S01E03 – Notflix

Sarah Spencer, Director and creator of Edinburgh Fringe sell-out, Notflix – the improvised musical comedy that turns audience suggested films into instant musicals – and two of her cast members, Holly Mallet and Ailis Duff, join hosts Brendon and Zoe for an inspirational and empowering pow-wow.

Discover the power of saying “yes, and” rather than “yes, but” if you want to foster an environment of creativity and innovation, and why accepting, celebrating and leaning into mistakes might be the secret ingredient to success.

For all the entrepreneurial souls out there that love a story of tenacity and bootstrapping – you’ll get a buzz out of Sarah’s tale of unflinching belief in her idea and not taking no for an answer when an all-female improvised musical comedy group was “anything but” a selling point. You’ll discover how Sarah overcame this, opened up a brand-new market for all-female musical comedy and how Notflix became an Edinburgh Festival sell-out hit three years running.


Zoe Clark: Hi, I’m Zoe Clark. Welcome back to Without Borders. Today we’ve got three guests for the price of one. The first being Sarah Spencer, The director of Notflix, which is the improvised musical comedy that turns audience suggested films into instant musicals. Sarah is joined by Holly Mallett and Ailis Duff, two other members of her Notflix team.

Brendon Craigie: Hi and I’m Brendon Craigie. We’re going to be hearing on this episode about the importance of saying ‘yes and’ rather than ‘yes but’, if you want to foster an environment of creativity and innovation. We’re going to be hearing about how we should all see improv as being a way of life. Finally, we’re going to hear about how Notflix became a sell out show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and how having a conviction and an unflinching belief in your idea was so important to making that happen.

Sarah Spencer: Yeah. True, actually, at the Fringe I never used to see standup at all. I would only every go to sort of theater stuff. Then this year I [crosstalk 00:01:06] – My friends would say, “What good plays would you recommend from Edinburgh this year?” And I looked back and was like “I only saw Standoff or improv, but-

Holly Mallett: Yeah, I can tell you some pretty epic, queer cabaret feminist strip teases, but I’m not sure I can tell you.

Sarah Spencer: God, yeah, like oh God, what’s happened to me? I blame you guys.

Holly Mallett: I blame Sarah Spencer.

Sarah Spencer: Definitely.

Zoe Clark: If in doubt.

Brendon Craigie: Everything seems to lead back to you, Sarah.

Sarah Spencer: Yeah. We need to uncover more.

Zoe Clark: We do normally only have the one guest, so we are honored to have 300% more than our normal quote of people in the studio, with Brendon and I. So I think probably the best place to start would be just a very very quick introduction from each of you, so we know who you are. Seeing as how we’re gonna be talking a little bit about musicals and what have you today, maybe you can delight us with what is your favorite and why.

Sarah Spencer: Favorite musical this year? Well, my name is Sarah, and I’m the director of Notflix, the improvised musical, and also the director of Notflix Corporate Training. So, kind of two strands. Favorite musical? I’m a Chorus Line girl. Love Chorus Line. The much maligned one act, 1970’s classic. I love it. Perfect. Absolutely fabulous songs and [inaudible 00:02:28] as you like, which I think sums up us.

Ailis Duff: Excellent. I’m Ailis Duff. I’m one of the performers in Notflix. I’m also an actor. My favorite musical … there’s so many to choose from. I think I’m gonna have to go with, ’cause it’s fresh in my mind, ’cause I recently saw a production of it, Little Shop of Horrors. It’s so good. I just love it. It was the first musical I was ever in when I was a teenager and I’ve just been in love with it ever since. Super camp. Super creepy. I love it.

Holly Mallett: And I’m Holly. I’m an actor [inaudible 00:02:58]. I pretend to be a writer. I’m a member of Notflix also. My favorite musicals growing up were Wicked and Rent. Anything to do with Idina Menzel. But my current favorite, because I see a lot, is Sylvia at the Old Vic about Sylvia Pankhurst. It’s a bit like Hamilton, but all about women-

Brendon Craigie: Right.

Holly Mallett: -and it’s a work in progress, so I’m loving the feminist vibe. Took my mum to see it. She literally stood up, applauding one of the songs.

Brendon Craigie: Brilliant. I’ll check it out.

Holly Mallett: Top tip there. Sylvia closes this month.

Zoe Clark: And bring Holly’s mum, if you want a standing ovation.

Holly Mallett: My mom’s a great craic.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah. Excellent.

Zoe Clark: Excellent. So, Notflix then. So tell us a little bit more about this. You’re hot off the back of a really successful Edinburgh Fringe set session, whatever the right word would be. Tell us a bit more.

Sarah Spencer: So, Notflix has been going about three years now. We are still currently the only all-Female improvised musical comedy. Certainly in the UK. I’d imagine probably in the US as well. We’re certain there’s no challenges to my claim, but we are anyway. So what we do is we take a movie that you’ve recently seen, and we turn it into a full musical of one hour in length. All the songs are entirely made up. We have a full live band, with a sax and drums and keyboard. Everything you hear on stage, from the second we take the suggestion, is entirely made up. If we’re doing a good job, which we generally are, you will be convinced that we wrote it. We prepared it. That’s what we do.

Zoe Clark: It’s utterly amazing. From someone who, to be honest, is a bit of a planner in life, not particularly good at improvising anything, it blows my mind a little bit that you do all of this from scratch. We were watching a little bit of it earlier online, and yeah, you would never believe that you’d made all that up on the spot. It’s phenomenal.

Brendon Craigie: Do you think we all have that sort of capability in us to be funny and to improvise?

Sarah Spencer: I think all of us have that capability, but we censor ourselves, and I think we’re just very lucky that our business is to free ourselves and, I mean we all play as children and we certainly have no problems being creative when we’re in the playground. We live in an imaginary world where everything is possible. There’s no such thing as no. We say yes constantly. Yes and I’ll be princess and you’ll be a dragon and things just build. But the older we get, the more scared we get. It’s that censorship that creeps in from the second we’re teenagers, and suddenly all the factors that make us grown ups stop our improvisation and mindset, and actually certainly within the training that we do, that’s what we aim to free. Your inner improviser, because actually the knock on effects, being able to listen, saying yes is such a liberating thing, just for one day be confident enough to say, yeah, do you know what? We can.

Sarah Spencer: So, everybody’s got it, but it’s whether you are confident enough to free it.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Holly Mallett: Also, whenever somebody says to me, “I don’t think I could do improv,” I’m like, “Wow, I did not get the script of this conversation we’re having right now.” Because every day’s improv. You can plan as much as you want, but you can’t stop that person who also can’t plan something. Knocking a coffee into you, or getting something from left field.

Sarah Spencer: Or you’re with a customer, or we’re in a meeting, and the script that you have in your head goes a different way. Well, obviously you improvise, because you’re bouncing off of a human connection. It’s in us. Not everyone necessarily wants to get on stage and improvise songs [inaudible 00:06:38], but I just think, yeah, we’re a bit silly maybe.

Brendon Craigie: I think though, there is this sort of tension, isn’t there? That when you go into the world of business, you have an expectation of how you should behave and how you should conform and what does professional look like and what does success look like. Yet on the flip side, what the world sort of crying out for is individuals, people who are creative, coming up with different ideas and we expect that of people as well, but we don’t often create the environment for them to be those individuals and those creative people. We actually sort of create an environment which forces them to … well, it encourages them to conform, you know? I think it’s really interesting.

Holly Mallett: I mean, look at Google. Look at Google, Netflix, I realize that’s quite creative when YouTube … they have gig rooms, where you just hang out and play music and then carry on with your day. That’s what business should be, right?

Sarah Spencer: We genuinely, from the second we set foot on the stage, nothing’s planned. Nothing. And we just have to lean into that and the biggest learning curve we’ve been on, I think with the show, is lean into the mistakes, because nothing is prescribed. A mistake is not a mistake. A mistake is a platform to a better idea.

Brendon Craigie: Yes.

Sarah Spencer: I think that idea is translatable into any situation. Don’t be afraid to say it. Say it, because a contribution is a platform to jump off of.

Ailis Duff: Yeah. It’s sort of owning your own failures and realizing that actually, failure is just a step. Whereas, if you’ve never said that at all, that hasn’t inspired the rest of the group, whereas actually, by putting yourself out there and not sort of censoring it, and going, “What will people think about me and what will people say?” If you just sort of go for it, then even if that idea doesn’t get used, even if it’s not the best idea in the world, it’s gonna help the fact that you’ve actually said it.

Sarah Spencer: And certainly, when we improvise, and again, I think this is a transferable skill, we listen until the end of the sentence. We don’t listen in an inactive way. It’s about listening to every single word that the person on stage says, because it might be the final word in that sentence, is where the gold is. If you’re listening with an intent to say something funny, that’s when we have our worst shows. Actually being an active listener is the secret to so much of what we do in being successful on stage.

Brendon Craigie: So when you encounter sort of ordinary, boring people like us … no, I’m joking.

Zoe Clark: Speak for yourself.

Brendon Craigie: What do you find is the biggest sort of inhibitor? How do you get people to loosen up? How do you sort of get people to buy into the improvisation?

Sarah Spencer: It’s about playing.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Sarah Spencer: Genuinely stepping off that edge and not being afraid to do something a little bit out of the box. So when we teach corporate workshops, we start with things that are gonna sound terrifying, but we might make you rap, for example. We might teach you how to [inaudible 00:09:38] … she’s cringing … we put together a basic structure, how to put together a couplet, and then we move around in a circle and we get you over that fear straight away, because actually that inaction is exactly what we’re saying.

Sarah Spencer: There’s no such thing as a wrong thing. The only thing you can do wrong is not contribute. By starting with something big like that, nothing we’re gonna ask you to do [inaudible 00:10:01] workshop. It’s actually gonna be as hard as that. Then we relate those lessons that we’ve learned from being performers on stage. Once our show starts, we don’t confer. We don’t stop. So, there are other improvised musical shows, which are all fantastic, but there is thinking time for the actors. We have none. For an hour. So if something goes wrong, we lean in. That’s the biggest lesson that we can teach somebody wanting to learn to improvise, actually. The mistake could be where the gold is.

Holly Mallett: Absolutely. Some of our funniest, most poignant moments actually, mostly funniest, but some of our most poignant moments and most interesting storylines have come from somebody mishearing something or making a mistake, and then we lean into it. There are just so many times where somebody said something, and you’re like, “This is what this version of Dunkirk is,” or “This version of Austin Powers is.” And that’s why we can do … last year we did three different Dunkirk’s in a month, ’cause it was the big movie of the year. Actually, we could have done more if we hadn’t have said, “This isn’t fair on returning audiences.” But, each of them was completely different, and one of them was literally because somebody misheard something.

Zoe Clark: So, technical point here. How can you do the same one three times? Because surely, by nature, you’re gonna remember what you’ve done before, and it’s not improv?

Ailis Duff: I guess ’cause one of the thing we really do, is we listen to the suggestion from the audience member. So those three Dunkirks we did were suggested by three separate people, so the synopsis they wrote was totally different. I think we had one of them where it was just like, “Tom Hardy is a pilot,” or something. So we did this whole thing about just “Tom Hardy learning to be a pilot.” That ended up being one of the central … and then we had this other one, one of the other Dunkirks … ’cause we always take two suggestions and then the audience vote on which one they want. The rival going up against Dunkirk that day was Life of Pie. [crosstalk 00:11:57] Really close call, but we ended up getting Dunkirk, but where we then put … one of the scenes was about the people in the rescue boats, and there was just a tiger in one of the boats, and we were like, “Oh, there we go.”

Holly Mallett: He’s releasing your inner tiger. We did an Eye of the Tiger parody. And then another one was a perfect example of somebody misspeaking. It was a kid and his dad on a boat and then the person playing the dad accidentally spoke about when the dad had died, and we were like, “You’re the dad.”

Ailis Duff: Oh, two dads. [crosstalk 00:12:26]

Holly Mallett: Two dads. So I think I walked on and just went, “Is this the lesbians and gay support the war mission effort?” It became this big story-

Ailis Duff: Dunkirk meets pride.

Holly Mallett: -where it turned out the dad hadn’t died. He had just gone off to be a major and they were all reunited and everybody came out.

Sarah Spencer: I think that’s the beauty of the way we pitch our show. We’re not replicating that movie. So if you want to see Jaws, go and see Jaws. We are gonna create you the musical version, because everything is better as a musical, so what would Jaws be like if it were a musical? Well, it would be 100% more Comms. Probably there’ll be different storylines that we’d follow, and we have, as Ailis said. That suggestion from the audience is the jumping off point. So if you’ve described it wrong … like one year we had Titanic, didn’t we? And they said, “I didn’t watch till the end, I think it was happy?” So that’s how our Titanic ended. As long as you’ve got that, every show’s gonna be different.

Brendon Craigie: Have you always gotten a kick out of making people laugh? Or is that something that’s been part of your life?

Ailis Duff: I don’t know. I think yeah, I’ve certainly always enjoyed comedy and making people laugh. I just never really thought of myself as a funny person until this, really. I sort of just assumed it was something I wasn’t very good at and I enjoyed, but it was something for other people to do.

Zoe Clark: How did you get into it then? Did somebody say, “You know, you should really do this. You are quite funny.” Or did you suddenly have a realization one day?

Ailis Duff: I don’t know. I think I sort of … I auditioned for this, just ’cause it sounded really fun and hilarious. And then sort of just ended up, sort of looking back a couple years later people going, “Oh yeah, you’re really funny.” Oh, okay. I didn’t think I was when I tried out for it, but I think yeah, like you were saying earlier, I think everyone’s got that in them, and it’s just actually being able to admit that you do have that in you, and even though you don’t think you’re a funny person …. everyone’s a funny person. Everyone’s capable of laughing, so clearly you know what makes you laugh and you’re able to let that out.

Sarah Spencer: When we create a show, ’cause it’s not scripted, we never set out to do funny bits, genuinely. And this is absolutely genuine. It could go one of either ways. It might be very serious, but it just never is because we just find human connection, and there’s always something funny in two humans connecting. I think because we play it so big, and so real, it just is funny.

Zoe Clark: I don’t know.

Holly Mallett: Yeah, life is funny. Even tragedy is funny. We’ve had some pretty dark storylines that we’ve had to just understand that it’s not one of the ones to go for jokes, and it’s still always funny, but it’s a different kind of comedy and it comes from the tragedy of the situation and I’m somebody who thinks you should be able to laugh at everything and anything, as long as it’s done respectfully. I think that’s where a lot of comics, in my opinion, get it wrong. It always becomes punching down. I think you can laugh about anything and I think once you’ve got … basically, improv only thrives in a safe space, and once you’ve got a safe space and a respectful space, anything’s up for grabs. So, I think that even in the most tragic stuff, we did We Need to Talk About Kevin, we did one which, basically We Need to Talk About Kevin was one of my most stressful ones, ’cause I was Kevin.

Holly Mallett: We also did one set in Auschwitz, and we were like, “How are we gonna do this?” The answer was always, “Find the truth and the honesty.”

Sarah Spencer: The dynamic between those characters. It’s not about plot, and actually, I always say as a director, our best shows were the ones where there really isn’t anything other than sets of people coming together and it’s the emotional connection, and actually, if you trust that, as the show progresses, things will happen and never forget that just watching two people interacting is so beautifully interesting to watch. The second you layer it with other nonsense, actually you lose the heart of what a musical is about, which is about heightened emotion and personal connection.

Brendon Craigie: I think there’s a really nice crossover with our world, which is all about helping businesses and leaders to communicate. One of the buzzwords in our industry is always about being authentic. Often, in the process of trying to be authentic, some people sort of become rehearsed and prepared that they lose any of their authenticity. Actually, the way our authentic is to be sort of more in the moment, improvise, speak from the heart, [inaudible 00:16:59].

Sarah Spencer: That entirely fits with how we’ve structured the show. Actually, we were novice improvisers when we put this together. I’d never directed an improvised show, but I knew I had something bubbling away that I wanted to create. When I auditioned the cast, I didn’t want people who’d never improvised before. I wanted singers who were funny, or thought they were funny or actors who were prepared to give it a go, who sang a little bit. So we were never coming from a place where we thought we were experts. The entire journey has been discovery for us, and we’ve had to be authentic, and we’ve grown as a team, what works, what doesn’t work, move forwards, and we’ve always had to really be an ensemble in terms of our thinking.

Holly Mallett: We weren’t an all-female musical. We had men as well.

Brendon Craigie: What happened to them? They get killed off?

Holly Mallett: Too much estrogen, to be honest. No. It just became what was right for this show. It wasn’t … sorry guys. I’m not saying that men aren’t good improvisers. It was literally what was authentic to Notflix. There came a point where it became apparent that the new improvisers that were coming on were all women, and I think it just became organic. Then, the two guys who we still love dearly, and are super talented, kind of decided it was time to step away.

Sarah Spencer: I think they organically felt that’s the direction it was going. We loved them. In fact, you just wrote an article for the British Comedy Guide, didn’t you? About working together with an all-female group.

Ailis Duff: It is definitely a different vibe. Actually, I think a lot of it, not even just to do with how it is in the rehearsal room, but how it is on stage, when you’re an all-female group. I think you get a lot more freedom weirdly, because you are all women, and I guess it does say a lot about audience expectations of gender, doesn’t it? That you expect that there are gonna be male characters in any story. So, when the cast is all-female, the audience just automatically go, obviously some of them are gonna be men. So, you then go, “Oh, great, we can play whatever we want. Whereas, actually, when we did have men in the group, I remember one show where we stepped up in a scene and it was very sort of clear from the dynamic that we’d built together that both of us were guys. It was me and a male player. We both kind of agreed that that was it. Then he gave me a male name, being sort of very honest to that dynamic we’d built. The audience all started laughing. We were both kind of like, “Oh, we didn’t do that as a joke. That was just what the character was.” And yeah, whereas when you’re all women, it’s just a different set of assumptions to begin with.

Sarah Spencer: That’s performance. How lovely to have that choice that we’re not. Because it still happens. Comedy is changing, it certainly is. But it is still very much a male-dominated world, and suddenly in the world of improv, which is highly, heavily male-dominated, we would, if we joined a team where even if it was half and half, we would be wives, girlfriends, mothers. That’s the semiotic meaning that would be imposed on us. That is what would happen.

Zoe Clark: Do you think [inaudible 00:20:17] the imbalance between men and women in your industry is reflected in life in general, in terms of the skills and things you need?

Holly Mallett: Yes.

Zoe Clark: Go on.

Sarah Spencer: This is the most emphatic answer. 100%. It’s just the systems that were in place to promote men and make it harder for women. That’s not always deliberate. That’s not to say there aren’t good people not realizing the systems in place and some of them are deliberate, some of them aren’t. But, it’s definitely, at every point, it’s all about gate keeping, isn’t it? We’d all be lying if it wasn’t partly who we know and how we know them. So, if you’ve grown up surrounded by all men … so I’m a drummer. Up until recently, when I was training, all the people that I would get to [inaudible 00:21:10] for me if I can go to a gig would be men, because there are like three women in my entire year and 100 men.

Sarah Spencer: That’s not me being sexist deliberately. That’s me being part of a society that is. Then I had to seek out. So now it’s the opposite, because it’s just the way that my life has gotten. I think everything is reflected in everything, whether that’s the entertainment industry, the business industry. It’s all one story, but we all have our own little kind of parts to play.

Zoe Clark: So, taking away the kind of the bigger picture and the overall system for a minute and focusing maybe on sort of more a one to one level with other women, what would your advice be to people who don’t feel like the confidence to go out there and go by the seat of their pants and improvise like the way you do, whether that’s in the world of work, business, theater, whatever.

Ailis Duff: I think actually going back to one of the things we were saying earlier, the biggest thing that I’ve learned from is the self-censorship thing, and I think typically speaking, women do that more than men do. I certainly did before I got into improv. I would always be worried about what do people think about me and how are people gonna judge that thing I’ve just said? It’s safer to just not say it, ’cause I don’t wanna sound like an idiot. Actually, I think that is the big thing that women everywhere can take forward, is sort of to stop apologizing for who you are and for what your thoughts are, and just say the stupid suggestion, and it probably isn’t stupid. Even if it is, it doesn’t matter. It’s gonna help the fact that you’ve said it.

Brendon Craigie: I’ve worked with lots of women. And lots of men.

Holly Mallett: Well done, sir.

Brendon Craigie: I’ve got five sisters. But yeah, I’ve worked with a very female dominated management team. I can definitely say that men are definitely less reserved in presenting stupid ideas. And presenting them with lots of conviction and confidence.

Holly Mallett: That’s not a bad thing.

Brendon Craigie: No no no, it’s not a bad thing. But I think you’re right. It’s about leveling that up.

Holly Mallett: And sharing the flaw.

Brendon Craigie: But it’s fascinating-

Zoe Clark: It is, isn’t it.

Brendon Craigie: -working with some really, really, clever, smart people. Obviously, in many cases, cleverer than some of their male peers, but actually being more reserved and cautious about what they say.

Holly Mallett: There’s a thing that the women in the Obama White House used to do. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. Because there’s a thing that somebody, a lot of the time, women will say something and it won’t be heard in the room. Then about 15 minutes will go by and a man will have that same idea, and everybody will applaud it. He’s probably not doing it deliberately, but that happens. What the women in the Obama White House used to do was somebody would say something and if it got spoken over or just wasn’t heard, even accidentally, they would all make a point to be like, “I really think that was really interesting what Ailis said about this.” If somebody tried to move on, then another person would be like, “Yeah, but going back to this.” Or if somebody tried to take that idea, they would then go, “Oh, yes, so when Ailis said that 15 minutes ago.” This is like Barack Obama [crosstalk 00:24:32]

Brendon Craigie: It’s very deliberate in recognizing.

Holly Mallett: Yeah. And that’s not anti-men or trying to take up space that isn’t yours. It’s kind of trying to elevate other voices, not shout over other people.

Sarah Spencer: We certainly do that in our show. We’ve just finished a show at the [inaudible 00:24:49] Playhouse on Sunday, and our entire team from management through to cast to band, everybody in that theater, in that experience, was female. Just because we’ve encountered so many brilliant female professionals. Actually, we don’t believe in tokenism in our show. We’re females at the top of our game and we want to work with other females at the top of their game. So, actually, Sunday’s show was a real celebration. That was probably one of the only all-female bands on the west end stage, actually, I imagine.

Brendon Craigie: If you [inaudible 00:25:24] fast forward into the future, and let’s say you have a more equal representation in the arts of different … people playing roles and so on. Do you think that as an audience, we will just not notice it? Or do you think as an audience, will we … do you think audiences gravitate towards … do guys gravitate towards seeing the leading role being played by a guy? Or do women gravitate towards seeing … ’cause I went to Incredibles 2.

Sarah Spencer: Nice.

Brendon Craigie: With my three kids. A daughter and two boys. My oldest boy is 11 sort of came out, and I said, “Oh, that was a really good film, wasn’t it?” He said, “Yeah, it was good, daddy. But, you know, my favorite character went from being the lead character, Mr. Incredible, to being the house husband.” He was disappointed by that. So, I’m sure that my daughter probably came out of that thinking, “Mrs. Elastic was the lead character.” Is it like a zero sum thing, where one person’s gonna be unhappy, and someone’s gonna be happy? How does that all play out?

Holly Mallett: I think young boys, in general, grow up entitled to think that their character will be the lead.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Holly Mallett: So, when it doesn’t happen, it’s like, “Whoa, that’s weird.” Whereas young girls are growing up to believe that the male character will be the lead, and so when they see a female character be the lead, it is mind blowing to them and amazing. It also reminds them that they can do it. What we need is to not have the boys only liking the boys characters, and I think that will change. So, what we need is more films doing what the Incredibles are doing. Then your daughter and your son will start to go, “Oh, everybody can be everything.”

Brendon Craigie: Yes.

Holly Mallett: It’s that in-between [inaudible 00:27:34]. Unfortunately, your son has lost his favorite character.

Ailis Duff: I feel like girls already do that. I feel like when I was growing up, just the first example I can think of, Harry Potter. I didn’t even question the fact that I massively associated with him and related to that character. It didn’t cross my mind that I was a girl and he was a boy. Whereas, I think, because we do see so many more male protagonists, boys maybe noticed that more because they’re so used to that being the norm. So yeah, hopefully-

Brendon Craigie: So in the future, basically, we’ll all develop more of a gender neutral lens that we’ll look at things through.

Ailis Duff: I recently had a discussion with somebody who said to me, as if I’d never heard these statistics before, that men only kind of see themselves in other men, and women see themselves in men and women, as if it were the big trump card, to say that men are more relatable. I was like, “Yes. Because that’s the way our society tells us to behave.” And he was like, “What?” ‘Cause I think we think as humans that we are so innate, everything is innate, that what we are now is what we have always been and always will be. We don’t realize that we’re all completely a product of the system that we’re born into and the experiences that we have.

Ailis Duff: I personally think nurture way more than nature. So, I think with the things that are going on at the moment, the deliberate choices to put females front and center more, and to show men not always having to be bulky and never admitting that they have feelings. Patriarchy hurts the men too. It’s nice. It’s gonna be so exciting over the next 10 years if it still keeps happening. A lot of men can be like, “Oh, I really wanna be like Moana when I’m older.” [crosstalk 00:29:27] if you wanna be Moana, you can be Moana.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah. That’s really good. So, obviously, you guys have … Sarah and the team here, you’ve created something from scratch.

Sarah Spencer: Yeah.

Brendon Craigie: In that sort of journey, how has that been? And how have you motivated yourself? Did you have a vision and then, this is how you expected it to turn out? Or did it start as something different?

Sarah Spencer: It’s really interesting, ’cause I had one of those moments that people probably go through, where I hit 30, and I thought, it’s now or never. I was teaching in a public school, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore because I knew something was bubbling away. I didn’t know what Notflix was. But actually, we hit that title very early on. So I knew there was a show in me. Actually, it was relentless tenacity more than anything else. I don’t know whether this says something about my character, but I just never thought I would fail at this. It didn’t even cross my mind.

Sarah Spencer: At the beginning, I just thought, well let’s logically work our way through this. I have this idea. I need to find a cast that works. So I auditioned the cast. On to the next. Now we book a venue. We do the show. We learn from a mistake. Even to this day, i always just think, six months ahead. I have an end point, which is that we will be the most successful, internationally and nationally improvised show. The female thing doesn’t even come into it, but that’s what we will be. These are the logical steps that I will take to get us there.

Sarah Spencer: As a person, I never take no for an answer. That doesn’t mean if you say no to me, I’ll badger you until you do. But if you say no, that avenue’s closed. Now I’ll forge another path. Actually, with Notflix, at the beginning, doors were closed to us. They absolutely were. Because three years is a long time in terms of peoples’ changing attitudes to women being funny. When we started, I couldn’t get us a gig. I just couldn’t, because everything on paper that I was trying to pitch was a [inaudible 00:31:38]. We were a musical group consisting of six women. Now, I can’t give you an example of the set, because it’s all made up. Yes, I need enough for them to put a live band on stage.

Sarah Spencer: There were no comedy clubs in the country, that even with the best women in the world, would have accommodated us. So, I said, right, that’s done. I’ll settle my own night. We did. Actually, what I discovered really early on was that there was such demand. All this time, an alternative audience and we were getting audiences that were solely consisting of women through the doors who wouldn’t have dared go into a comedy club because they’d have been the target or the humor would have been a punching down to them. We were creating a space where six women were on stage creating something that felt organic and developed and interesting and about relationships, and from day one we were selling out the room. There hasn’t been a show that we had done for the first year that didn’t sell out.

Sarah Spencer: So, straight away, money started coming in, but I guess the learning point for me was that’s the zeitgeist. That’s what people want. So I’m not wrong about this. And that’s what fired me through.

Ailis Duff: You always had such confidence in the idea as well, so it was that thing of sort of, as you said, always seeing this is where we wanna go and at the same time, when things did go wrong and doors did close, learning from that and saying, “Actually, no, we’re gonna go another way round.” So, kind of, I guess, like that improv mindset really-

Sarah Spencer: It is.

Ailis Duff: -of sort of learning from the mistakes and accepting that that’s part of our journey.

Sarah Spencer: But it never occurred to me that it would be impossible, because if other people could do it, and even if they hadn’t done it, someone was going to do it, so why should that not be me? Because I knew I had the idea. I knew I had a cast that were world class. I just needed people to see them. Three years down the line, we haven’t flat lined. We haven’t gone backwards. We’re moving forwards at a pace. So, yeah, I’ve got a million things in the pipeline.

Brendon Craigie: You’ve gotta have that ability, but more than anything, you have to have that belief. I guess that’s why-

Sarah Spencer: It’s never, ever occurred to me that we won’t do this.

Zoe Clark: Is that something that was you from the word go, you’ve always been like that? Or was it because of the idea you came up with that you had just such strong belief in it?

Sarah Spencer: I think as a person, I’ve always been like this. If I decide to do something, I’ll be the best at doing it. [crosstalk 00:34:09]

Sarah Spencer: This is before I set up Notflix. I was so bored with my teaching career. I decided I wanted to get on the British Bake Off. I’d never cooked a cake in my life. I spent six months. I learned every recipe in Mary Berry’s cookbook. I applied. I thought, they’ll never let me through. I’ve got a child to do my application for me. Told them what to say. When they phoned me up, [inaudible 00:34:37] phone interview, I’d internalized all the cooking times. I got down to the final 14. Then I didn’t get picked, ’cause they only take 12. But I wanted to be the best at baking. I wanted to be on that show. That’s what I was gonna do.

Sarah Spencer: The second I got there, I was like, onto the next. I’ve done that. I’ve achieved that. So now something else.

Sarah Spencer: [crosstalk 00:34:56]

Brendon Craigie: We probably all encounter people that have sort of the starting point of an idea or they’ve got a dream about maybe a job they wanna do. But for whatever reason, they don’t have that tenacity and that drive to make it happen.

Zoe Clark: Is that something you see in the businesses that you work with as well?

Sarah Spencer: I see a lot of businesses that are flat lined, to be honest. As somebody, who I think who’s always had … I don’t know whether it comes from sort of having a massive working class chip on my shoulder and working in public schools and seeing the opportunities that I was never afforded. It just makes me want to grab them.

Brendon Craigie: Grab stuff, yeah.

Sarah Spencer: I was the first person in my family to go to university. So, to see another world, that actually, I got to university and I realized, I didn’t have access to any of the things that these people had. I couldn’t afford to live there. I had a full grant to go to university, because we couldn’t afford for me to be there. The second my eyes were open to a world that was bigger than I thought it was, I just wanted to grab every single bit. Actually, I think that is the most frustrating thing. Seeing people who actually are in a position where they’re working for companies where the idea is that you could put forward, that you could pitch, could be ground breaking. From the perspective of the company you work for, they could be million pound ideas, but actually, why are you happy stagnating? Why are you happy letting other people do things better than you?

Sarah Spencer: Actually, just having that mindset of, do you know what? If we’re gonna do this every single day, we could do this better than anybody else. I think that’s why improvisation appeals. It’s having some control over how things go in a positive and empowered way. You don’t have to sit in this kind of ether of mediocrity. You could make things amazing.

Brendon Craigie: So, in practical terms, ’cause I think it would be great to have you guys-

Zoe Clark: I knew you would say this.

Brendon Craigie: -come to see Tyto.

Zoe Clark: My fear levels are going up.

Brendon Craigie: ‘Cause it sounds like exactly the sort of thing that we would love to do. In practical terms, what does it involve? In terms of if a company picked up the phone and spoke to you about wanting to do some training or something, how would that work?

Sarah Spencer: So what I would say to you is that most corporations really struggle to innovate. They absolutely do, and it’s exactly as we’ve said, people are happy sitting on that flat line. We’re good at what we do. We’re making money. We’re not breaking new ground, but we’re safe. We’re happy with that. That’s the problem. It’s a problem for your bosses, who are not getting any added value, whatsoever. So what we do, the three aims, I guess, we train your team to communicate more effectively, and we’ve got ways of doing that, which I won’t tell you, ’cause you won’t [inaudible 00:37:51].

Sarah Spencer: But we’ll train your team to communicate more effectively. We coach you through this fear of failure, because actually, that is the biggest stumbling block. We coach you to have this improvisational mindset, and we use this magic phrase, yes and what would happen if we just said yes instead of saying no?

Sarah Spencer: Within that, it’s about understanding that every idea is just a platform to a better idea, and we celebrate that idea. Then once we’ve got that instilled, we teach you how to generate more creative ideas. So we do that through core workshops, the Yes, And workshop, a workshop which is probably pretty horrible, but is fundamental. Elimination of fear. And then active listening. What is it to listen to the final words that somebody said, because actually, if you can get a team working cooperatively, your work is done, because everybody feels like they can share in a productive environment, where things are celebrated.

Sarah Spencer: So, actually, the skills that we teach [inaudible 00:38:53], and I don’t wanna give anything away, are the techniques that we teach one another is improvises. So it’s a practical workshop. You don’t sit down and do any reading. We get up, we do, we dissect. At the end, because we always … our shows, or our tagline is, everything is better as a musical. God, if life were as empowered as a musical. That’s what you will come out feeling at the end. Actually, the possibilities are open to you. If we can get on stage and improvise for an hour, you can get into a meeting and you can say your bit.

Holly Mallett: Also, I feel like there are so many levels to it. So we were talking earlier about how women can support each other and stuff. We always put the onus on the people not being heard to be heard. But when you’re teaching active listening, and yes, and-ing, you’re also putting the onus on the person who’s listening to it to hear. You all of a sudden have a much safer space where because you know you’re going to be listened to and respected, you know that you’re in a safe space to put forward your ideas and because you know that you’re going to hear everything and that’s part of what the yes and an active listening that we teach is. You know that anything they’re giving you is valid, even if it’s not something you would normally have listened to. It kind of takes it from both sides of the spectrum.

Ailis Duff: Yeah, definitely. The active listening is just so useful in every part of life, I think. ‘Cause, I mean, we’ve probably all been there at some point in our life, sitting at a meeting, where you actually realize, I haven’t listened to a single world anyone else has just said, ’cause I’m just trying to figure out the best way of working this thing that I wanna say. Then you go, “Oh, hang on, I actually didn’t hear what these people are saying.” And there’s the kind of a, “Okay, let’s put a little sentence and to try and make that relevant before I just slam my own idea in.” Actually, you kind of thing, what’s the point of even being a team in that case? Why don’t companies just say, “Okay, we’re never gonna communicate with each other. You’re doing this. You’re doing this. You’re doing this.”

Ailis Duff: But actually, the whole point of being a team is because 10 heads are better than one. You’re always gonna come up with better stuff when there are more people in the mix. But that requires listening. Otherwise, there’s no point in the 10 people even trying to speak to each other.

Sarah Spencer: One of us doesn’t know as much as all of us. That’s what we celebrate on stage.

Holly Mallett: That’s less scary as well. [crosstalk 00:41:17] Whenever I walk on stage, I’m like, I literally have no idea what’s gonna happen.

Sarah Spencer: But you know, we’ve got your back.

Holly Mallett: Exactly.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah.

Holly Mallett: So you’ve just got to commit. You’ve just got to say something and then we’re with you. The most dangerous words in a meeting are, “Yes, but…” [crosstalk 00:41:33]

Brendon Craigie: On a couple notes, so, from a creative process standpoint, when we come up with ideas, we sort of identify what the brief is and give everyone, put a team of people together on a project and then we send them away for a couple days and say, “Right, go away and think about this.” Then everyone comes back and presents their idea on a piece of paper. In that way, there isn’t maybe some of the constraints that come with a brainstorm, where the person with the biggest mouth talks and so on. So, everyone gets their moment. That’s one thing.

Brendon Craigie: Then I thought, this point about yes is an interesting one, because I had sort of positions or responsibility acquired at an early age, ’cause I thought I was quite smart and I thought that was part of the reason why I was in charge, ’cause I was quite smart. You would naturally sort of interrogate every idea to the nth degree. So you end up with loads of time been spent interrogating an idea, questioning it. By the end of it, everyone’s a bit exhausted, ’cause you’ve interrogated something to the death. I realized that if I continue to do that, I would probably piss a lot of people off. Not a lot would happen.

Brendon Craigie: So, my way of dealing with that was, I would sort of say, “Okay, what’s the worst that can happen?” Then I would basically say yes to everything. Unless I thought something really bad was gonna happen.

Holly Mallett: That’s just it. You don’t have to act on every idea, but you have to give every idea the chance to be acted on.

Brendon Craigie: Yeah. And then you realize-

Holly Mallett: You have to have that space.

Brendon Craigie: Then you rely. Then it’s down to those people to make that happen. If they believe in it, it’s not going to blow up the company and then you give them the platform to make it work. Some people will seize that. Other people won’t. But that’s sort of part of the opportunity.

Zoe Clark: Just try it for a day.

Ailis Duff: Yeah, exactly. Seeing every idea as a valid jumping off point and sort of going, “Okay, well if we do take this idea, where would we take it?” Which, also yes, it’s that thing in improv where … I remember you describing in a rehearsal once, that an improvised show is like you’re walking backwards through it. You only at the end go, “Oh, that’s what the show was.” So, actually, if someone throws down an idea, and it’s been totally different to what’s been in my head, but you go, okay, I can’t now go back and say, “No, we’re not in a cinema. We’re in space.” ‘Cause that’s been established. That’s now a fact. You have to just go, “Okay, this is where we are. What can I do next?” You have to shelve your own idea because it isn’t compatible with what someone else has put down.

Sarah Spencer: It’s also totally liberating to step on stage, and genuinely, I say this all the time, you have to have nothing prepared. Step on and listen and react. And we’ll find it. And that’s where the magic is. It’s terrifying. But we do that in front of 500 people, so it’s never gonna be as terrifying for you as it is for us.

Ailis Duff: It is such a good rave. Yeah, just in every part of life, treating other people’s ideas with that level of respect, of just going up and saying, “This doesn’t match with mine, so actually, let’s role with yours. Let’s say yes to yours.” And instead of me sitting here negative, going my idea would have been better than this, and actually thinking, okay, where can we take this one that’s on the table now is just so much more useful.

Brendon Craigie: Do you find you have an on/off button, in the sense that when you step on stage, you’re like, “I’m in improv mode.” And then you sort of come off and you become a different person?

Holly Mallett: I find it really hard to turn it off. [crosstalk 00:45:08]

Ailis Duff: I used to, and I feel like now it’s just merged with my personality.

Sarah Spencer: We teach something called the Heat and Wait. This is how we genuinely have nothing in our brains when we step up. So, say Mad Max is the movie. We think about, by weight, what’s the elephant in the room? What does this film suggest? We don’t make any choices to do with characters. And by the heat, what’s the friction. How hot is this atmosphere? Just influenced by the title of that movie. So always step forwards with that, and then that’s the platform that we build them. So actually, it’s hard to detach yourself, because Holly’s always gonna step forwards as Holly. There’s gonna be something … it’s just basic [inaudible 00:45:51] training. There’s always something of you in the character.

Sarah Spencer: But we try to eliminate that as best we can, so I think actually, what you’re seeing with Notflix now is really an extension of six people.

Holly Mallett: There’s no point in trying not to be you, as well. I can be me playing a man, a woman, a dinosaur from another realm, but I’m me playing a man or a woman or a dinosaur from another realm. If I’m playing Hamlet, that’s a whole different thing, but I’m playing me playing this character. So, particularly as it’s improv, because we don’t know what’s coming next, so it’s the same really in business when you’re in a meeting. You’re being you, coming up with these ideas that are are beyond you, and that makes you see things in other people that you didn’t think.

Holly Mallett: When somebody who you haven’t really heard before comes up with a gem that you then leap on, not being the most important person in the room is actually really cool because it makes that you don’t feel guilty if something doesn’t turn out perfectly. It also means that you get to share the love when everything comes up roses.

Sarah Spencer: One of the biggest lessons we learned is if you just trust people have got your back and it’s okay to lean back and know that the team have got you, because, actually, sometimes continuing to push forwards blindly suspecting that you’re wrong, is more damaging than just saying, “Do you know what, I messed up here.”

Holly Mallett: I can tell you right now, we’ve done hundreds of shows and there’s never been a single show where somebody has stopped talking and had a difficult moment and then everybody else has just left the stage and left them to dry. Because it won’t happen. So, the moment you just go, “Oh, well, actually, even if I stood there and did nothing, something would happen.” So liberating. ‘Cause something always happens.

Zoe Clark: Incredible. Unfortunately, we are drawing near to the end of our time. However, we have one final question we just want to put to you, which we’ve been putting to all our guests and it relates to the fact that we as a business like to work in a really agile way and we are not constrained to the values of the desk, or even in an office, and we can work wherever we want to be. So I’m just kind of wondering if you guys, what is your desert island desk? Where would you be based? What’s your work set-up? What do you need to be successful?

Holly Mallett: Could it be anywhere?

Brendon Craigie: Anywhere.

Sarah Spencer: In the world, you mean? Mine is a bit weird. I’m a bit obsessed with Tokyo. I’ve been a couple of times. It really appeals to me. I could live in Tokyo. But there’s Shibuya station. There’s that crossing where, honestly, every time the crossing changes, two and a half thousand people … that’s an over-exaggeration. I’m prone to exaggeration … cross from different directions. I remember sitting in the Starbucks, which looks right over that, and watching thousands of people, thousands and thousands meeting and crossing and passing. And that controlled chaos really appeals to me. I think I’d base myself there. I’d just watch people interact all day.

Zoe Clark: You’d be flattened.

Sarah Spencer: I’d be in a Starbucks. [crosstalk 00:48:49]

Ailis Duff: Oh, that’s a good answer. I feel like mine … I don’t know whether this would actually be allowed in the context of a desert island desk. But I would choose to just have my desk somewhere different every day. I wouldn’t really necessarily mind what it is, as long as no two days are the same. ‘Cause I think, yeah, no matter what amazing setting I was in, if I was looking at the same thing every day, I feel like my ideas kind of stagnate a bit. It’s kind of like we were saying about the improv thing. It’s bouncing off other peoples’ offers. So if I had kind of different setting offers to bounce off each day, I think that would work best for me.

Zoe Clark: How about you, Holly?

Holly Mallett: So, originally, I was thinking something like … you know I was saying about how I think it’s Google or YouTube have the wicked offices where you can go and just play the drums for a while. And then I was like, but sort of my office is a lot of the time behind a drum kit and stuff. So I’m thinking, if I’m writing, which is probably my main actual desk job, to be honest, a really boring office space with maybe a window that looks up quite high, looks out onto the city, with two screens, and the kind of inability to be distracted by going [inaudible 00:50:08] probably with an Intranet, instead of an Internet, because I think-

Sarah Spencer: You massive conformist.

Holly Mallett: Well, it’s because my whole life is … I was thinking, theater would be amazing, my whole life is theaters, and lots of festivals. I’ve played Glastonbury. That would be a hellish place to have an office. So, actually, just a really boring, really nice, neat office, with two screens and nothing to do but sit and write the play that I’ve been trying to write for four years and finally has it showing on Monday, would be great.

Brendon Craigie: That’s what’s great about your three stories there, is that each of you need something different for your inspiration, and I think it just shows you how the traditional office has such severe limitations in terms of inspiring people, because it might work for one in three people, or one in ten, but it certainly doesn’t work for everyone.

Holly Mallett: Well, the traditional office suddenly becomes really exciting when you never go in a traditional office. I have this secret fantasy where I just wanna put on a pencil skirt and a nice white blouse and some respectable heels and walk into an office and just be a corporate person for a day.

Brendon Craigie: I’m sure that can be arranged.

Holly Mallett: I’m not bad at typing. Because that’s not your world. So I think that’s kind of like, if there were just six Holly’s in Notflix, it would be really boring, ’cause it would just be me laughing at what I find funny. It pretty much already is us laughing.

Sarah Spencer: Pretty much. We find ourselves funny.

Holly Mallett: So, I find kind of an office cubicle really exciting, where I can put my-

Sarah Spencer: It’s exotic.

Holly Mallett: -pictures of dogs here.

Brendon Craigie: Do you, actually, sorry I know we’re at an end, but do you laugh at your own jokes?

Holly Mallett: All the time.

Ailis Duff: We laugh at each other.

Sarah Spencer: Yeah, I guess we do, don’t we.

Brendon Craigie: ‘Cause I always get told off when I’m laughing at my own jokes, but-

Holly Mallett: Why tell a joke if you don’t think it’s funny? [crosstalk 00:52:04]

Ailis Duff: You’re never gonna say something you don’t think is funny. [crosstalk 00:52:08]

Sarah Spencer: We’ve pretty much morphed into one entity that just finds each other [inaudible 00:52:13] amusing. [crosstalk 00:52:15]

Zoe Clark: We’ve just given Brendon the green light to tell us more awful jokes. [crosstalk 00:52:22]

Holly Mallett: We’re so sorry.

Zoe Clark: Right.

Brendon Craigie: Brilliant.

Zoe Clark: Well, thank you so much. It’s been fantastic hearing from you. [crosstalk 00:52:31]

Holly Mallett: It was my pleasure.

Brendon Craigie: Thank you.

Zoe Clark: Thanks for listening to Without Borders. If you like what you’ve heard, why not subscribe? And if you want to find out more about Tyto and what we’re up to, you can find us at tytopr.com. That’s T-Y-T-O-P-R.com.

Tyto brings you Without Borders, a regular dose of inspiration for passionate communicators, courageous creatives and entrepreneurial business brains. Expect candid chats with the wisest old hands, bleeding edge innovators and left field thinkers and doers.