Tag Archives: Holly Stoppit

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.

Why you should wear your clown shoes at a funeral – on dying, wake’ing and crematorium parakeets

My nan died recently. It wasn’t much of a surprise, I mean she was 97, and that’s a bloody good age. In fact in the end it was a relief for her and the family. She transferred to a nursing home last year and she sort of settled in but she suffered from dementia, often being confused and never really seemed that happy there.

I last visited her at Christmas, being so far away makes seeing family difficult but I was really glad that I got the chance. The home was well equipped and the staff were amazing… really taking care of her well. It was funny actually – the day I visited was the day of the Christmas panto, and nan along with the other residents were wheeled out, and put in rows to watch this supremely cheesy Christmas song and dance routine by guest entertainers. To be fair to them they were amazingly energetic considering  the audience were in many cases, erm not. My nan always had something to say though often shouting out that’s she didn’t know what the Elvis impersonator thought he was doing!!

They sang lots of Christmas songs, rock and roll, cockney favourites that sort of thing. It’s hard to know if some of the other residents enjoyed it. It seemed hard to know if some of the other residents were even there. For as many people exchanging stories and chatter there were also bodies, laying twisted and contorted, motionless with teddy bears strewn around them. There was one lady I remember, she was really unresponsive keeled over in her chair and didn’t acknowledge anyone, but then a Bing Crosby song came on – immediately she looked up and out of the window and her face lit up with wonderment to see snow falling…There wasn’t any snow but it was a line of the song that seemed to inspire this. She looked so happy listening to the music… and she could see the snow. It was right there, and it was beautiful.

After the performance was over I said goodbye to Nan for the last time. I had to get really close to her as she was very deaf and couldn’t see or hear me very well. She would ask me a few times who I was.. get me confused with cousins or aunts. We would tell her and then she would forget…  She would cry and say how much she hated it at the home. Then ask who I was again. But there was this one moment when she touched my face and looked at me and I really believe she knew who I was.. her face was so old and wizened and wrinkled yet exactly like a childs. Both old and young in the same body.

She looked me in the eyes… ‘Amy’ she said confidently.

‘That’s right Nan. It’s Amy’

Then she smiled and she stroked my cheek.

And then she was somewhere else again.

Visiting the home made me think about old age and how it’s often always so hidden. How community and family structure has changed so much in more ‘advanced’ times and how as a society we undervalue older people.. almost as soon as they stop work… and definitely up until the point their ability to spend money and consume runs out. I wondered who the people were that were sitting around me. What they had loved, who they had loved, what they had achieved and dreamed of. I almost saw them standing in front of me as young adults with hopes, and fears and passions. Many of them still had these things, others were just traces or shells of the people they once were.

My dad rang me on a Saturday afternoon to tell me Nan had finally passed away. I still cried. Events in the family – weddings, funerals often result in the churning up of old memories, events or incidents. I think I cried more at the time that was lost through the family ‘estrangement’ than I did at her death. Death is always inevitable but If I had just tried to find my dad sooner than I did, I could have had more years with her, or if I had managed to get back to Kent more often, I could have seen her more.

But she is gone.

This is how I remember her:

  • Home made jam (often plum)
  • Toffee apples
  • Fruit cake
  • Yorkshire terriers fed on maltesers
  • The smell of tomato plants and geraniums being nurtured within a humid greenhouse
  • Fat brown teapots
  • Lace doilies
  • The bathroom doll in the knitted dress that sat on top of the toilet roll
  • Imperial leather soap and flannels.
  • The TV on extra loud
  • Bossing everyone.
  • Gold jewellery

I remember less about my granddad (Bert Reuben Webber) he died some years earlier but I’ve got notes and photos from my parents (set 2) about his life and am going to do something with this in the future. I know he was hit by a car so he couldn’t serve in the war due to injury. I know he loved music and was disappointed none of his children grew up to play the organ/piano like he did. I know they managed a shop once. I know he was a devout labour supporter and I have a letter to him from Neil Kinnock. I know he loved my Nan very much. He was also a Mason like my Dad and uncle.

The day of the funeral drew near and I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to be hysterical and upset or distraught with emotion or regret (it happens). I have this one damn black dress that I always wear to funerals, sensible auditions and job interviews. Its really nice but its getting to the point where I’m sick of the sight of it now – it just makes me feel grim.  I wore it anyway though.

But I also wore my clown shoes. They are magic shoes. I call them my clown shoes because clown as a philosophy starts from the feet up. The feet are important and symbolic because they are what ground you and connect you to earth (of which we are all a part). The feet are the starting point for your journey through life (they take you places) and they are what supports you.  People seem to assume they are my clown shoes because they are red, clompy and funny looking. This may also be true. They didn’t go with my dress at all, but as they are magic shoes that didn’t matter. And it really didn’t matter. In fact all but one person thought they were happy and cheery, and they were kind of grateful to have a talking point at the wake.

And that’s when I realised how important clown as a philosophy is. In clown, death is inevitable part of the life cycle, and it’s okay to engage with it. In clown, being grounded gives you strength when others need it and I realised that  during the ceremony.  So at the funeral I wasn’t this mess that I thought I would be. I was accepting and grateful and there for other people and yes I provide laughs. But looking at my nan there in a box for the last time, it suddenly didn’t seem so bad…because if I have learnt anything from older people is that we are all equal in death, and in life it is the laughs and pleasure and sharing moments that are important.

Outside after the service we stopped and looked at the flowers. It struck me how odd it seemed that people leave wreaths saying ‘mother’ or ‘father’ as if they were only ever defined by that role. I guess how you remember someone is a very individual thing. All the flowers were beautiful.. and up in the trees  (and very surreally) parakeets squawked. (London has around 3100 urban Indian parakeets apparently and some of them live in the trees around the crematorium) the noise was reassuring. It almost felt like the gull-stuffed Bristol of home.  They must be stubborn little buggers to survive over here, beautiful too.


They played the ‘circle of life’ at the end of the funeral which is a great song. I’ve posted the version below for you. The first few minutes are phenomenal. TURN IT UP LOUD!!!

I loved my Nan but truth is,  I know, know, know she would have disapproved of the below version even before she had heard it. So… I thought that was all the more reason to post it.

Because people change…… and so can families.


It was a good age.

Clowning Part II – end of course clown showing

Some photos from the first public Clown showing we gave in March – pre showing warm up workshop – more thoughts to come on the journey that was Clowning Part II but for now – here are the pics!  SO MUCH FUN!!!

Performers:  Alice Goodman, Amy-Louise Webber, Orla O’Carroll, Carlos Pulido, Nik Howden, Sara McCluskey, Tim Speight, Marcin Plocienniczak, Lucy Harrington (I love Lucyface), Phillip Hartland

Directed by Holly Stoppit

Photos taken by Paul Blakemore http://www.paulblakemore.co.uk

A certified clown!! the end of clowning part I

Today was officially the end of clown school.  Luckily I could make the lesson and I’m so glad I did.  It’s all a bit emotional for us clowns tonight. We have made such good friends and learnt so much about ourselves.  I will do a proper write up on my progress this year  just as soon as I have had some chance to reflect.For now here is my official certificate and feedback from the rest of my troupe as to how the other clowns viewed me or my memorable moments. I’m really looking forward to next term – getting up early to sign up at the folk house was a good ideas as all the places went within 24 hours! Four of my current troupe will joining a range of other stage II clowns next term. New playmates and it’s a mix of ‘professionals’ ’emergers’ and hobbyists!!!  Am I becoming clown dependent? ;-0

So thank you clowns and thank you Holly..for fun, trust, laughter, love, seeing and healing.

Clown is… (a reflection)

I’d already decided I was going to write up my thoughts on clowning so far, (based at the Folk House, Bristol and run by http://hollystoppit.com/) but the group exercise we did at the end of class prior to half term ended up as a great poem which pretty much sums up the views of all of us. So I am trying to think if there is anything else I could say.. ….So then I wondered which words would be the most effective at describing A) some of the things we get up to in clown class and B) my feelings about it, but I am learning that a lot of the times, words are not actually necessary.


I’d always heard lots about ‘truthful acting’, and I was trying to get my head around how this would be achieved given (I’d imagined) how exaggerated and slapstick clowning could be. Its true that action and reaction can often be bigger and played directly to the audience but I’m learning that authenticity is at the heart of the clown. For me, it is quite a profound thing to get in touch with your inner child, but I was surprised how strong and evident our individual personalities are underneath as we learned to (re) engage with our primary selves and each other.


This is something I have struggled with in other classes – the idea of benevolence is often encouraged but this is the first class where I have felt truly comfortable to explore every idea without being reprimanded or criticised. Often in a more traditional classroom or teaching environment I have often been self-conscious of exploring my ideas or too keen to please – both of these instincts have blocked both my creativity and my authenticity. Being in an environment where there is no pressure to produce but just explore, play and create actually means I am far more effective in what I/we create and in touch with myself than in a traditional environment. The role of the ensemble is central to the idea of clown and working together with other people in such a trusting equitable environment makes creating so much easier.

Trial without error

Experimentation without consequences has led to greater performance possibilities. Coming from a mostly traditional theatre background expression is something which can feel tightly confined within defined roles, structure and action. To take this framework away and combine approaches has opened up a world of both personal and performance opportunities – both physical and temporal. Exploring bodies, sounds, movements, emotion, space, colours, rhythm. I even became a chocolate eclair in one lesson! Making new stories from old stories and building stories together – exploring what works and what doesn’t work…..S-T-R-E-T-C-H.


Presence is something that is also central in clown class. The idea of being present in the moment is something I find hard to do – I’m always busy or worrying about the day job, things I need to do. I’ve always found meditation, relaxation or maintaining my focus or attention on things difficult but in clown class its a lot easier. Additionally from a concentration perspective it encourages us to be present at regular intervals as well as at the beginning and end of a session which I found really helpful.


My favourite thing about clowning is that it is transferable. Skills learnt in clowning can bleed into ‘everyday’ life..but more than that the clown transcends normal barriers, language, class, race, as the simple common stories are played  out. No sets, no scripts. You could go anywhere in the world, spread happiness to people who need it and make people laugh. A universal language. No words necessary.

So. After six weeks of our course, the story so far is that clowning is….

well.. that’s the whole point really…

It just is.

(and life is better for it)

Clown is… (a poem)

More thoughts to come from me shortly on clown class, but I just got this through and had to share it. Our lovely teacher Holly Stoppit http://hollystoppit.com/  put together a poem from our thoughts and feedback on the first six weeks. It’s half term this week. No class!! What will we do??!! *gasp*

Clown is…

Clown is much better than real life.

Clown is simple, honest chaos.

Clown is creative, positive focus.

Clown is uncensored, flexible silliness.

Clown is a philosophy.

Clown is a lifestyle.

Clown is a social moooovement.

We move, we jump, we leap, slide and roll,

Dancing and singing our way to presence.

Being present.

We clown from da gut,

From our Instinct

and intuition.

There we find truthful stillness

And spontaneous release

We are the Jackass Monkey

Bending the rules

And our legs

We are the Fruity Lizard,

Not trying,

Just relaxing

In the moment.

Clown is the lowest form,

Yet it’s harder than it looks

Clown is engaging, connecting with others,

Clown is pure raw vulnerability

Clowns try to be brave,

Stand tall, let go.

Clown is bruised and happy knees.

Clown is tribal, experiential, conceptual,

Clown is boing boing boo bah boo

With splongelicious playfulness

Clown is all about




Clowning is best when not forced,

Unless forced is funny.

So clowning is going with whatever works,

Looking into each others eyes

and feeling




Then playing.

There are rules,

But rules

Can be played with,

Then tampered with,

Then thrown out the window




Ha ha.

Clowning is laughter

Released by sharing

Our authentic, subversive Selves with others.

Together we dive into the unconscious

In search of the inner child.

Together we side-step the inner critic,

Gaining freedom and energy

To be as daft as we really are.

We don’t know where we’re going,

But that’s OK!

We are a team,

United by our noses

And a thirst for fun

And friends

To inspire us.

(by Holly, Nick, Tripper, Amy, Ollie, Jules, Alice, Phillip, Carlos, Pawlala, Garath, Rachel)