Tag Archives: Leila Johnston

How to badly interview a good geek self-help guru, techno-nerd and ‘creatin’

Leila Johnston yesterday – often interrupted

Rule One of interviewing someone. Do not interrupt them with your own ideas.

In December 2011, I wrote a blog asking Leila Johnston what she actually does.

Yesterday, I met her in the main street in Borehamwood and asked her again. The answer seems to be Everything. She is certainly not boring yet, despite this, she is going to be talking at an up-coming Boring Conference about living in Greenock and having IBM posters on her bedroom wall when she was six years old.

Next month, she will be talking about Making Things Fast to BBC Radio staff at Broadcasting House in London… “I’m trying to cast myself as a sort of geek self-help guru,” she tells me. “It’s a kind of modern motivational talk.

“Also in November, I’ll be doing the same talk for a thing called The Monday Club run by someone from The Idler… and I’m hosting a panel of computer art pioneers from the 1960s at the Site Gallery in Sheffield… and I’m doing an investigation into people’s ghostly experiences for Den of Geek‘s Den of Eek night… and I’ve been asked to come up with a data art installation for a wall in an office at Broadcasting House… but, In December, I don’t plan on doing anything except maybe getting a dog for my new semi-rural lifestyle. And sending out lots of pitches, of course. And editing The Literary Platform. And working with a magician and illusionist.”

Leila’s reference to her “new semi-rural lifestyle” is because, just over six months ago, she went up to Sheffield for three months to work on The Happenstance Project which aims to insert people from the world of technology into arts organisations.

“There are three participating art galleries,” she told me yesterday, “and I was put in the one in Sheffield. It was a residency. Like an artist-in-residence.”

“A nerd-in-residence,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Leila laughed. “There was a lot of debate about the word ‘technologist’…”

“Is that what you are?” I asked. “A technologist?”

“Well, that’s part of the way I cast myself, I suppose,” she answered.

“Really, though,” I said, “you’re half-and-half. You’re an arty writer and a nerdy geek.”

“There’s a phrase being used at the moment,” Leila told me. “A ‘creative technologist’. Which is quite a nice thing to be, because it implies you’re given a bit of freedom to invent stuff.”

“Some new word will be created,” I said. “A ‘Creatologist’ maybe, though that makes it sound like you don’t believe in Darwinian evolution.”

“A creatin, perhaps,” laughed Leila. “Maybe I’m a creatin. It’s only in the last year or two that people have accepted there are people like me who can help bring arts into a digital era, because a lot of arts organisations are still working in really archaic, inefficient ways. They don’t really know anything about the possibilities of technology. There’s a whole world of creative tools they don’t really understand.”

“Every art gallery could have the Mona Lisa on their walls,” I suggested.

Leila laughed. “You can’t get very close to the real thing anyway,” she said.

“You could have 3D printed, 18-squillion pixel versions on the walls of different galleries around the world,” I suggested.

“You could recreate the whole Louvre,” said Leila, not exactly convinced.

“Duplicate the Getty Art Collection in Los Angeles around the world,” I suggested.

“Make every art gallery into a sort-of super-villain’s lair,” laughed Leila.

“It could be sponsored,” I suggested. “The walls of every Tesco could be like the Louvre… Capitalism at work.”

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“When I walked round Moscow under Communism,” I said. “It was dull. Lots of posters and banners, but all the same. Art which might have been cutting-edge in 1917 but wasn’t now. Everything had stagnated. It was a literally decadent society. Not colourful. It was all red, white and grey. The buildings were grey; the street art was red-and-white. In medieval times, the Medicis sponsored the best creative artists and they took months or years to make pieces of art which were stuck on one wall in one building forever. Nowadays, in the West, advertising agencies pay the best visual artists and the most creative minds bundles of money to work for them. So, walking round the streets, when you’re waiting for a train in the tube, when you’re watching TV, you’re surrounded by constantly-changing, highly-creative advertising art. It’s like you’re living in a constantly changing art gallery. Capitalism at its best.”

This, you see, is a perfect example of how not to conduct an interview… to give your own opinions instead of finding out the other person’s.

“Mmmm…” said Leila. “Interesting.”

“Not really,” I admitted.

“Mmmm…” said Leila.

“I don’t think I realised you were managing editor of The Literary Platform,” I said, trying to get back on course.

“Well,” said Leila, “after Happenstance, which was a three-month thing, I decided to stay in Sheffield because I liked it so much and one thing I got involved in was The Literary Platform. It’s a website which showcases projects involving new technology and storytelling. If somebody’s made an amazing iPad app that is somehow interactive and you can tell a story… or there’s something about the future of reading and eBooks… things like that. It’s got a business side and a creative side, but my own posts are all about the creative side. I’m always looking for new projects to showcase and people to feature.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“There’s a guy I’ve just interviewed,” Leila told me, “who is going to (the late Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes’ house for a few days and he’s going to be filmed with a web cam and just write whatever anyone asks him to.”

“Cheques?” I suggested.

“Well,” Leila said, “like Write me some copy for my website… Write me a story about this… People can send in suggestions and he will have to write whatever anyone wants and it’s for charity. Good, but a bit weird. Closing himself off in this house on his own.”

“It’s like he’s trying to be the David Blaine of writing,” I suggested. “What did you study at university?”

“History of Art,” Leila told me. “And then English for my Masters.”

“So you’re writing letters as two Victorian ladies…” I prompted randomly.

“Yes, we’re doing it with SAEs,” Leila explained. “I’ve got two digital receipt printers which are connected to the internet – so they’re like fax machines – and me and my friend Tim, who I write loads of things with, are writing letters to each other as characters called Elspeth and Lottie. They are like Victorian ladies who happen to own these electronic printers and all they write about are their friends who are in long-running 20th century TV shows.”

“And you have written an interactive opera about the Minotaur,” I said, changing the subject. “Minotaur! – The Moosical.”

“It’s quite nerdy,” Leila said. “It’s a rock opera.”

“…as opposed to some fat Italian woman screeching?” I asked.

“Exactly,” agreed Leila. “It’s not an opera at all and some of the songs are quite Elvis/rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s geeky, it’s about hacking, radiation, a big maze, a heartbreaking love story between the Minotaur and Pandora who’s a woman afflicted with a curse of emitting toxic force fields so people can’t get close to her. Then there’s Theseus, who wants to marry Pandora. We’ve written quite a lot of songs and some music because we’re not musicians, but we might do it with puppets.”

“Where might this be put on?” I asked.

“If we can figure out a way of recording and playing the songs, then we might be able to do something at a geeky comedy night.”

“You should put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested, “and stream it on the internet, if you can figure out some way of charging 1p or 2p per view.”

“Have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Leila asked.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s really funny,” said Leila. “The Jason Segal character’s dream is to put on a tragic puppet musical about Dracula using the ‘Count’ character from The Muppets.”

“If you can get the bloke who did the giant puppet for War Horse,” I said, “you could do it at the National Theatre.”

“Somebody I know said he might be able to get it on Radio 3,” Leila said, “but my hit rate with producers is… They tend to get busy on other things or they leave their job…”

“Why are you thinking of radio?” I asked. “As a pilot for a TV show?”

“No,” said Leila, “just to get something made. In itself. Maybe it could lead to something else.”

“You work for a magician,” I said. “Do you want to talk about what you do for him?”

“No,” said Leila.

“Did I tell you I’ve been to North Korea?” I asked.

“Ah…” said Leila.

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The comedy girl who is planning what to do when the world ends in 2012

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Throughout my life, whenever I have met people at parties and suchlike, they have always eventually asked that terribly British question: “What do you do?”

I am buggered if I have ever been able to give a sensible answer.

Most of my money has come from producing/directing/writing on-screen TV promos. But no-one knows what the hell they are.

“Oh, does someone do that?” people ask in disbelief if they do start to understand.

I fare better with “I worked on Tiswas, Game For a Laugh, Surprise Surprise and Jonathan Ross and various other things,” but then there are all the times when I was writing film reviews – except they were mostly features and interviews. And comedy reviews. Briefly. And writing other people’s autobiographies (which is understandably confusing). And let’s not even get into the area of what I might or might not do with comedians or the phrase that brings fear into the eyes of my accountant: Killer Bitch.

But the tables have now been turned.

I have now met Leila Johnston and Sara Williams at Made By Many a couple of times. They run an event called Storywarp which was held at Made By Many but will now be held elsewhere and they both worked for Made By Many except Sara has moved on.

“So what does Made By Many do?” a friend asked the other day.

“I have no idea,” I said. “It’s a sort-of agency that does things or thinks up things connected to social networking and the internet or something. I have no idea. I suspect they don’t know either, but they seem to be quite good at whatever it is they do.”

“And what does this Leila woman do?” I was asked in a foolish follow-up question.

“I have no idea,” I said. “She seems to write for things like Wired magazine as well as work for Made By Many and she seems to be a powerhouse of creative something-or-other but I’m not quite sure what.”

“I see,” my friend said. “Perhaps you should ask her.”

So I did.

“I write and produce all kinds of stuff,” Leila told me. “and I’ve always been into comedy. If not trying to write it, then trying to see how other people do it. I’ve met a lot of comedy people over the years and they’re a strange bunch.”

So at least Leila is a good judge of character.

“I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe with my family in 1994 and it blew my mind,” she told me. “Comedy heroes everywhere! The writer/performer Ben Moor, whom my brother and I knew from some of our favourite radio and TV shows, was up there with a very strange, rather good one-man show called A Supercollider for the Family. Ben’s show had some great gags being projected on a screen behind him… In the Kingdom of the Deaf, the one-eared man is king. But his crown is askew...

“A decade later, like half of London, I became actual friends with Ben and I couldn’t resist quoting some of those jokes back to him. That must have been a bit strange for him, now I think about it. But he has got an even better memory for these details than me, which partly explains how he once got five gold runs on Blockbusters on ITV. We’ve since worked together on Radio 4 pilots and Star Trek TNG parties, and I still make a point of remembering all his jokes.”

Star Trek TNG parties???

It is no wonder I do not know what Leila does. What on earth are Star Trek TNG parties? I feel I have slipped through a temporal wormhole into a parallel universe.

Go back a bit, Leila. Go back a bit. I am old and, as comedienne Janey Godley would say, my skin no longer fits me.

“In 2003,” Leila tries to explain, “I was in my final year at York University, while doing bits of writing work for a communications company. People were beginning to see stand-up comedy would never be the new rock ‘n roll, but it was holding its own as the new drum ‘n’ bass. So the company decided to put on a comedy festival for the area.

“They appointed me their PR officer, which involved a bit of filling in spreadsheets and a lot of going to comedy gigs and propping up the VIP bar. I met Rhod Gilbert on the terrace. No-one knew who he was then, but everyone in the bar was magnetically pulled to his table, because his act had been the stand-out hit of our festival.

“If you’ve seen his manic domestic-appliance-themed act in recent years, you wouldn’t recognise him then. He was downbeat and immobile in the middle of the stage, spinning surreal stories about his Welsh family though, even then, it was all excellent.

Norman Lovett was compering one of the Fringe shows, and did a strange improvised routine involving balancing his spectacles on different parts of his body. I remember, in the bar that evening, being introduced to him as a Red Dwarf fan. He was very sweet and told us that, these days, he’s mistaken for Victor Meldrew almost as often as he is recognised for his own characters. I haven’t seen him since, but he was so nice that I remember his jokes.

“I flyered for Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe show through the monsoons of 2004. I was homeless at the time and living in a tent on a campsite just outside Edinburgh. Richard took a small amount of pity on me, made me a cup of tea, and allowed me to stay over on the sofa in his flat for one night. Chris Addison was there that night, too. It might have been his breakthrough year, but at that point he was just an energetic lad going round the room telling everyone their face was the shape of either a plate or a dragon. I might be mis-remembering, but I don’t think I am.

This is showbusiness! I thought. This is glamour! I went back to my tent-home and it had been flooded.

“I think I have met everyone I want to, so the world might as well finish.

“I am now preoccupied with ways the world could end in 2012, to the extent that I am hosting a series of events called The Event in February, in a basement in London where I think we will be safe. There will be talks, performance, science, a geiger counter, gas masks, and readings. Bunker space is limited.”

Oh… she may also go up to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 or 2013.

If the world does not end.

Which all sounds great.

But what DOES Leila actually DO?

“Well,” she says, “all that Edinburgh Fringe stuff makes it sound like I’m just a crazed celebrity anecdote generating machine. I usually describe myself as a digital copywriter, because that tends to end the line of questioning. But I feel strongly that writing is just a by-product of trying to find out about things and being addicted to audiences, so it’s not enough to say ‘I’m a writer’. In addition to the day job, I constantly write things for publications, performance and broadcast.”

That really doesn’t help me.

I still have no idea what you could say Leila Johnston does.

But, then, I still have absolutely no idea what ‘thing’ I do either.

If anyone can tell me or even give me a few hints, I would appreciate it.

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