Reflections on 'Vulnerability'

Mar 06 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

Reflections on Vulnerability

On 5th March, 2017, I presented one and a half hours of semi structured / semi-improvised material on the subject of Vulnerability to a full house at The Wardrobe Theare in Bristol. This show was the second of my three monthly work in progress showings. The previous one had been about Stage Fright and until that performance, I hadn’t held the stage for 7 years, because stage fright had got the better of me. You can find out more about the making of that show here, here, here, here and here

After doing 'Stage Fright', I reflected on what might have been happening for me during my 5 biggest moments of live stage fright that night (as discussed at the bottom of this post) and guess what I found? VULNERABILITY! This, together with the audience feedback made it clear what the next show should be about.

I got really ill after 'Stage Fright', probably as a result of the prolonged terror leading up to that show, mixed with some bonus extra life-stress. So I did quite a lot of my initial research and writing for 'Vulnerability' in bed. It was only in the final week, that I got to stand my ideas up on their feet, facilitated by the wonderful dream team of Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke. You can read about our process and see photos here, here and here.

Ed and Liz sat in the audience during the performance, offering a little light facilitation to keep me on track. They each had a little bell which they could ring at any time they felt I needed to pause, a technique we’d developed throughout our play sessions in response to Ed and Liz’s desire to see me more still, quiet, connected and vulnerable on stage. 

Musician Sarah Moody improvised a live underscore with cello, percussion and loops, only jumping on board that afternoon. Having played music with Sarah many times, I knew her range and trusted her instinct so we connected during the afternoon of the show to improvise a bit together. I would find a feeling and allow it to grow into a dance and she found the soundtrack to support it. We chatted through the show and pin-pointed some moments where music might fit, but we left it pretty open as to what she would play in these moments and she had permission to jump in if she felt the impulse to at any point. We agreed to allow ourselves to have an on stage dialogue throughout the show whenever either of us needed to talk about the music.

Aisha Ali was in the lighting booth, operating lights and slides. As this was the first time either of us were using projected slides and we had a relatively short tech, we decided to keep the lighting very simple (on / off) and concentrate on getting the slide cues right.

My material was a mix of vulnerability and shame theory, personal stories, character work, self-penned poetry, an accapella folk song, movement and invitations for audience interaction.

We deliniated a space on the stage for ‘I feel vulnerable now’ with a special light on it. I committed to going here and voicing / showing my vulnerability every time I felt it.

At the end of the show we handed out feedback forms as well as conducting a 20 minute Q&A to find out from the audience what they felt about the show and what they thought the next one should be about.

Here’s a poem I wrote for the show:

The Lion and The Pangolin

Photographer Lance Van de Vyver,

Took a picture on his camera,

of a lion in South Africa,

Playing with an armoured creature.

Rolled up in an armoured ball,

Terror stuck by lions claws,

The pangolin stayed tight and round,

Protected from lion’s hungry mouth.

For 14 hours lion tried and tried,

To reach the tender meat inside,

But Pangolin was safe as houses,

Not letting hungry lion gouge his

Precious flesh and beating heart,

His will to live helped him outsmart,

The beast until he did surrender!

Slinking off to find some other

Creature to devour instead,

Leaving Pangolin alone, half-dead.

Parched he was, from the heat of the sun,

Exhausted from the stress of holding on,

In minutes our friend breathed his last breath;

Holding on did not save him from death.

My three research focuses for this show were:

1.) can I allow myself to be vulnerable on stage?

2.) how does it feel to do that?

3.) what impact does it have on the audience when I do that?

To fully answer these questions, I need to watch the film footage from the night and digest the audience feedback fully. Right now it’s 5 in the morning and I’ve barely slept, too full of adrenaline and thoughts and feelings. My memory of the show is hazy. This happened last month too, it took the best part of a week for the memories to come back and even then they were patchy. Maybe this is a neat evolutionary trick to help me take more risks?

In the olden days, having emotionally exposed myself as I did last night, I’d’ve been pinned to the floor by shame for at least a week. But I don’t feel shame for what I did last night. I feel a distinct absence of shame.

Something big has shifted in me over the 7 year break I took from performing and I think it has a lot to do with learning to be vulnerable and how to deal with shame. Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown talks about vulnerability as “the core, the heart, the centre of all meaningful human experiences” and I agree, without vulnerability, we can’t fully participate in life’s bounty and paradoxically, without vulnerability we will always be at the mercy of shame. Shame expert, John Bradshaw explains; “You’ve got to be willing to come out of hiding and be vulnerable…turn to people and take the mask off and the healing will come.”

***One week later*** I still haven't watched the footage, but I have read all the feedback.

Both the feedback forms and the post-show discussion pointed towards these particular moments where the audience felt they detected my vulnerability:

-When Ed or Liz 'dinged' their bells to invite me to pause, feel and be.

-When I was talking about my mum's recent health scare.

-When I sang one of my mum's unaccompanied folk songs.

-When I was locked into battle with the character of Shame (played by me). Shame had taken over the stage and was preventing me from getting on with the show, so we needed to dialogue for quite some time to get to an arrangement that would suit both of us. Shame wanted to stand on the chair in the middle of the stage with his arms folded, "just watching," but I needed the chair for the next bit of the show and couldn't really work around Shame. He eventually begrudgingly agreed to sitting in the audience and watching from the side lines, but it wasn't easy to convince him.

-At the very end, when I'd finished singing and held the audiences gaze for what felt like 300 years, but might have only been 10 seconds.

I'd say I'd agree with this, although I still haven't watched the footage. Memories of the show started coming back after three days, but there are still gaps. It feels important to wait to watch the footage until I am feeling grounded and strong as I detect that particular activity to be an obvious shame trigger. First priority is self-care and then I can analyse later.

Some of the people who gave feedback shared how they felt when they perceived me as being vulnerable:


"I wanted to help"



"I felt deep love and compassion"

"Made me feel very sad"

"Felt touched, wistful and connected"

"It was cathartic and it made me feel alive. I felt sad, I felt human resonance, I felt open + exhausted + loving + compassionate. I felt real."

"Uncomfortable at times"

"Felt connected, sad, protective of holly, felt love"

"The realisation that we are all babies, vulnerable creatures and originally good"

"I felt admiration to this capacity of showing herself"

"I wanted to reach out"

"I felt frustrated and it made me question why?"

“It’s unusual as an audience member to be aware of experiencing genuine vulnerability of someone on stage. I found it awkward at first to witness the vulnerability, but I also felt compassion for Holly and admiration for her facing it and coping with it in front of an audience.”

"It made me want to give you a hug"

"I felt softened"

So an interesting array of deep connection, wanting to help and feeling pushed away. I appreciated the bravery of those who met me with their emotional experience. These comments felt more valuable to me than those who gave me advise or criticism. My feedback filterer / boyfriend weeded the trigger warning forms out immediately after the show to give me time to settle with myself. But I was naughty and impatient and read them the next day, which was way too soon. I was triggered into a mini shame-attack by a few of those comments:

"holly stoppit announces a new show about vulnerability and spends the next 90 minutes avoiding the subject"

"seemed to be mostly friends helping out a friend who is on the stage"

So I reached out to my collaborators for support to unpick the learning and let go of the shame. In response to this; "holly stoppit announces a new show about vulnerability and spends the next 90 minutes avoiding the subject", During a lengthy email conversation where I explored what that triggered for me (mostly feeling like I am not good enough) Liz wrote this:

I Saw Holly

I saw Holly
I saw her in her onesie

I saw Holly
Standing on a chair

I saw Holly 
It was the glitter on her eyelash

I saw Holly
She was really there

I saw Holly
Be brave, be bold, be present

I saw Holly
I saw her really scared

I saw Holly
I saw her soft and open

I saw Holly
Climbing off a chair

I saw Holly
Offering connection

I saw Holly
Really going there

I saw Holly
Her fears & past addictions

I saw Holly 
Kick away the chair

I believe from my vague sense of the night and from the feedback, that I was as vulnerable as I could be. I am proud of myself for offering what I could.

In response to this; "seemed to be mostly friends helping out a friend who is on the stage," Ed wrote this; "The cult of the lone genius? Collaboration is illegal? If someone helps you during an exam that's cheating?"  Trying to put ourselves into the shoes of the person who gave the feedback, we developed more empathy for them and for ourselves. 

I am proud of myself for reaching out for support. I am proud of myself for accepting it. I turn this statement around into a positive mantra! "Friends helping out a friend who is on the stage" not only felt brilliant, but also enabled me to take greater risks. Hey! I'd recommend trying it!

There is something to be said about protecting yourself from obvious shame triggers straight after a show (or having made any vulnerable offer of yourself). Next time I will keep the emotional slant in the feedback questions in the hope of receiving more emotionally connected feedback and wait a little longer before reading what people have written.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

Now that I've watched the footage, I feel I can say that I was as vulnerable as I could be. I have fierce protectors that have kept me safe throughout my life and for them I'm truly grateful. They were there, for sure, but I still found space to play, to be and to be seen. If I were to perform more, I would probably find it easier and easier to be vulnerable on stage, but for someone who's spent 7 years off the stage, I feel really proud of myself for offering what I could.

I was also dealing with my mum's sudden ill health, the unexpected death of a friend and my own health issues during the lead up to the show. I think I did what I needed to to to keep myself safe, knowing that grief, fear and despair where nearby. In my experience, when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I allow myself to feel and 'feelings' all come as one big package. With the big ones knocking around it's no wonder I shut down a bit. Raw, unfiltered grief, fear and despair for me are pretty private emotions, I wouldn't want to put them on the stage in their raw state. Throughout the creation process for this show, I was taking these feelings to my therapist, Ed and Liz, my other good friends, my boyfriend, my meditation cushion and out into nature, but they were't ready to be seen by an audience. 

How does 'Vulnerability' look through last months research lenses?:

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

The stage fright was less consuming in the lead up to the performance. I only started losing sleep 4 days before and I only lost my appetite on the day of the performance (as opposed to one week without sleep and three days without much food for the last one). I felt nervous on the day of the performance, but I managed it with good time-tabling with the dream team to make sure I felt prepared. After warming up and running my material for Ed and Liz for their valuable feedback, I was able to delegate jobs to them so that I had time to run over my material again. I then got to speed run the show a third time in the theatre for musician Sarah and lighting operator / slide master Aisha. So by this time the order of the material was starting to get drilled in.

Improvising movement with Sarah Moody on cello, an hour before we opened was priceless. It got me well and truly into my body and feeling strongly connected with Sarah. I felt emboldened by our connection.

I will have to wait until I’ve viewed the footage to be able to know about the stage fright during the performance. I think it was there, but maybe with one show under my belt I’d internalized the experience of not dying on stage and having a warm reception, so maybe I felt a bit more at home on the stage? This is purely speculation at the moment as I’m still missing a lot of last night.

It's now the next day. I feel ill again. Similar to last time, but the symptoms are not so aggressive. My stomach feels fragile, but does not feel like I’ve eaten barbed wire and my muscles are sore but not throbbing. But I am exhausted.

My supervisor suggested that the total memory loss I experienced after both this and the previous show was perhaps indicative of trauma. Remembering back to the research I collected for 'Stage Fright,' one researcher equated the physical experience of stage fright as similar to "a small car crash." Have I been traumatising myself through this process? Has the fear of being seen created total shutdown? Or is revisiting my debilitating fear with new awareness and maximum support gradually creating new neural pathways? We'll have to wait and see.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

Watching the footage, stage fright doesn't appear as often as it did in the first show and I wonder whether I wrote and prepared more for this show to protect myself from the stage fright. 

The enforced silence and stillness facilitated by Ed and Liz (using their 'ding' bells) seemed to bring varying results from compliance to surrender to permission to shame- these were the moments that the stage fright got in. I observed myself taking a few of them as criticism and immediately got defensive.

It was interesting to notice my voice disappearing throughout the show, I wonder whether that was linked to stage fright / shame? I hardly had a voice to sing the end song with.

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

Again- I have to wait until I’ve watched the footage to be able to answer this properly, but I think I must have had pleasure at at least some points in the show! Surely! Watch this space to find out.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

There was pleasure! I saw it! Especially:

  • offering vulnerability / shame theory, using my stories to illustrate
  • playing the character of shame
  • bouncing off Sarah with the Addiction Bossa Nova
  • facilitating the eye contact exercise
  • telling the poem
  • storytelling
  • singing the song
  • spontaneous dancing

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

The vast amount of support I had both in the lead up to the performance and on the night itself, helped me to feel like I was doing something worthwhile and kept me focussed. I was able to take bigger risks because I felt held. Massive thanks to my dream team:

  • Liz Clarke and Ed Rapley- facilitators / collaborators
  • Sarah Moody- musician
  • Aisha Ali- lighting / slides operator
  • Megan Brooks- video 
  • Chris Collier- sound, lights and projector set up
  • Beccy Golding- my administrator
  • The Brunswick Club- rehearsal space
  • The Wardrobe Theatre for letting me use the space
  • Bob for doing the door
  • The bar people at Old Market Assembly for serving the drinks 
  • Everyone who shared my Facebook event  / blogs and helped me get another full house!
  • All the people in the audience for coming and giving me your time and attention
  • All the people who gave written feedback and all the people who stayed for the Q&A
  • My brilliant boyfriend for holding me through this rollercoaster of a process
  • My friends and family for letting me yabber on at you about vulnerability and for your great insights and stories
  • My therapist and my clinical supervisor for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

Some audience feedback:

"An engaging, informative, playful poem of a performance"

"Cathartic, experiential, emotional, dynamic performance based research"

"Brave, human, presence"

“A talented artist on a personal journey of discovery, opening her heart and her history and generously, usefully sharing with (thereby educating) her audience in the process.”

"Part lecture, part performance, part workshop on how to be human!"

"A TED talk on acid"

"An emotional, explorative experience, it made me pause before laughing, helped me understand and experience that there is deeper potential for connection beneath."

If you saw the show and you want to send some feedback: 

Feel free to email me at Here's the feedback questions again. Thanks x

1.) How did you hear about the show? 

2.) How would you describe what you’ve just seen to someone who wasn’t here?  

3.) What moments did you particularly enjoy and why? 

4.) What bits would you like to see developed from this show? 

5.) When did you think Holly was vulnerable and how did it make you feel? 

6.) What themes would you like to see Holly cover in the next show on 2nd April?

Come and see the next show on Sunday 2nd April at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

Vulnerability- The Process 4

Mar 01 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

Hooray! Another play day with collaborators, Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke, back in the Brunswick Club again (which incidentally is one of the most exciting new play spaces in Bristol; an old working men’s club now full to the brim with prolific creatives making wonderful and exciting things. They're having their grand opening this Friday, check them out here). 

Before we go any further, it must be noted that today Liz wore her Zebra suit in solidarity.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

But unfortunately, Ed did not get the zebra suit memo.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Liz Clarke

This morning, after outfit check, check-in and reflections and revelations about Monday’s work, we selected an hour’s worth of material that hadn’t been played with yet, mostly directly related to our the central theme of vulnerability. 

To begin with, I shared some theory on vulnerability and shame and showed some of the protection shields I’ve used over the years to avoid having my vulnerability witnessed (perfectionism, the character of Fuckknuckle (as seen in Stage Fright) and the isolated, elevated expert). 

Next I showed my Canadian encounter with clown-shaman, Sue Morrison; playing both parts to demonstrate the ferocity with which she removed my “safety wall” three years ago. I am very grateful that she did.

After that I talked about 6th form college and meeting my best friend, Sita and how I resisted her advances towards friendship for a whole year, coming up with increasingly ridiculous excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly have lunch with her (like needing to catch 2 buses home to change my clothes and 2 buses back). I talked about what her friendship means to me, how we’ve nurtured and cared for each other and helped each other grow for 22 years. Then I did a little dance called “I love Sita.”

Next I showed my story of internet dating and how I met my boyfriend... this bit might make it into the show, so I won't give it away yet.

To finish the show, I offered one minute of yodalling, but Ed and liz said they’d prefer 1 minute simply sitting and doing nothing. They'd both noticed my resistance to doing nothing / being seen and felt that's where my true vulnerability lies. So that’s what I did.

After all this vulnerability, we all needed a hearty meal to ground us, so we went to Cafe Kino for spicy bean burgers and chips. Look at how tasty that was!

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit

In the afternoon, we were all very full of food, so we took the opportunity to explore doing nothing. I took 10 minutes to tell the story of a total freeze moment, travelling to Italy on my own for the first time at the age of 23. Ed and Liz asked me to pause whenever they felt I was rushing / splitting away from myself. In these pauses, I did a mini meditation to connect with my feelings and physical sensations before carrying on with the story. This technique offered a much more connected quality of storytelling.

For the final show of the day, I took 20 minutes to replay the first show of the day, but without any words and to music. Ed and Liz were keen to get me into my body and my felt experience, giving me permission to say less and feel more. They kept the “pause” rule from the last exercise, meaning they could stop and centre me whenever my attention was drifting.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Liz Clarke

To end the day we made a list of selection criteria and sorted through all the material from the 2 play days, selecting some that may make it into Sunday’s show. 

I will take the material and do a bit of writing over the next few days, making sure there is some coherent framing to the show, but I hope to leave space for the unknown on the night, in keeping with our catchphrase from the week, “The gold is in the gaps inbetween.” 

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

Vulnerability- The Process 3

Feb 27 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

Hooray! Today was a Work In Progress Play Day!

And what a brilliant day it was, playing in amongst the clashing patterns of The Brunswick Working Men’s Club with collaborators Liz Clarke and Ed Rapley. After distilling this months research and writing into a pile of performance propositions, we warmed up together, before I romped through 4 improvised solo shows, pausing in between for Ed and Liz's feedback.

1.) The Lion and the Pangolin (20 minutes)- starting with a poem I wrote last night, inspired by a photo I saw at the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year exhibition (below), I spent 20 minutes exploring the poem from every angle.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Lance van de Vyver

2.) The Simple and Non-extraordinary Show (10 minutes), emerging from the feedback from the previous show, I did very little.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Liz Clarke

3.) Randomly Selected Material From The Show Book (one hour)- Including conversations with my boyfriend, getting to know my mum more on a family history quest to her home town of Sunderland last summer, a parade of vulnerability-avoiding addictions and live feedback with the audience to reveal the assumptions that were blocking our connection.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Liz Clarke

4.) Carefully Selected Material From The Show Book (one hour)- Riffing on ‘resilience’, 2 personal stories about vulnerability (chosen by Ed and Liz from a long list), an introduction to Shame (embodying Shame as a character and having a chat), a rant on the importance of connection and a folk song, sung to a squirming Shame.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

We all agreed that I am not short on material! We still have a stack of performance propositions to explore on Wednesday, before selecting what I might perform on Sunday. Watch this space for the next update.

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

Vulnerability- The Process 2

Feb 23 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit:

Hoorah! I’ve just had the most delicious, grounding, healthy dinner with this month’s work in progress collaborators, Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke. I’ve worked with them both individually in the past and feel utterly delighted to be supported by their inspiring combination of deep thinking, daring risk taking, mega commitment and relentless passion for the work.

I talked at them through the whole of dinner, scattering thoughts and dreams and research all over the kitchen table, along with curry, ice cream and wine, unable as I was to stop talking for long enough to chew. How lovely to feel heard, connected, supported and fed!

They gave me their feedback about “Stage Fright,” last month’s show, which culminated in the unanimous opinion that I Did What I Had To Do. Then we turned our attention to “Vulnerability,” this months show. After a general discussion around the theme, they gave me these three questions to take away and being a keener, I answered them straight away:

1.) What are your current favourite vulnerability avoidance tactics?

Procrastination, facebook, fretting, "poor me-ing" and thoughts of sabotage / escape.

2.) What are the ways you are currently engaging with your vulnerability?

Speaking my needs, asking for support, asserting boundaries, trusting, allowing people to see my emotions, offering without controlling people’s experience of me, trying new things, meditation, therapy, sex, showing unfinished solo work every month after not being on stage for 7 years.

3.) Are you safe enough to do this?

Yes. I feel confident in this territory as I’ve been learning about the power of vulnerability for around 7 years, through theory and practice. I have a lot of the theory at my fingertips, which will allow me to provide clear framing for you, the audience, so you will hopefully understand what I’m exploring and feel comfortable enough to come along for the ride. I feel confident that I have enough time with my collaborators to devise some structures that will allow me to safely inhabit my vulnerability on stage. I have so much support in my life these days, that I am not afraid of falling to pieces and if I do, I've got people and strategies to help me put myself back together. I am treating this whole thing as a research experiment, which helps keep the pressure down for me. It feels important. I am learning so much through doing this research and enjoying sharing my findings, it feels worth the potential discomfort.

Next week, I have 2 play days with Ed and Liz, on Monday and Wednesday, a day’s solo writing on Saturday and a warm-up session before the show on Sunday. My work in progress days will be interspersed with comedy degree marking days, which may have an interesting impact on my final performance….

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

Vulnerability- the process 1

Feb 16 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit

I've been recuperating from illness and have missed two play days with this months collaborators, Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke. In the spirit of Que Sera Sera, I've been tucked up in bed, reading, writing and dreaming about the next show. Here's some of what is floating around for me today.

The Cambridge dictionary defines ’vulnerable’ as “able to be easily physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt, influenced, or attacked,” The state of ‘vulnerability’ is defined in relation to external threat, it’s etymology is from the Latin vulnerare "to wound, hurt, injure, maim.” There is violence and fear contained in the roots of this word.

I remember a time when just the thought of being witnessed in my vulnerability would send me into prickly cold sweats and get me on the run, from “needing” to go home to change my clothes, to taking on jobs in other parts of the country for months at a time (fight/flight/freeze responses fully triggered). It’s been a hell of ride and with a lot of support, over the last 7 years I’ve been gradually understanding and embracing vulnerability as a conduit to deeper connection and more vibrant and meaningful living.

Vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Any of these three pressures; to be uncertain, to take a risk or to emotionally expose yourself, can put you into a state of not knowing. I’ve discovered through my own experiences and through teaching clowning for the last 10 years, many people often experience the state of not knowing as negative or scary. To be witnessed being out of control, risking failure, rejection, abandonment can be such a terrifying concept that we build fortresses around ourselves, or we live life on the run, to avoid the imagined hell which may ensue. But in building fortresses and running away, we prevent ourselves from fully participating in the technicolour wonders of life.

Brene Brown, in Daring Greatly, her vulnerability manual explains:

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertaintly, risk and emotional exposure we face everyday are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

So what stops us being vulnerable? The fear of ridicule? Abandonment? Rejection from the human race? We humans are pack animals and will go to great lengths to stay in our tribes. Or is it habit? Have we just got used to a particular mode of communication that skates along the surface, maintaining everyone’s reality and not rocking any boats? Or is it our shame-based society, pumping out the “YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH” message, loud, clear and constant? 

As children in this country we were conditioned through shame in our schools; we were made to stand in the corner, sit on the naughty step, stand on the desk so everyone can see us and judge us. This is how we learn to be compliant citizens. Failure is punished and difference is eliminated.

This shame-based controlling of behaviour carries on through many people’s working lives and is backed up by shame-based advertising, “YOU COULD BE A LOT BETTER IF YOU JUST BOUGHT THIS PRODUCT,” shame-based media, “LOOK AT THE BAD CELEBRITY, DON’T BE THE BAD CELEBRITY, NOBODY WILL LIKE YOU,” shame-based religion, “DON’T BE BAD OR GOD WILL GET YOU,” shame-based politics “TERRORISTS ARE COMING, QUICK EVERYBODY, BUILD A WALL!” We are getting the message from everywhere that we need to protect ourselves and appear perfect in order to stay a paid up member of the human race.

It’s no wonder that, “Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide.” (Vos, T., et al. 2013 on It’s easy to see how shame-based living can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide. The path of shame is designed to lead us directly to hope’s graveyard and to keep us small and quiet.

John Bradshaw, author of Healing The Shame That Binds You, puts it like this; in order to heal the shame, “you’ve got to come out of hiding…. you’ve got to turn to people and take the mask off and healing will come.” Brene Brown backs this up with; “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” Somebody’s got to make the first move.

So, in preparation for my next work in progress performance, I've pin-pointed my most vulnerable moments in the last show:

  • doing nothing at the start of the show, as the audience were coming in

My facilitator, Amy had instructed me to stay on the chair, say nothing, make a little contact with the audience AND stay with myself. She'd taken away my comfort blanket. I felt vulnerable because I couldn't control the audience's experience of me and I couldn't seek comfort in the connections.

  • falling down in the gaps between known material

I have a sense this happened a lot in the show (I still haven't watched the footage). I'd expected to play with these moments more and had Paul the guitarist primed and ready to play with me (we'd been exploring just this in the afternoon before the show). But I ended up rushing through these moments to get through all the material I'd set out for myself, so I didn't allow myself to travel deeply into these emotional states to find the play there. I have a sense there was a bit of "I don't know what I'm doing / saying and it's not good enough to give an audience something that lacks definition" and yet I know that this is often where the gold is.

  • approaching something totally unknown

For instance, getting ready to don the character of 'Fuckknuckle'- although she's a known character to me, I hadn't "rehearsed" her. This was the first time I'd put the dress on in maybe 8 or 9 years. I didn't know whether I still had it in me. I was afraid I might fail by not giving the audience everything I could. In hindsight- this struggle is interesting.

  • just before Fuckknuckle took over

Doubt, shame, fear. I felt like I was pretending and that the audience could see I wasn't getting away with it, and then the character took over and did what she does. I feel like Fuckknuckle has her own vulnerabilities, but she's not afraid to let people see them, they are kind of like a badge of honour for her, maybe. It's noteworthy that all my characters gave me a confidence that "I" lacked during the show, but also somehow brought an element of invulnerability. I think the characters are a good way of getting ME out there, on the stage. I feel safe in character and more frightened as myself.

  • sitting in the spotlight for longer than I'd planned

Amy instructed Aisha to keep the lighting state so that the audience could see me and I couldn't see them. This made me squirm. Without the visual feedback, I can't sense how everyone is feeling, so I can't tailor my every moment on stage to make sure everyone in the theatre is OK and happy and liking me. It's hard for me to just hold my space and let people come to me, 38 years of survival has turned me into a chameleon. 

  • receiving someone's feedback in the Q and A

I received the following feedback from a friend; "You weren't vulnerable AT ALL." Up until this moment, I'd been flowing with the feedback, taking it in, breathing it out, and then this comment cut right through. Instant failure alert. Everybody knows I'm a fraud and this person is speaking for everyone. How can I teach this shit if I can't do it myself?

So it feels clear to me that the next bit of process is about:

  • drilling down into these moments and mining the wisdom 
  • devising some experiments that allow me to inhabit my vulnerability and have it witnessed on stage
  • finding fun ways of delivering a  little theory around vulnerability and shame
  • leaving space for the unknown

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

Work in Progress 2- Vulnerability

Feb 13 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Joe Rosser

It’s one week after my ‘Stage Fright’ performance and I’m getting over a heavy cold. It’s been a peculiar week of unscheduled life-stress piled upon the poisonous aftermath of the stage fright experiment. 

It feels like my body has been screaming “PLEASE JUST STOP AND REST” all week, but I haven’t been able to, as I’ve had Things To Deal With. So my patient, work-horse body kept the show on the road all week until I’d finished all the Things and then elegantly collapsed with a raging temperature.

I haven’t been ill like this for a very long time and it puts me in mind of those little breaks in touring, where I would do nothing but sleep and sleep and sleep. 

My ‘stage fright’ data has been skewed by the extra life-stress this week, but I’m still physically exploring the effect of excess stress on the brain / body. I'm interested in how for some professions, excess stress is just a given. I’ve been thinking about how the jobs I've worked in (acting, circus, directing, teaching, playwork) have offered precious little help to understand or manage the symptoms of stress. Although these are not front-line jobs (like fire-fighting or being a human rights lawyer or a paramedic or a nurse…), I have always carried a lot of responsibility for others in my professional roles, which has always led to excess stress. 

My therapy training has helped me develop much better practice in all my work, including developing my reflective practice, learning how to use supervision, keeping myself grounded and understanding much more about what might be going on in the room and how it’s not all my responsibility to fix. So with safer practice and instant stress-valves, I don’t tend to make myself ill like this these days. I wonder if it could be possible to translate all this knowledge to my performance; I kind of did, for the last show, bringing in more support and the microphone as stage fright / stress-valve, but I'm not sure this particular technique would would work for the average stage actor. 

Stage fright, like all other fear, floods the body with cortisol which can do serious damage if experienced frequently. Here’s a little animated talk by Madhumita Murgia on the dangers of excess stress in the brain and body, it’s worth a watch if you’re curious about how stress might be affecting you.

This has all led me to thinking about the stigma of mental illness in the work place and how hard it is in many professions to admit that you’re struggling. This pisses me off, especially as stress is such a common experience. Nobody’s fine all the time. Nobody copes all the time. The more we pretend, the more damage we do to ourselves and each other. The sooner we can receive ourselves and each other just as we are, without needing perfection or extraordinariness to win our own or each other’s affection, the happier we will all be.

So, all this thinking, mixed with the audience feedback from 'Stage Fright' has determined that my second of three work in progress shows will be about vulnerability, as the precursor to sharing / connection, an antidote to stress. I’ll be exploring my own vulnerability on stage. I won’t be getting naked (been there, done that!) but I will be designing performance experiments that will allow me to step into my vulnerability and report back on how it feels to be witnessed vulnerable, as well as exploring any blocks that appear in the moment. 

You are most welcome. The next show is on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress here.

Holly Stoppit's 2017 Summer School Programme!

Feb 09 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Paul Blakemore

It's the news you've all been waiting for! Holly Stoppit will be delivering a programme of five (that's FIVE) summer schools this year!

Summer schools are only open to a select few - those who have previously done a Holly Stoppit course. If you haven't already completed Introduction To Clowning, see this page for dates of upcoming courses.

Fooling Summer Schools • May 8-12 • June 12-16 

3 x 5-day courses in 'fooling', a wonderful form of solo improvisation where the performer walks into the empty space with no script, no plan and no ideas and discovers parts of themselves, (known as 'masks' in fooling) who are ready to be seen. Perhaps these masks will sing, perhaps they’ll dance, tell stories, spout poignant wisdom, or maybe they’ll just sit quietly and think about cheese. The performer's mission is to step out of the way of themselves, to allow the masks to live and be seen.

Advanced Fooling Summer School • August 7 - 11 • July 24th- 28th 

This 5-day course builds on the 5-day Fooling Summer School and is designed to take 8 brave explorers deeper into their fooling practice. Only for those who have already attended the Fooling Summer School. 

Clowning Summer School • August 21 - 25 

Jam-packed full of games and exercises that will help you to travel deeper into the state of clown. 

We will play and play for 5 whole days, discovering more about your clown each day. There will be opportunities galore to explore: • solo and ensemble improvisation • rhythm and surprise, the mechanics of physical comedy • audacious / authentic audience connection • owning / playing with the flop • status play • playful voice work • dressing up • performing for each other • plus guided reflection sessions to capture your clown’s wisdom.

For more info on each summer school, including cost, deadlines and application forms, follow the highlighted links above or email

Reflections on 'Stage Fright'

Feb 06 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

Holly Stoppit’s Work In Progress - Show One- Stage Fright - Reflections

On 5th February 2017, I performed the first of three monthly work in progress shows to a full house at the Wardrobe Theatre, opening the door to my creative / research process. I spent an hour and a quarter showing semi-prepared / semi improvised new material developed through a month of writing, researching and playing under the guidance of  facilitator Amy Rose and an impro coach, Brenda Waite. 

I had note cards laid out on stage, one for each chunk of material. I’d put them in a proposed order, but had given myself permission to veer away from that order and to discover new material in the moment. Musician Paul Bradley improvised a live score for some of the show with guitar, loops and voice. Aisha Ali improvised with lights. Jenny Drew captured the show in cartoons.

I provided feedback forms for the audience as well as holding a 20 minute Q&A after the show. Feel free to email any more feedback to

Making the decision to treat the whole process of creating and sharing new material as a research adventure helped me get beyond my stage fright enough to get back on the stage after a 7 year break. So for this first show, I made my research foci:

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

I made a commitment to voicing the stage fright whenever it appeared, using a microphone at the back of the stage to give this commentary.

I assured the audience that I was safe enough to explore all this, pointing out my support team in the room and giving everyone permission to relax and enjoy the ride.

Here are the performance propositions I had selected for myself:

  • Greeting the audience / Do nothing
  • Physical symptoms of Stage Fright spoken into a mic
  • Framing the night 
  • Embodiment of The Little Voice who wants to do a show
  • Fun facts about stage fright
  • Nicolas Ridout’s stage lighting theory 
  • Experiment with lighting
  • “I know what you want” Both the healthy and shadow parts of me tell the audience what they think the audience want to see
  • Talk about how life as a touring performer used to be
  • Do Something Physical
  • Neuroscience of Fear explained and embodied as characters
  • The story of how the character, “Fuckknuckle” (a character I’d created and performed for 9 years in various different forms) came to be.
  • Transforming into Fuckknuckle
  • Fuckknuckle sings to the audience
  • A story about being bullied at school
  • Where am I now?
  • A poem / song / movement sequence from Little Voice

I may write the show content up as an essay at some point, but not today. I’d also like to provide links to my research, but again, this is for another day.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

Disgusting. It feels like I've eaten a barbed wire fence. I feel utterly ravaged by it. But it has been fascinating to re-experience it with all the self-knowledge and therapy / neuroscience theory I’ve accumulated. Through turning up the curiosity, in the lead-up to the show, I’ve been able to step back and name the symptoms, preventing the automatic self-critical thought loops from spiralling me down to the depths of despair like they used to. But this required a high level of vigilance, as my neural pathways were forcefully leading me into “everybody hates you and you’re going to fail” territory. I cranked up my meditation practice to between 4 and 6 short sittings per day, whatever was happening. This gave me time to check in with myself and calm myself down before shining my attention on the negative thoughts and soothing them with compassion. This was tough work and many times, the fear and self-loathing got so intense, I felt like sabotaging the project. But my massive internal and external support team kept me on track. I’m glad that they did.

Stage fright struck in all the possible ways at various points in the show with; sweating, stuttering, losing track of my thoughts and words, self-doubt, self-sabotage, wanting to push the audience away, shaking, nausea, inability to breathe.

Having the microphone as a place to go whenever the stage fright struck was a brilliant safety valve which allowed me to name it and release it every time it arose. And the audience seemed to appreciate being let in to my process through this device.

Interestingly, I didn’t have any stage fright symptoms during the feedback Q&A after the show.

Writing this, the day after the show, I feel very ill. After not eating or sleeping much for several days (thanks to stage fright), I feel pretty vile inside. I am exhausted. I have been swinging between feeling really proud of myself and crying and shaking uncontrollably. I’ve spent most of the day in bed, seeking out connection with phone-calls, emails and a real life cup of tea with a very close friend. It does not feel wise to be alone today. I am being very gentle with myself, making good food, wearing soft clothes and swaddling with my blanket.

3 days after the show. Strangely, I am not experiencing high doses of shame like I used to post-performance. I have all the physical symptoms of self-poisoning by adrenaline; I'm still not sleeping properly and I feel extremely fragile, achey, exhausted and hungry. My appetite is slowly returning, but I can still only manage very small amounts of food. This feels like an incredibly familiar state, only I'm not getting into the usual after-show negative self-talk spirals, I can smell them, but I'm not going in. I feel a bit like Morgan Spurlock when he was making Supersize Me; I have poisoned myself in the name of research. But curiosity and mindfulness (formal meditation, bringing myself to presence by being with one sense at a time and swaddling to feel protected and contained) are keeping me from being sucked into what could be an easy void of chaos and despair. 

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

I haven’t watched the show footage back yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I think I had some deeply enjoyable moments. My body remembers many moments of flight and flow, laughter and attentive silence, but my brain doesn’t remember much at this point.

I think I also had some crushingly awful moments, but I think I enjoyed being able to share these with the audience.  

I will be able to write in more detail after I’ve watched the footage, but today is not the day for that.

***Update*** One month later and I've just seen the footage!

Watching myself on stage was a weird nail-biting experience, but I can now verify that there were moments during Stage Fright where I appeared to be experiencing pure pleasure. Things I seemed to be especially enjoying:

  • chatting with the audience, learning from them, riffing off their remarks, for instance learning that Justin Bieber had been sick on stage because of stage fright and getting into a dialogue with the guy who shared this fact, asking him how he’d come across that particular youtube clip?
  • material found in the moment, like lying on my belly on the stage with my heels kicking together, asking the audience if they could see me, before backing up to help the site lines, when I knocked my knee on the wall. I stood up and shouted accusingly; “none of you fucking told me that was there!” before slipping into the character of Hypocampus (an earlier character, represented as a bored Brummie data entry guy) “It’s because nobody cares.”
  • The sanctity of the microphone and being able to tell the truth. I felt calm and connected here.
  • Sharing all my research- although I felt I hadn’t nailed it all, I really enjoyed the process of exploring how to make research fun.
  • Telling my stories and the reception they got.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

Incredible! Wow! What a difference it makes to not only ask for, but also receive support! I had the ultimate dream team in place:

  • Brenda Waite- impro / movement coach
  • Paul Bradley- musician
  • Aisha Ali- lighting operator
  • Steph Kempson- video 
  • Jenny Drew- live cartoons
  • Beccy Golding- my administrator
  • The 10 people who attended my focus group at D&D
  • Devoted and Disgruntled for providing the environment and the permission for the focus group to happen
  • the Wardrobe Theatre for having me
  • Everyone who shared my facebook event
  • The audience for coming
  • The ones who gave written feedback and the ones who stayed for the Q&A
  • My boyfriend for cooking me dinner and giving me cuddles
  • My friends and family for checking in with me
  • My therapist
  • My clinical supervisor

I have never felt so supported in any creative endeavour. It made a huge difference, allowing me to take greater risks, knowing that I had a huge team behind me. Deep gratitude to everyone.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

Audience Feedback

I will delve into the audience feedback in more detail in due course, but right now, here’s a flavour of their experience, in answer to the question "What was that?"

“A psychonautical exploration of stage fright via a series of dimensions and characters.”

“The beginning of an incredible journey of HELL YEAH!”

“A fantastic, wonderful, unique experience”

“Leaning towards performance art rather than a clown show”

“Work In Progress was a good title, but it was so much more.”

“Emotive and thought provoking”

“Exuberant and deeply personal trip though fear.”

“It’s like going on a train that goes through a planet with colourful landsc….”

“One persons journey towards understanding themselves.”

“Lifelong performer and comedian showing the other bits too.”

“Great level of fragility and love.”

“Honest, human, vulnerable improvisation around a theme”

“A process of digging from quite a funny, light place to somewhere more cerebral to shamanic demon exorcism.”

“An adventuresome insight into Holly/someone’s brain”

“Hilarious, inspiring and heartwarming.”

“Brave and fragile and honest and funny and human.”

“A rollercoaster baring of the soul and the inner parts of the psyche with some brain chemistry thrown in.”

“emotional - creative - exciting - very physical - a journey”

“Unexpected. Very genuine.”

“I had heard about Fuckknuckle- OMG!!”

“An explosion of thoughts and emotion in a package of humility and honesty.”

“Like having the contents of the human brain splattered all over us, in complete kindness and tenderness.”

“imaginative. bonkers. informative.”

Come and see the next show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress

Stage Fright- The Process 4

Feb 03 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Brenda Waite

For the last two days I've been researching / writing in the mornings before heading down to dancespace and playing under the insightful eye of impro / movement coach Brenda Waite in the afternoons. This particular combination of activities has provoked interesting results...

Thursday morning was spent neck deep in stage fright theory. The afternoon's play session was hijacked by my inner academic who wouldn't let go of her research. She thought we could find playful ways of responding to it through impro, but she wasn't prepared to give us space to play. She's very serious about her research.

This morning, my inner editor showed up and paired down the academic's stage fright research, but the academic had another itch to scratch, so I let her overdose on the neuroscience of fear, whilst I physically experienced all the symptoms she was researching. By the time I got to the dancespace, I thought I was going to cry, vomit or run away from my own project. Luckily Brenda was there to give me permission and structure to play with it all.

Brenda focussed on getting me present, responsive, light and curious by running me through her standard liberating yet containing impro score (things like- stay with that, go deeper, shift, find the dance of that...). Satisfied that I'd arrived in the room and found my pleasure to play, she set me loose on three timed improvisations (first 10, then 20 and finally 30 minutes). I had some of Wednesday's performance propositions written on pieces of paper, in the playing space with me and integrated them into my improvisation when my instincts told me to. This felt brilliant. To have the freedom to move in and out of pre-considered (but not rehearsed) material.

Tomorrow is a full day of writing, I'll audit all the material I've generated and select some that might make it into the show. I'm not sure how much I'll set in terms of finding an order for the material, I really enjoyed the fluidity of todays improvisation, so maybe there's some clear guidance for me there... 

Come and see the show on 5th February at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

Stage Fright- The process 3

Feb 02 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: me

Yesterday in rehearsals with facilitator, Amy Rose. 

Here's a neat trick we invented; when you're not sure where to start, get everything out of your brain on pieces of paper on the floor, fill your mouth full of water, close your eyes and spin round 3 times, spit the water and whichever pieces of paper get wet will be exactly the right place to start (it's best to use sharpies or other waterproof pens). 

We placed the soggy pieces of paper in a random order and I committed to this as my score for full length improvised show for Amy. 

The next show involved us slow bowling tennis balls over the paper and letting our woefully inaccurate aim choose the content.

The final show was more purposefully chosen, with the criteria: what will you be sad not to have played with today?

Chance, serendipity, pleasure and fun. I love all that, don't I? I had such a lovely time playing that Amy got a little bit worried, "You don't seem nervous at all!" Now here's an interesting problem for a couple of clowns making a show about stage fright. What if the stage fright doesn't come?

Come and see the show on Sunday 5th February at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

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