Category Archives: Theatre making, performance and process

‘We’re not that different me and you’ – fulfilling potential and changing perceptions with The Misfits Theatre Company

Three months ago, if someone said to me the words ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘learning disability’ I probably would have thought of a host of descriptions or conditions that would define or describe that label.  I might have thought about limits. I probably would have looked away shyly if I noticed someone who looked a bit different on the bus.  Or maybe I would have been so well meaning in an attempt to be supportive of someone who was different, that I might have inadvertently been a bit patronizing.

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It’s unlikely I would have thought about the abilities and potential that the label could also bring, and I certainly wouldn’t think that I would be in a rehearsal room learning from professional actors who were independent, highly creative, enthusiastic, mutually supportive of each others efforts and fearless in their sharing of personal stories, their truthful representations of their everyday lives and their will to fight for their rights for social equality and inclusion.

The Misfits Theatre have been working collaboratively since 2005 to facilitate people with learning difficulties, making their voices and experiences heard.  Originating from the closure of a community day centre their pioneering work has taken them to venues and spaces across Bristol and beyond. The company of 35 members  (all whom have a learning difficulty) includes 7 paid actors as well as those who vote and lead as directors of the company, giving a valuable opportunity for the members to take shared ownership over their own futures.  The members also act as healthcare trainers and perform to NHS and social care professionals, reversing traditional power relationship as doctors and nurses learn first hand from those who may be their patients in the future.

By sharing with their audiences  the ‘real life’ experiences of learning difficulties and being  social excluded, The Misfits  challenge perceptions and assumptions  making work with themes including life skills, hate crime, dealing with challenging behaviour, relationships and sexuality. These are balanced with a wry humour and clownish comedy and the fun, playfulness and collaborative nature of the making process is embedded within all aspects of the organisation, and it is this that makes it so unique.

The companies work extends beyond more traditional performance spaces. The Misfits along with their friends and carers have the opportunity to get down and groovy at the flagship ‘Rhythm of the Night’ disco at The Trinity Centre.

The event is open to anyone who wants to meet up. There is talking, drinking, dancing, a couple of renditions of the conga, Elvis always makes an appearance and the DJ blasts out that old Tom Jones classic at the end of the night. It’s not much different from a Saturday in town. I’ve learnt that having a learning difficulty may mean that some of your needs are specific but enjoying social time, a laugh with your friends and the opportunity to meet new people is something that is universal and very much needed and appreciated amongst the local community. The night also offers an opportunity for performance and to encourage others to watch and engage in theatre.

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My time with the Misfits has truly transformed my understanding of  ‘learning difficulties’ and has revealed the many gifts and talents that individuals have when they are given the space, resources and support that they need to develop them.  The Misfits have taught me the importance of advocacy, standing as role models to many of their peers in the community both through their work in the arts and also their determination to make their voices heard about issues which affect them.  The sharing of their experiences has also given me an insight into the realities of living with a learning difficulty from negotiating everyday life to the struggle to find work, social and development opportunities and to realise  aspirations.

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The most significant thing that The Misfits have left me with is the role that the arts has in building and strengthening inclusive communities.  Many of the members have described their lives before they joined as ‘boring’ or they felt isolated with nothing to do. The Misfits offers friendship, structure, opportunities to grow and an accepting place where the members can share interests, stories and laughter. The bonds that are created between performers and group members are meaningful and lasting ones and the challenges of life are turned into a mission to raise awareness, change hearts and minds, have fun and get paid doing it. The companies base in Stokes Croft ( Co-exist at Hamilton House) enables the members to meet and mingle effortlessly with other arts practioners and enthusiasts – it’s a place where standing out often means fitting in.

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The achievements of The Misfits have recently been recognised by the National Lottery who have shortlisted them out of 900 other organisations for a  Good Causes award in the Arts category.  Competing against six others, if successful, the National Lottery Award could mean a chance for The Misfits to make a TV appearance on the BBC’s One Show as well as winning £2000 to help the company continue its work. The ethos of the company is that it is member led so even my blog post wouldn’t be complete without input from The Misfits themselves –  and the video above contains an extra special Misfits message for you. Supporting the campaign is free, so please visit:

http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/project/misfits-theatre-company

to find out more and just click on the box to cast your vote. It would mean so much.

(This article has also been published to the Theatre Bristol website)

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Culmination – a Mayfest journey from audience to stage and how to fall off a precipice

‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.  

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Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over.  At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly.  I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.

To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long.  Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.

These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.

However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?

I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:

Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.

I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space.  I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances  around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds  around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.

I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.

Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response.  It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.

A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals.  This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities.  For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?

You can’t stop the passion

Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate.  I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity  in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.

Changing direction and starting again

There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of  ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’  new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago.  Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.

Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.

The show

The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people.   Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.

I hope you can come to see it.

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‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s   ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com to reserve your seats.

The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.

‘If things don’t change’ performances at Windmill Hill City Farm & Mayfest/The Wardrobe Theatre 2013

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Good news! My first solo piece ‘If things don’t change’ has been selected for the Mayfest / Wardrobe Theatre 2013 collaboration! Mayfest is Bristol’s unique annual festival of contemporary theatre which is dedicated to presenting a broad range of unusual, playful and ambitious work.

‘If thing’s don’t change’ is a short piece I wrote in support of a voluntary ‘active citizens’ community project I am working on at Windmill Hill City Farm . The piece draws on my own experiences of family, growing up and growing old. It is about transformation  and new shoes. ‘If things don’t change’ is a story of a grandmother and a granddaughter,  a tale of loss, acceptance, love and the simple extraordinariness of everyday life. I hope that most people will be able to relate to the themes in it in some way.

I’ve now performed ‘If thing’s don’t change’  twice at Windmill Hill City Farm – the first at the poetry and performance night which was an evening of food, music, spoken word, poetry and even the odd clown intervention from Clowna Patata and the second as part of the Windmill Hill volunteer celebration day.  It was a privilege to be taking part alongside such great performers. On the whole I think both performances went well and we had some great audience members in!

One opportunity I missed  was to not ask formally for feedback from the audience. I got some comments after the performances which were helpful but I now realise that to review it in depth and develop it further it would be helpful to get a range of feedback on what I’ve written/performed so far. It wasn’t necessarily possible at both events given the nature of them but it’s something I will be hoping to get into the habit of requesting/offering in the future. I hope to create some opportunities for a couple of showings in non-theatre spaces before May so I will also use these as a chance for some more feedback. So I will be busying myself over the next few weeks promoting the show and preparing for the performance.

‘If thing’s don’t change’ will be showing on Thursday the 23rd May at the Wardrobe Theatre as part of a double bill with Chris. Dugrenier ‘s ‘Wealth’s Last Caprice’. All tickets are  £5 and are available to reserve by emailing: tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com. Huzzah! Hope to see you there!

Clown jam – down at the farm..

Our first ever clown music session at Windmill Hill City Farm  – Clowns – we don’t know what we are doing and it’s okay!! – with Pawlala Flaming, Jules Allen, Carlos Pulido, Agüi Garcia.

Clown is a philosophy… (a little radio interview I did about clown..)

Happy 2013. Here is a little interview I did with radio presenter Kirstie Paul who presents ‘Backchat’ which goes out on BCFM and some other stations.. listen past the interesting discussions about pilgrimages and tax evasion and you’ll get to the interview..

Backchat clown interview

Stay tuned! 😉

On vulnerability, sharing and the healing power of storytelling – Performing ‘Only Us’ at Bristol Old Vic

About ‘Only Us’

Not everyone is an only child, but everyone has felt lonely…’

‘Only Us’ was performed in June at Bristol Old Vic, and was a series of autobiographical stories about growing up, living in Bristol, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.

Writer and performer Adam Peck first took his one-man show, Only, to a variety of far flung corners of Bristol, from schools to pubs to community spaces and ‘Only Us’ combined Adam’s own life story with the stories of the people he met on his travels; a melting pot of Bristolians, but people all united by the same issues – friendship, family and the search for fulfilment.’

I was one of those Bristolians, and here is a story about my experience of storytelling.

Standing up and sharing your story – from audience to stage

When I first told people about the prospect of participating in ‘Only Us’ I had to get used to receiving a mixed reaction. Some people thought it was a great idea, some were horrified at the prospect of standing up as ‘myself’ whereas others simply couldn’t see where the ‘story’ or the ‘drama’ of the performance could possibly be. I think people were perhaps a little frightened of coming to watch something that felt like it could be unpredictable, or different, or too close to real life but I guess as we said in the show, the people that came were the right people, and whatever happened was the only thing that could have. . and this was ok. As the process got underway I soon began to realise ‘the show’ aspect of the experience was potentially the least important (for me anyhow).

My motivations for participating were threefold – I’d dreamt of being a performer since I was small, but gave up on it as life unfolded, and the opportunity to work with a professional writing and directing team and be on stage at the world renowned Bristol Old Vic was just too good to miss. More than that, it was like some kind of little miracle, it was in short more than I could ever have dreamed was possible.  Secondly, I wanted to share my story. I guess at the time I didn’t know why, but when I first saw Adam’s show ‘Only’ during 2011 I came away thinking that it was beautiful, celebratory and ‘yeah, I want to do that’ but also ‘yeah, maybe I could do that’.  As I stated in my previous  Blogpost  I saw the work as a piece that celebrated the intimacy of everyday life, it was poignant, meaningful and often funny ‘warts and all’ storytelling. I didn’t really have any expectations as to how things would unfold over the short time we had to put things together, but after some deliberation, once I had committed to the process I felt like I was up for any challenge.

Writing, reviewing and re-writing the past – the healing powers of storytelling

The most frequent question I’ve been asked since taking part in the show have usually centred on the writing process. As an audience member it’s natural to question in this kind of performance what was real and what was fictional. The story I told was my story and the writing experience felt for me 100% collaborative, and the weird things is I found the process itself quite restorative. It’s an interesting feeling to hand your life story over to someone you don’t really know to read and discuss. I think for me a great deal of learning (about myself) came through these early rehearsals. Initially I really struggled with getting started on writing the story which is unusual for me, it took me three attempts before I finally had something which was my story, not the story of someone else or a list of contextual factors but things which were about me. My contribution was then crafted by Adam to meet the other requirements of the show, however at no point did I feel anything was compromised or missed, that my wishes were always respected and anything that was cut was done so because in hindsight I could see I was hanging onto certain events which were not important or relevant to my story or anyone else’s. In fact, this act of cutting or taking away the text that wasn’t necessary, was for me, quite powerful, as was seeing my story from someone’s else’s perspective.

My story, our stories, your story – performing ‘Only Us’

Another key aspect of this performance was meeting the other storytellers. Having worked on our own stories we were then brought together to rehearse as a family and it was a fantastic experience to meet and learn about the other performers. All of our stories were different and in some ways they seemed quite unusual but we soon came to realise via our rehearsal process and from feedback via audience members that actually there were a great deal of similarities across our range of life experiences. I think this was a key thing about the show that appealed to people. It’s easy in our individualised society to believe that the things that affect us, or worry us or when we experience certain events, we do so in isolation. In fact it seemed that once people began to engage in discussion around the topics that the show brought up most people could relate to something about the stories.

Getting audience feedback was for me just one of the best things about doing the show – people tended to respond to things differently – it was really interesting for me to get an idea of what audience members enjoyed or felt like they related to – it was often different to what I would have expected. The experience of being involved in the production was great learning for me as an artist – I learnt lots about the writing process, and appreciated the need to look after myself as a performer both physically and emotionally, particularly when dealing with content that was quite emotionally charged night after night (I want to say the importance of ‘keeping good psychic hygiene’ but realise that’s a term I’ve probably just invented).  The show was, in parts emotional, and whilst the aftermath and closure that the experience brought me was significant, overall I have to say that it was empowering to be able to stand on stage and deliver my story and reveal that emotion to an audience. As a person that has had to consistently battle to suppress her heightened sensitivities and emotions all her life, (to an extent where they have proved disruptive to my everyday existence) the relief of putting them on to the stage was nothing short of immense. Then to have people come and thank me at the end for sharing things they felt they could never possibly share was just brilliant. At last! Somewhere where emotion and expression was a positive thing! Huzahh!!

The aftermath of show week was quite significant and for me was probably the hardest part of the experience. Working autobiographically and with experiences and memories from the past is an extremely delicate process and I myself underestimated the impact this would have on me. I re-engaged with old feelings about past events across my life course (both positive and negative) and perhaps more significantly had the opportunity through performance to engage with both my parents at the same time. This was something that had not occurred for many years and is something that I would not get the opportunity to ever do in real life. It’s fair to say I was in a very strange place for at least a week afterwards. The most difficult thing was the lack of people who knew about the experience or had shared in it. I found it hard to go into work like nothing had changed, because I felt like I’d been on this huge journey and something very significant had. This being said I have benefitted from psychotherapy for a number of years now, I was in touch with my own therapist about the process and she came to watch it herself and thought it was fantastic. Although she did question what sort of support was provided alongside the development of the show, we both were of the opinion that it was something that I could manage effectively – and we were both right.   It’s fair to say if I was given the opportunity again I would jump at it straight away.

‘Only Us’ – So what? On sharing, vulnerability and the importance of participatory theatre

So looking back at the experience now the question I find myself asking is – So what? What difference has the experience made? Was it important and what (if anything) did it change?

On a personal level the process and performance gave me a lot of emotional closure around significant past events, enabled me to ‘let go’ of things I had been holding on to, as well as proving to some extent my ability as a performer (which I had doubted). Given my age, background and lack of experience it’s unlikely that I would have ever had the opportunity to learn these skills or take part in this kind of performance otherwise let alone perform at Bristol Old Vic, which for me was a huge huge privilege. More importantly whilst many people recoil in horror at the thought of sharing our ‘real’ selves (including the darker moments of both our personalities and our experiences) I’ve actually found it hugely empowering on a wider level. By standing up and sharing our stories, our authentic selves, our struggles, our triumphs and our insecurities we empower others to do the same. By coming to terms with our own speckled truth, we then in turn find it easier to show compassion to others. Despite our differences, and regardless in the vast ways we attempt to satisfy them, our needs are often really all quite fundamental – love, family, connection.

So for me this process was important, for me this process  changed things for the better, I can’t measure mental health improvements or growth in my own emotional intelligence, awareness, level of consciousness or overall sense of wellbeing, and I can’t say exactly how these improvements were made. I can’t say exactly why it happened, and I can’t really prove this difference to you.

So I guess for now you will just have to take my word for it.

I made some great friends in the other performers involved in this production and I’ve tried to understand if things were different for them afterwards too. Some of them have reported positive differences, a sense of lightness, a growth in confidence, a sense of letting go. Others had made some life changing decisions. Changed jobs or are preparing to move away. Some have simply just been on better terms with themselves or their families, or vowed to act or think differently about things in the future.

I don’t have formulae for how to repeat such an experiment, and I would hesitate to even think you could repeat this again with exactly the same results. My burgeoning interest around this topic has led me to believe that often for theatre makers this kind of performance is viewed as box ticking exercise or more hassle than its worth. From my observations I’d argue that yes – its risky, its delicate, its potentially more time consuming and its potentially plagued with difficulties.

But it works.

For the people around me who couldn’t  really understand the journey that was ‘Only Us’ as far as they know – well it was just some play I was in…     and perhaps for some theatre makers well, participatory theatre – maybe it is just seen as a box ticking exercise…

But for those that were involved in ‘Only Us’?

It was so much more than that.

(I would like to sincerly thank  everyone involved in making this production and giving me this oportunity and also thank everyone who came to watch it)

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As an aside…. I’ve posted this before but I feel it adds a bit of weight to my storytelling argument, and given by someone whose story is perhaps in some ways similar  to my own… Enjoy..

Why I couldn’t become a Dr without being a clown first – Flying Awkwardly 2.0 – 2 years in the life of a PhD student.

Its been almost a year since I wrote my previous Blogpostflying awkwardly, a year in the life of a PhD student. I can’t say it went viral, but I got picked up in a few places and I’ve had a few requests for an update.. also as my regular followers will know that I’ve been documenting my clown/artistic journey and here also I’ve reached a bit of an ending point. I’ve realised that I can’t separate the art from life so I’ve decided to combine the two in more of a personal reflection about me, rather than a review of my institution.

Flying awkwardly struck a chord with lots of other PhD students who were at similar stages in the process. I still stand by the valid points I made, but also in hindsight, I’m now questioning If I was in anyway handling the situation like a bit of a knobber.

My journey in clown has been profoundly influential in my personal development this year. Through various Clownish processes I’m not going to go into, as well as a myriad of performance I’ve attended, it is almost as if a mirror has been held up and I’ve been able to become more self aware of my own behaviour. Not everyone’s clown journey has to be a soul-searching one, but I realise now that the type of wisdom I was seeking when I went back to university was in fact an internal one.. another reason why I was disappointed by the PhD process.

I’ve often been accused I thinking too much – this is true – so I am trying to keep the below brief and bullet point the realisations I’ve had through clown, which I’ve applied to my everyday life.  Here goes.

1) Be here, now.

Live in the present, not the future or the past. Commit fully to the moment you are in and never try and recreate what’s passed. This should hopefully mean you worry less and live more (I’m still working on it) and let go of things when its time to move on. If you cant commit fully to a situation or process the best thing you can do is walk away from it.

2) Play is fundamental aspect of life – do things for pleasure and share your gifts.

Make room for play and relaxation as this is where creativity flourishes and new ideas form, life is for living and I’ve realised there is nothing shameful in doing what makes you happy. Do not be afraid to share your gifts with the world. I now know that on completion of my PhD I will pursue  different areas. Work/life balance is essential, but this is easier when you pursue a true passion and fulfil and realise your full potential.

3) I sometimes let my overall life experience colour my opinions and reactions to people and situations which do not warrant them (The war is over).

When I feel threatened I shut down and all my defences kick in.  Often I project my previous negative experiences on people who I feel threatened by.. this was what was happening with my supervisory team.. once trust had been lost they became ‘the enemy’ I forgot that I had had very positive experiences of them previously and that they were often, in an overly complex and academically verbose way – trying to help me. I was instinctively fighting a war that was once necessary years ago but isn’t happening anymore. In short ‘I got in the way of myself’ and lost sight of my research. Rather than taking ownership over my disappointments, frustrations, team and my study, I bleeted profusely about the negatives and waited for a rescue. It’s been two years. Noone is coming. This is it. I stayed static hoping for change rather than accepting the circumstances , embracing the opportunities and looking for solutions.

It is, what it is.

4) The only constant is change

Says it all really.. get used to it and embrace it. This is true for both life and research.

5) Admitting your mistakes and embracing vulnerability

Closely related to point number 3. It takes courage to reveal yourself and your work to others. I’ve struggled with this and I’m still struggling but improving.. this leads me onto my next point..

6) An environment where we only give positive feedback, makes us feel safe but doesn’t do us any favours in the long run

This has been an important and recent realisation for me. Clown is taught in different ways and I felt blessed and nurtured when we only ever receive positive feedback from each other in this particular approach – it was exactly what I needed in the beginning. However, my only doubt about clown exists in this one little thing. I guess at uni I was concerned at the type and nature of feedback – in academia generally its not always delivered sensitively criticism is incessant and I think there are more effective ways in getting the best from someone. However I now see, that a world where we only focus on the good things is a world where we do not grow as effectively as we could, but more importantly, do not get a chance to build our defences.  The truth is in life, people will hurt you. Maybe not always intentionally but they will. Nobody goes through life without being tested. Nobody goes through life without conflict or incident with others. More importantly If I’m acting like an idiot, I need the people around me that I trust to tell me. As humans, we all act like idiots sometimes. Me, moreso than your average ape.

In research we need to be able to defend our values, our ideas and the only way to do that is to test the work for strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. I still think that giving feedback is a skill, and as human beings we need to learn to accept (or not accept) different viewpoints of ourselves, and our work, and be honest and take ownership of the feedback we give to others. If I only receive positive feedback on my work at uni I would feel safe, but would fail to defend myself when really necessary. The harsh truth of life is, some people will get it – some wont. Its just the world we live in. We need to embrace this contradiction and be able to deal with both sides of the coin.  

7) Embrace uncertainty, risk and enjoy the journey

I’ve worked in planning for years. I’ve always had a plan. I didn’t plan any of my clown journey  and is been amazing. Sometimes its better to stray from the path you’ve been set, because in the uncertainly and unbridled exploration  is where you will begin to make discoveries both in life and research. I’ve always planned milestones and processes.. but whenever I reach one its on to the next thing.. embracing the ‘now’ means enjoying the journey for what it is.. Research journey, life or otherwise. At times your route will be diverted. Go with it. It may lead you to interesting and necessary places. 

8) The quickest way to showing compassion to others is practising self compassion and is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do (it’s okay to be you).

The research journey is an individual one, it is easy to compare yourself to others but that’s futile.  You need to manage yourself, be kind to yourself, take responsibility for your emotional and physical health as well as your intellectual development and keep your expectations realistic. Then it becomes easier to show this compassion for others. I’m still working on this. Really I am. Clown has taught me to start accept myself, my real self underneath all the other things that can shape and influence your identify. I’m not perfect, in fact I have many flaws  but I’ve made some encouraging discoveries.I’m also trying o manage my expectations of others, and accept that noone is perfect and we all fall down – even those in positions of responsibility. What matters is supporting those people as best as you can to help them get back up regardless of your role. I really want to get better at this.

9) When all is said and done the most important thing you can take away from any situation is friendship

I guess this is harder for me to apply in a PhD context, but I certainly know that despite the valuable performance skills I’ve gained and the insights I’ve had into myself, the most significant gain I’ve made through clown is in the people I’ve met. Life moves quickly and it can be difficult for me to find and make lasting and sincere friendships. I’m grateful for the people I’ve come into contact with I’ve made some good friendships and the other benefits pale into comparison to this.  Self reflection can be aided by good and trustworthy friends and performing is probably quite empty if you have noone who is genuinely behind your efforts. Being a PhD student is challenging and you need good people supporting you. For the most part, I’ve found some up for the job.  Sure – both research and performing require an independent self sufficient approach but there is strength and inspiration in the pack, and hopefully I’ve evolved enough to make myself vulnerable enough to trust them.

Coming full circle: What happens next?

So I guess you can say I’ve come full circle. Is been one hell of a journey and alongside all my other arts based reflections and therapy its been one hell of a year of self definition and discoveries  which have admittedly detracted from my studies. Its been essential that I go through this process, but after a year I am genuinely raw and exhausted. As far as my research goes if I was an OFSTED rating I would be in ‘special measures’ and there is every possibility that my lack of significant progress will prevent me from continuing beyond my annual monitoring in the autumn. But, thanks to clown school ,I’m in a place now where I can accept that whatever happens will be the right thing for me, and I know that I can handle whatever does.

I’m not sure if any of the above insights are transferable to other PhD students but this is where I am at the moment.. my immediate plans are a well earned break in the middle of July. Then I return and commit myself fully to the intense year I’ve got left, which will hopefully involve lots of research and cultural projects  as additional community engagement outputs/impact.

I’m hugely grateful and indebted to the clown course leader Holly whose patience, support and mentoring have been invaluable and a source of ongoing inspiration, and to all the other clowns I’ve met on my journey this year for sharing their hearts and minds.

Its been a life changing year of laughter and tears, and I firmly believe the skills I’ve learnt at clown school have potentially saved my PhD and the things learnt will continue to help me get through the process next year. I am challenged everyday to be strong enough to be trusting, vulnerable, truthful, emotionally calm, compassionate of others and full of laughter. It will always be a struggle but I hope I can get better a it, or at least it will become more natural to me. I hope that one day in the future I will be experienced enough to deliver this gift of clown to other people. But right now, I’ve got a theory that there are older people out there, alone in their homes who are about to lose their bus services – this being their only contact with the outside world. I need to find them and I need to ask them if they would like to share their story.