Picture this: day-one at the Imaginative Writing BA. It’s a mid-September morning, there’s a slight mist, but it’s warm. I follow my A-Z to a quiet street of big old terraced houses three turnings behind the Cultural Studies school. Up five stone steps and through a narrow pair of doors are glass fire-doors. Ahead of me are two narrow staircases. The left set goes up, the right down. Because they are fitted into a tight corner of the hall they turn shortly, both seem dark.
I hesitate, reading the numbers on the two ground floor doors and am crowded. People appear from every direction, greeting each other extravagantly, laughing, chatting or looking confused. I’m fairly sure they’re all students, some because they are so young, others because of their clothes or their confusion as they check their handbooks and look on the building plan for room numbers.
The noise levels increase, a piano starts up somewhere below us, playing a bright, nippy run of scales and a nice baritone follows the lead. I hear a round of applause, and laughter. This is the drama school, then. Seems more like a TV show. Can this really be where I’m meant to be?
I’m not sure, but it’s too late to change my mind. I’ve rented a room, given up my job, signed the enrollment forms and have just heard a woman ask for directions to the same class as me. I follow her past the stairs and along a narrow blue corridor.
We gather, sixteen of us, in a room with no windows, dim lighting and a sloping wooden floor, that was not a result of subsidence, it was designed that way, and yes, there was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it now. The centre of the room is empty. There are no tables, only stacks of metal framed chairs around the painted-brick walls.
Small groups form around the edges of the room. Most of the class are in the same halls and have spent freshers week together. They chatter about parties and shops and wonder if they’ve come to the right place. Good, I think, it’s not just me.
It’s not. In a moment the door opens again, and Edmund comes in. ‘Welcome to Imaginative Writing,’ he says. ‘Sorry about the accommodation. We’ll be moving in a week or so.’ He takes an orange out of his bag. ‘Meanwhile, I think we’ll start by getting to know each other. Catch the orange, say your name and throw it to someone else.’
The orange did the rounds, two or three times, then we unstacked chairs and did a class.
You’re thinking that as ice-breakers go, this doesn’t sound so bad, aren’t you? In fact, as tasks go, this one probably seems quite fun.
Round one: ‘Catch the orange and say the name of the person who has just thrown it.’
Round two: ‘Call out a name and throw the orange to that person.’
I loathed that game. It seemed designed to prove to me and my classmates how bad I was at remembering names.
‘As soon as we have a hundred percent success, we’ll stop playing,’ Edmund said.
We never were sure if it was the same orange that came back for that second lesson. Perhaps we would have been able to work it out if we’d needed it for the third. It certainly looked like it had been around for a while. When we asked Edmund about it later, he said that he’d got the idea from a book about business management. They specified a tennis ball. Edmund hadn’t got a tennis ball.
Over the next few weeks he set us more bizarre tasks. Edmund had innovative ideas about what Imaginative Writing meant. The title of the course was not accidental, he assured us, he meant us to use our imaginations in order to discover creativity for ourselves.
More than a decade later, I look back to that orange with affection. It did force us to learn each other’s names in a short space of time. It also got us talking, outside of the group, and became part of the story of our three years together. I bet, if you were to mention oranges to any one from that group, and probably every other group that came after, they would soon be reminiscing about their time as IW students with Edmund Cusick.
And no, I never repeat the orange in my teaching. It was an Edmund thing. But having experienced it made me appreciate how useful a tool the icebreaker task can be. I’ve invented my own sets of devious and twisted exercises for getting to know classes.