll be there to read at your funeral.
Deborah Frances-White: Well, that’s worrying. That’s scary.
Alex MacLaren: But what Tom’s saying about what goes on behind a confident front is really important, because I cannot speak for everybody. But so many times when you talk to people who seem powerful, they don’t feel powerful. When you talk to somebody who makes it look easy. They’re actually incredibly busy inside. And I think that that sharing of different perspectives on this is really important. When I say you can talk to anyone, I think that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be the same way for everybody. So I’m not fixing broken people. I’m really interested in what it is that makes it possible for people to connect with each other. And I believe it’s possible for everybody.
Tom Salinsky: I’m really looking forward to this podcast. This is one of those podcasts that I’m helping to make because I want to listen to it.
Alex MacLaren: Good. It’s gonna be fun. And there’ll be once a week, please come and check in and engage as much as you can. Thank you very much, guys for coming to play.
Deborah Frances-White: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to delving into this subject more and also strangely, I think I might begin to learn more about both one of my oldest friends and work colleagues and my husband, the producer of The Guilty Feminist. I mean, I’ve already learned things from this conversation.
Alex MacLaren: There is no doubt you will. Thanks, guys. See you next week.
Deborah Frances-White: See you next week.